Richard Butler, who led Aryan Nations, dies in Idaho at 86

Richard Girnt Butler, the Northwest's iconic reverend of the white-supremacist Aryan Nations, died in his sleep yesterday in Hayden, Idaho. He was 86.

He lived to see his racist movement bankrupted, his 20-acre compound auctioned off and his followers convicted of violence. But for nearly two decades, Butler was the elder statesman of white hate. His message combined an interpretation of Christianity with Nazism and the dream of a whites-only homeland centered in the pristine hills of North Idaho.

The group's compound in Hayden, Idaho, with its guard tower, printing press and stained-glass swastikas in the chapel, gave skinheads a place to learn. It eventually spawned radicals convicted of murders, bombings, racketeering and armed robberies. Butler disavowed involvement with these crimes, but he once said that white women who marry outside their race should die.

Butler's movement also produced one of the nation's strongest human-rights groups, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, to fight back. When dozens of Aryan Nations members marched through downtown Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, they faced hundreds of protesters.

Tony Stewart, a founder of the task force, is proud of the response, but he said the Inland Northwest's reputation is still stained by Butler's racism. "It will take a good amount of time to erase that," he said. "We wish no one ill will, but with his passage, this is an end of an era. Most of his people have already left, but he continued to speak out."

Violence led to the group's downfall. In 1998, Aryan Nations security guards shot at a woman driving by the compound, ran her off the road and assaulted her and her son. She sued and won $6.3 million, forcing Butler off his compound and into the small farmhouse where he died.

In recent years, Butler showed his age — his posture stooped, his voice was raspy and quiet. He suffered from heart failure and recently had a heart attack, said Capt. Ben Wolfinger of the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office. He appeared to have died of natural causes, but an autopsy is planned.

"[The Aryan Nations] is a waning group, much like Richard Butler was," Wolfinger said.

Without a headquarters, the Aryan Nations withered and descended into bickering, said Mark Potok, who monitors hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center. But he estimates there are still 17 chapters and about 200 members across the country, including in Washington state.

"For a very long time, Richard Butler was a central figure in the white-supremacy world, and the Aryan Nations was the glue that held together the movement," he said.

Butler was born in Colorado and raised in Los Angeles. While serving in India with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, he noticed that the higher classes of the caste system had lighter skin. He returned home an admirer of Adolf Hitler and became a follower of a white-supremacist pastor.

Butler's wife, Betty, died in 1995. He is survived by two daughters, who do not share their father's racist beliefs. His beloved German shepherds, Hans and Fritz, also preceded him in death.

He had a career as an engineer at Lockheed and developed a patent to fix airplane tires. He picked Hayden for retirement partly because of its low percentage of minorities, and he set about building a movement.

His doctrine followed the teachings of a white-supremacist pastor in Los Angeles: Jews were Satan's children, blacks were "mud people" and white blood must not be diluted by minorities.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Aryan Nations followers were linked to a pattern of violence. A splinter group called The Order killed a Jewish talk-show host in Denver and committed a series of armored car robberies and bombings, and the group's leader, Robert Matthews, died during a shootout with federal agents on Whidbey Island in 1985.

One Aryan Nations member, Chevie Kehoe, was convicted of three murders in a plot to set up a whites-only nation. An Aryan Nations security guard, Buford O. Furrow, was convicted of killing a Filipino mail carrier and wounding three children at a Jewish community center.

"This in many ways was a serial crime spree that went on for decades," said Norm Gissel, a Coeur d'Alene attorney and a member of the human-rights task force. "The people associated with the Aryan Nations, when you start tallying that up, committed 100 felonies in the name of racism."

In 1999, the FBI reported that Butler's group planned to seize five Western states — or 10 percent of the country — for an Aryan nation.

But the next year, Gissel and a team of lawyers bankrupted the Aryan Nations in a landmark trial involving the 1998 shooting. Two of Butler's wealthy backers left the state, one of them wanted on criminal charges.

In November, Butler was boarding a plane in Spokane when police arrested his female traveling companion, a 31-year-old porn star known as the "Latin Princess," on a forgery warrant, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That month, Butler got 50 votes out of 2,100 in his run for mayor of Hayden, and another member of the Aryan Nations ticket, running for City Council, spent Election Day in jail.

"It was pretty pathetic end for Richard Butler," Potok said.

The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605.