Opening arguments began today in a trial that could force the white supremacist Aryan Nations to pay for the actions of Aryan security guards accused of shooting at a mother and her son.
Victoria Keenan and her son Jason Keenan are seeking damages from Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler, his former chief of staff and three former security guards. The guards are accused of shooting at and assaulting the Keenans near the sect’s northern Idaho headquarters in 1998.
Morris Dees, whose Southern Poverty Law Center is representing the Keenans, told the jury today that the case is not about attacking the beliefs of the Aryan Nations, but about what the guards did and who directed them to do it.
Jurors were seated Monday in the civil trial, which could last more than a week. If the jury finds for the Keenans and awards punitive damages, they could go after the Aryan Nations’ assets, which consist mainly of the compound outside Hayden Lake a few miles north of Coeur d’Alene.
Terrorized by Guards Butler, 82, argues that Edward Jesse Warfield, John Yeager and Shane Wright acted on their own. But Dees said the evidence will show Butler himself ordered the attack.
Lawyers representing the Keenans, Butler and his former chief of staff, Michael Teague, hinted at their cases in questions asked of potential jurors Monday before 1st District Judge Charles W. Hosack.
Dees, who has won multi-million-dollar lawsuits against factions of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance, has said he hopes to bankrupt Butler’s Aryan Nations.
The Keenans, who are part white and part American Indian, contend in their lawsuit that they were chased for more than two miles by Aryan security guards who fired assault rifles, forced them into a ditch and roughed them up.
“My client, Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason brought this case,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Ken Howard said, asking potential jurors if they had “any difficulties that people who are shot at — terrorized — shouldn’t bring lawsuits?”
No potential juror said that was a problem.
Acted On Their Own? In court documents, Butler said the three guards acted on their own, in violation of the white supremacist sect’s policies in the July 1, 1998 incident.
The Keenans were driving past the Aryan Nation headquarters near Hayden Lake, returning to their Sandpoint-area home, when their car backfired. Security guards mistook the backfire for a gunshot and a chase began.
Edgar Steele, a Sandpoint lawyer representing Butler, Teague and Saphire Inc. the corporation that controls Aryan assets, said he feared the Aryans’ beliefs would be scrutinized rather than the evidence.
“Racism shouldn’t be on trial, but I’ve got a hunch it will come out,” he said. “Pastor Butler is a racist. Michael Teague is a racist. Virtually all of the Aryan Nations are racists.”
Aryan Beliefs Not on Trial Steele asked the potential jurors to set aside personal feelings about the Aryans’ white supremacist philosophy to render a fair and impartial verdict.
Two of the guards, Warfield and Yeager, subsequently were convicted of felony assault and are serving prison time. Wright is a fugitive.
Uniformed police ringed the Kootenai County Justice Center on Monday and lined courthouse corridors, where visitors had to pass through a metal detector.
Irv Rubin, leader of the militant Jewish Defense League and a Butler nemesis, waited outside the courtroom while the jury was being selected, but did not participate in any demonstrations.
Vincent Bertollini of the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, a Sandpoint anti-Semitic group that mailed fliers condemning Dees to many Kootenai County households, videotaped the proceedings outside the courthouse.
“Butler will never leave this area. If he winds up living in a wooden box under a bridge, he will stay here,” Bertollini said. “Should he meet his demise in any way, I guarantee that someone will step in and take his place.”