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Attorney: Good defeats evil

Staff Writer | June 23, 2023 1:00 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — The case that bankrupted the Aryan Nations nearly 25 years ago wasn't just about racism. It wasn't just about taking down a white supremacist group.

It was a battle of good versus evil, and good won.

"This was a major turning point in culture," Norm Gissel told about 60 people during a Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations luncheon at the Best Western Plus Coeur d'Alene Inn on Thursday.

It was in 1998 when an Idaho First Judicial District jury awarded $6.3 million to Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason Keenan, against the Aryan Nations and their security guards that bankrupted the neo-Nazi group.

Gissel was part of the legal team that achieved that victory.

On July 1, 1998, the Keenans drove past the Aryan Nations compound on Rimrock Road. Their vehicle allegedly backfired, leading some Aryan Nations security guards to give chase and fire their weapons. Bullets struck the Keenans' vehicle.

Victoria Keenan stopped and the two were held briefly at gunpoint, terrorized and Victoria was struck by a guard, causing a rib injury. Gissel said she went to the hospital and was given a bandage and a $35 bill.

A few days later, Tony Stewart, one of the founders of the task force, contacted Victoria Keenan and convinced her to meet with Gissel, KCTFHR's attorney.

Gissel became the family attorney, joined later by Southern Poverty Law Center's Morris Dees and local attorney Ken Howard.

"How do you take a $35 lawsuit and make it into a $6.3 million lawsuit?" Gissel asked.

They found a way.

The case went to trial in August 2000 and received national attention.

About a week later, a unanimous jury ruled that "Butler and his organization were grossly negligent in selecting and supervising the guards," according to the SPLC.

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. It was later sold, with the funds used to establish the Gregory C. Carr Human Rights Permanent Endowment at NIC.

Gissel said the lawsuit was right versus wrong.

The Keenans' legal team delivered a message that the Aryan Nations was all about hate, malice, segregation and hostility, while juxtaposing it to freedom, equality, fairness and rule of law that the people of Kootenai County stood for.

He said an Aryan Nations supporter standing on a corner near the courthouse during the trial waving an Aryan Nations flag helped them as his portrayal worked in their favor.

"We should have paid him," Gissel said, laughing.

This was a time when good won over evil and drove it out, Gissel said.

"Everybody agreed this was a major turning point in culture," he said.

Cornell Clayton, a Harry S. Truman Scholar and Washington State University political science professor, shared his views on extremism in a historical perspective. He said division in government has long been part of America.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that Clayton is a Harry S. Truman Scholar.