People grabbed their children when Bryon Widner swaggered into a store, lowered their voices when he entered a restaurant, sidled away when he strode up to a bar.
He reveled in it _ the fear he inspired, the power. It made him feel like Superman.
He had symbols of racist violence carved into his face and the letters HATE stamped across the knuckles of his right hand _ the hand that knocked out countless victims, sometimes leaving their teeth embedded in his skin. "Blood & Honour" was tattooed across his neck, "Thug Reich" across his belly, swastikas adorned his shaved scalp. On his forehead, a thick, black, upward-pointing arrow symbolized his willingness to die for his race.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Bryon Widner was a skinhead thug until he found love, and turned away from racism and violence. But how could he build a new life with a face stained by racist tattoos? First of two parts.
For 16 years, Widner was a glowering, strutting, menacing vessel of hate _ an "enforcer" for some of America's most notorious and violent racist skinhead groups.
Hellbent on destruction, he was living to die, though even during the bloodiest beat-downs he knew he was unlikely to lose his life as a warrior in the glorious race war promoted by the white power movement.
"It was more likely to be a bullet through the head," he says, grimly.
By the time he was 30, Widner had spent a total of four years in jail, accused of murder and other charges, though he was never convicted of a major crime. Victim intimidation, he says, took care of that.
And then he met Julie Larsen.
Like Widner, Larsen's arms and legs were covered with neo-Nazi symbols _ iron crosses, a Totenkopf skull, axes crossed into a swastika, the Nazi salute "sieg heil." She posted regularly on the Internet forum, Stormfront. Its motto: "White Pride, World Wide."
And she was active in The National Alliance, a once-powerful white supremacist organization founded by William Pierce, whose writings called for the extermination of Jews and the violent overthrow of the Federal government _ and had inspired the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that left 168 people dead.
But by her 30s, the single mother of four was questioning her racist beliefs. She grew tired of telling her children they couldn't watch certain Walt Disney movies because Hollywood was controlled by Jews, or listen to rap music, or eat Chinese or Mexican food. After struggling to put an abusive marriage to a skinhead behind her, she yearned for something simpler.
"I just wanted a normal family life," she said.
And to his great surprise, Widner discovered that was what he wanted, too.
But leaving a life of hate would not be easy when it was all that he had known. And when his past was tattooed all over his face.
They first met in May 2005 at Nordic Fest, an annual Memorial Day weekend extravaganza hosted by the Imperial Klans of America in Dawson Springs, Ky.
It was hardly a romantic setting. Speakers from hardcore skinhead and white power organizations like The American Front, Blood & Honour USA/Combat 18 and The Creativity Movement ranted about racial justice and race war. White power bands thundered fierce anti-Semitic and racist lyrics.
Widner, a mean and scrappy brawler with a penchant for slicing victims' faces with a straight edge razor ("I wanted to leave a gash that would make them remember me for the rest of their lives") was living in Sidney, Ohio. He worked construction and other jobs, but mostly he acted as both recruiter and enforcer for the Vinlanders Social Club, which had quickly carved out a reputation as the most thuggish and violent skinhead organization in the country. Blacks, Hispanics, Jews _ the Vinelanders savaged them all.
Their credo was a racist form of Odinism, a Viking religion named after the Norse god Odin which preaches that the path to heaven (Valhalla) is to die fighting for your race.
"We sent out a clear message," Widner says. "Cross a Vinlander and we WILL kill you."
Larsen, meanwhile, was living in Ironwood, Mich., working in a bank and raising her kids. Introduced to the white power movement by her late ex-husband, she began actively working for the National Alliance, distributing fliers about racial purity, organizing fundraisers for imprisoned white supremacist leaders and their families. Her home was also a base for the Pioneer Little Europe movement, an effort to create white communities purged of ethnic or Jewish influences.
At Nordic Fest, Larsen's 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, clamored to have her photograph taken with the guy with the wildly tattooed face. Larsen thought Widner was cute. Widner thought Larsen, with her smiling green eyes and mane of raven hair, was "one cool chick."
