Thursday, May 30, 2024

The verdict that doomed the Aryan Nations

| September 6, 2020 1:20 AM

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the Idaho First Judicial District jury’s verdict that awarded $6.3 million to victims’ Victoria and Jason Keenan against the Aryan Nations and their security guards that bankrupted the neo-Nazi group.

This story began on July 1, 1998 when Victoria Keenan and her 19-year-old son Jason drove past the Aryan Nations compound on an Idaho state highway.

As Victoria stopped the car in front of the entrance to the compound so Jason could retrieve his billfold that he had dropped out the window, the car backfired; three Aryan Nations paranoid security guards drove off the compound, with assault weapons drawn, chased the Keenans’ car for two miles firing five bullets into the automobile before forcing the car into a ditch.

Aryan Nations security guard Jesse Warfield approached the vehicle, pulled Victoria by the hair and tried to pull her out of the car as she silently prayed reciting the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

Guard John Yeager took down Victoria’s license plate number and threatened to come after them if they reported the incident.

Victoria, of Native American ancestry, denied her Indian heritage to the racist guards to avoid possible death for her and her son. Victoria’s denial of her heritage has been a long-lasting painful experience for her.

As the three security guards left the scene, they gave the Keenans the Hitler salute.

A family near the scene took in the Keenans and called the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office.

A few days later Tony Stewart, one of the founders of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, learned of the incident and in a conversation with Ms. Keenan convinced her to meet with the KCTFHR attorney Norm Gissel.

Gissel became the family attorney and spent several weeks helping Victoria deal with the horrific trauma before he contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., regarding a possible civil lawsuit.

The SPLC’s lead attorney, Morris Dees visited, with Gissel and Victoria Keenan and agreed that he and his legal staff would pursue the case with Norm Gissel and attorney Ken Howard, one of Idaho’s top tort lawyers, assisting with the civil case.

The detailed preparation for the trial with this powerful legal team spanned two years in preparation for the trial scheduled to begin on Aug. 29, 2000.

Prior to the civil case, two of the Aryan Nations security guards, Jesse Warfield and John Yeager, were tried of the offense, found guilty of a felony and sentenced to prison. The third guard fled and was never found.

As the dramatic trial began in Coeur d’Alene with opening statements on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2000, with a 12-member jury and Judge Charles Hosack presiding, the eyes of the nation and even internationally were on Coeur d’Alene through the reporting of numerous local and national media outlets.

Each day the courtroom was packed with observers and media while some of the Aryan Nations members paraded outside the courthouse waving the Aryan Nations flags. The trial proceedings were riveting with details of the incident as well as from character witnesses testifying for Richard Butler from some of America’s most infamous neo-Nazi leaders.

On Friday, Sept. 7, a unanimous jury verdict awarded the Keenans $6.3 million. After a bankruptcy proceeding, the Keenans acquired the Aryan Nations property and sold the compound to Idaho philanthropist Greg Carr.

The compound was destroyed; the land was restored to its natural setting, and Carr deeded the property to the North Idaho College Foundation. Recently the property was sold with the funds used to establish the Gregory C. Carr Human Rights Permanent Endowment at NIC.

As we pause to commemorate the 20th anniversary of this major jury verdict against the Aryan Nations and the security guards of a horrendous hate crime, let us not forget to honor the remarkable legacies of attorneys Norm Gissel, Ken Howard and the brilliant legal team of the SPLC. These dedicated attorneys’ victory for justice corrected the misconceptions about Idaho and its people as we ushered in the 21st century 20 years ago.

Since the 2000 trial, the KCTFHR’s work in support of civil and human rights while combating bigotry and prejudice has not only continued but our work has greatly expanded as a consultant to many communities confronting hate across the United States.

The story of the KCTFHR will be told in a book by Gonzaga University Associate Professor Kristine Hoover titled, “Countering Hate: Leadership Cases of Non-Violent Action” to be released this fall as well as a second book by a prominent national journalist in 2021 marking the 40th anniversary of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.


Tony Stewart
 is secretary and Christie Wood is president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.


Buildings at the Aryan Nation compound are toppled after the 2000 verdict against the group forced it into bankruptcy. Photo by Diana Gissel.


A panoramic view of the former Aryan Nations compound after it was cleared, and the land was used as a peace park. Photo by Diana Gissel.