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Idaho 'Hate Compound' Converted Into Peace Park - 2002-08-14

In northern Idaho, a former haven for racists, criminals and religious extremists, is being converted into a "peace park" under the custody of a local college. The compound was turned over following a legal case that gained international attention and victory for human rights groups eager to dispel Idaho's image as a racist state.

For more than 20 years, the Aryan Nations, a Neo-Nazi organization preaching white supremacy and violence, trained its members on a compound at Hayden Lake - a lush, mountain property in northern Idaho. No one else was welcome there and neighbors were fearful to go near it. Then, in July 1998, an incident occurred.

Three men guarding the compound opened gunfire on two innocent motorists. Victoria Keenan and her son Jason had stopped their car briefly on a public road in front of the Aryan Nations compound to search for a missing wallet. The three guards, hired by Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler, fired bullets into the Keenans' car, chased them in a truck for four kilometers, forcing Mrs. Keenan and her son to drive into a ditch, and then beat them with rifles and threatened to kill them.

"That case was fascinating from the very beginning," said prosecuting attorney Norman Gissel. "First of all, we had to get the confidence of Mrs. Keenan and her son. And we very carefully explained over time what they were going to go through and what they could expect."

Mr. Gissel represented Mrs. Keenan, in the case that became known as The Aryan Nations vs. Victoria and Jason Keenan.

"The significance of Nazis in North Idaho to shoot up somebody, by itself, is not too surprising," he said. "What was surprising, was this was the first occasion where the Nazis that shot our clients were guards of the compound at the time - they were also drunk at the time. And the owner of the land, Richard Butler, the guy who had invited them onto this property and asked them to be guards, was liable for their conduct."

Norman Gissel, who is a member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, a human rights advocacy group, volunteered his services to Mrs. Keenan and received no compensation for the trial, which lasted two years.

In September, 2000, the jury unanimously found the Keenans' attackers guilty and two of the guards were sentenced two and three years in prison, respectively, the third man still being at large. Victoria Keenan was awarded a $6.3 million judgement against Richard Butler, the Aryan Nations founder and owner of the land. The verdict forced him to declare bankruptcy, thus losing his eight-hectare compound to her, and bringing the Aryan Nations and their "campus of hate" to an end.

"So we got together and we made the decision that the compound would have to go," said Tony Stewart, a political science educator and founder of the Idaho Human Rights Education Foundation and an active member in the Keenan lawsuit.

He says the high-profile case came to the attention of philanthropist and Idaho native Greg Carr. Mr. Carr worked with the Human Rights Task Force to come up with an idea to use the property in a way that would promote peace. The first thing they agreed on, was to destroy the existing structures, which included a commissary with a giant swastika painted on its roof; a church that glorified Adolf Hitler; and a guard tower and barracks. There were trees with swastikas carved into them. Mr. Stewart says all of it was burned to the ground in several "fire training" exercises administered by local fire departments.

"And the fire chief told me that they got more training in those two months than they'd gotten in 10 years," he said. "And when we finished, there was nothing left but the trees and the fields. And I have to add that where that compound was located is one of the more beautiful parts of northern Idaho; it's surrounded by beautiful farms and it's just gorgeous country."

Tony Stewart says the human rights group wanted to return the land to quiet peace.

"And that was something we owed the neighbors. It's very quiet," he said. "The deer have returned, the birds are singing, there's no burning of crosses, there's no firing of illegal firearms that were directed towards the hatred of people. Then I felt strongly, as Greg (Carr) did, that we should name it. And we named it the Peace Park."

Mr. Stewart also hopes that creating the Peace Park might help to change a growing stereotype of northern Idaho. Civil attorney Norm Gissel thinks their reputation as a place that attracts and tolerates extremist behavior is unfounded.

"Idaho has a tradition, well earned - and there are many virtues to this - that it is a place filled with individuals and it has an individualistic caste to it," he said. "And Idaho has always had an ethic where you leave your neighbor alone unless your neighbor asks for help and then you give you neighbor help until he's done asking and then you leave him alone again."

Mr. Gissell adds that because so many people enjoy living in Idaho for its wide open spaces and sense of privacy, others might think they're odd or kooky.

"And people abuse our good name and that quality that we have by assuming that this is a state filled with 'nuts.' But it is the lifestyle of Idaho to grant everybody a large measure of privacy and that's how that belief system or that impression happened that there's a lot of unusual people here," he said. "Well, I don't know if you measured society and you measured Idahoans as a subset of society, we're probably very similar to the rest of America."

In August, as the fall semester begins for North Idaho College, students of botany, biology and geology will be the first to be taking some of their classes in the newly founded Peace Park at Hayden Lake. There are also plans for the construction of a new Human Rights Center and Museum in the nearby town of Coeur d'Alene.

Human rights activist Tony Stewart says 'If it's done well, the day will come when Idaho will be known as a model for championing human rights and not for the former Aryan Nations."