Over the next seven months they poured out their souls in endless, late-night phone conversations that often lasted until dawn. They talked of their dreams for the future _ and their doubts about the past. They marveled at how much they had in common.
Raised in broken homes _ their parents divorced when they were young _ both had become teen runaways, cutting school, acting out. In Albuquerque, Widner discovered that shaving his head, wearing combat boots, and randomly beating people earned him a respect he'd never had before. Larsen, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., started having babies in her teens and then bounced through different jobs and states and men. Alienated, restless, angry and self-destructive, they were the perfect recruits for the white power world.
It is a world populated by hundreds of different groups, including several thousand skinheads in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization that tracks hate groups. The numbers are fluid: Skinhead gangs are notoriously short-lived, as members feud over leadership, create splinter groups, or join other gangs. Only a few _ such as the Hammerskins _ have managed to survive for a significant length of time.
The groups have no particular unifying code or coherent philosophy other than violence, says SPLC chief investigator Joseph Roy. There are racist skinheads with ties to outlaw motorcycle gangs. Some are explicitly revolutionary. Others belong to white supremacist groups with connections to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups. Still others claim to be anti-racist.
"These groups are violent, and they are dangerous," says Roy. "And when people get involved it is rare and difficult for them to get out."
The SPLC reports a growing interest in hate groups, fueled by recent events including the election of Barack Obama, the economic crisis, and the heated debate about illegal immigration. The Internet and social networking sites have also become powerful recruitment tools.
"The movement had answers for everything," Julie says. "And the answers usually revolved around the special status of the white race and the fact that most of existing problems, in society, in the economy, in the world, were created by Jews or blacks or immigrants."
But the movement provided something more _ a tribal sense of belonging, a unity, brotherhood and purpose that neither Larsen nor Widner had ever experienced. Years later they would call it a cult. At the time it felt like family.
One night six months after they met, Widner staggered home from a bar brawl, picked up the phone and stammered out a proposal. He was so drunk he had to double check the next day to make sure she had said yes. It was just before Christmas 2005.
Friends told her she was crazy. But Larsen didn't hesitate. She packed up her kids and drove 12 hours to meet him.
They were married in Ironwood by a justice of the peace on Jan. 13, 2006. Their witnesses were Larsen's children and a couple of Vinlanders.
Two months later, she was pregnant.
"I am very glad that my mother found the perfect guy ever," wrote Julie's eldest daughter, Mercedez, on the inside of a book of tattoos she gave Widner as a Christmas present. "You are the greatest father any kid could ask for. Love always."
Fatherhood transformed Widner, though initially the responsibilities terrified him. For although he was utterly in love with Julie, he had a whole new family to get to know: Mercedez, then 14, Destiny, 8, and little Isabella. (Julie's eldest son wanted nothing to do with the world of skinheads or white power, though he eventually grew to respect his stepfather.)
Widner found that he loved the simple, daily routines _ driving the kids to school, helping with homework, sitting around the dinner table.
"It was like overnight he went from being a drunk, a skinhead and a fighter, to being this kind, nurturing father and husband," Julie says. "He was amazing."
Widner was still drinking heavily, but he began cutting back and eventually stopped completely. He was still spending time with Vinlanders, but things were changing _ in his mind and his heart.
Julie was changing as well. She had been deeply disturbed by a scene she had witnessed at the Nordic fest _ tents where she says men lined up for sex with underage girls. She thought of her own daughters. She thought of the 14-word mantra of white nationalists: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children."
"These guys weren't honoring Aryan women or protecting white children," she says in disgust. "They were just thugs exploiting young girls."
She began questioning the violence of the movement, the abuse of some of her women friends who were married to skinheads and white nationalists, the arbitrary rules. Suddenly, it all began to feel oppressive and wrong.
At the time, the National Alliance was disintegrating after the death of its leader, Pierce. When Julie decided to leave, it was relatively easy. She simply stopped participating.
Things were far more complicated for Widner. Nicknamed "Babs" because of how he babbled incessantly when he was drunk, Widner was a "made" man in the Outlaw Hammerskins (a precursor to the Vinlanders), initiated in an elaborate ritual in which he placed his left hand on the gang's insignia or "patch" and his right hand on a pistol. He had "earned" the SS lightning bolts tattooed on his right forearm by beating some poor victim senseless. He was a founding member of the Vinlanders. He had stood in a circle with his "warrior" brothers in Odinist rituals and swigged mead from a sacred horn.
"I had lived with them, bled with them, sat in jail with them," he says. "That was the only way of life I knew. My crew WAS my family."
For Widner to leave would be heresy. He would be branded a "race traitor" and become a hunted man.
Vinlanders had given their blessing for him to move to Michigan in order to start a new chapter. Now they were pressuring him to be more active, to travel more, recruit more, attend leadership meetings. Julie was begging him to stay home.
It all came to a head in the summer of 2007, during a Vinlander day trip to Lake Superior. At the end of the day, the women and children returned home while the men stayed and drank.
Julie got a call: Widner had collapsed. She raced to the hospital.
Outside, she was met by Eric "The Butcher" Fairburn, a ferocious skinhead with "MURDER" tattooed across his neck. "This is Vinlander business," he said.
"No, it's not," she said, angrily pushing past him. "It's husband-and-wife business."
Larsen told Widner she didn't want his Vinlander friends in the house anymore. Vinlanders warned him to get his wife under control.
Widner, who had suffered a panic attack, didn't know where to turn. "I just felt like I was being attacked at every angle," he said. "I was done."
Filled with self-loathing, he locked himself in the bathroom and swallowed a bottle of pills.
The photo on the computer screen is striking _ a cherubic sleeping newborn nestled next to the hate-tattooed face of his adoring father.
Cradling Tyrson, born in November 2006, Widner had never been so sure. He would shield his son from a life of violence and hate. He would give him a safe home, a happy childhood, a devoted dad.
And yet, the joy of Tyrson's birth could not mask his daily struggles. People wouldn't look at him in the eye, wouldn't serve him in restaurants, wouldn't give him a job. He had survived the pills; Julie had rushed him to the hospital. But he was deeply depressed.
For the first time, Widner began to see himself as others did: a social freak, an outcast from the society he now so desperately longed to be part of. Potential employers cringed when they met him. When he picked the kids up from school, parents and teachers looked at him in horror. Once, as he cradled a fussing Tyrson while waiting for Julie in a doctor's office, a woman, a stranger, blurted, "No wonder the baby is crying. He's probably scared of your face."
"I was a circus freak," Widner says. "And the worst part was that I had brought it all on myself."
He hated his face and all it represented. He wanted to scream at the world that he was a good father and husband, that he had changed. He wanted to beg people to look beyond the markings on his skin, to give him a second chance.
Sensing his withdrawal, his former crew members began turning against him. They spread vicious postings on the Internet, calling Widner weak, accusing the couple of being race traitors and sexual deviants.
"It was sickening," he says. But it also erased any lingering loyalties he had for his crew or his past.
In late 2007, Widner said, Brien James, self-appointed leader of the Vinlanders, called with an ultimatum: your club or your family.
"It's my family, man," Widner said.
"Then you better turn in your patch," James said.
Widner hung up and did what would once have been unthinkable. He mailed back his patch _ a laurel wreath atop a red, white and blue shield that he had designed with James. He threw all his other skinhead trappings into a bonfire. Watching it burn, he felt a surge of relief.
Finally, he thought, I'm free.
But Widner still faced the seemingly insurmountable dilemma of trying to fit into society. How could he ever be a proper father, husband and provider, when he looked like a walking billboard of hate?
The answer was painfully clear. He had to find some way to wipe the tattoos from his face.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Helen O'Neill, a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.