"He doesn't care if he dies"

A former racist skinhead remembers spending Hitler's birthday with Buford Furrow.

Published August 12, 1999 9:45AM (EDT)

The prosecutors are aiming for the death sentence. Buford Furrow might be aiming for martyrdom.

"He doesn't care if he dies, obviously," says T.J. Leyden, who met Furrow through the Aryan Nations, while Leyden was a racist skinhead. "He turned himself in knowing that he'll get the death penalty. After he's dead, they'll make him a martyr."

In April 1996, Leyden and Furrow celebrated Hitler's birthday together by spending the weekend at the Aryan Nations' spread in Idaho. According to Leyden, Furrow was a member of the Christian Identity movement, a right-wing sect that believes Northern Europeans are the true "Israelites," that all other groups are "mud people" and that Jews are evil.

Although both Leyden and Furrow were extremists and racists, the two clashed almost immediately over their religious views.

"I told him I was a pagan, and he said he was in the Christian Identity," said Leyden. "He said I should join that, because it taught you to hate Jews. He said the true religion was Christian Identity, that's what is going to save us. He says, 'Why is there evil? Because of the Jews.' Furrow believed that we're being attacked by the evil Jew, that's where all the evil comes from -- the pornography, the evil TV programs."

Leyden's long career as a skinhead unraveled three years ago, when he watched his small sons turn off the television because there was a "nigger" on the screen. In a total transformation, he left the movement, and now works as a consultant for the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where he teaches groups about the racist movements in America and tracks their activities.

Ironically, the center's staff told the Associated Press yesterday that Furrow, 37, might have visited the museum a few months ago, but slipped away before security guards could confront him.

When Leyden met Furrow in Idaho in 1996, the man now in custody in Los Angeles was teaching a group of Aryan Nations members hand-to-hand combat, a technique used when "you're out of ammo, or you don't have a gun, when you're down to your last thing," says Leyden. "You're taught to kill the person."

But as a former U.S. Marine, Leyden had been taught combat tactics himself, and thought some of Furrow's teachings were faulty. "I thought a person could be in jeopardy," he said. Eventually, he said, the two men "agreed that some training was better than nothing."

Furrow scarcely stood out in the crowd of about 125 people at the Hitler celebration that year, but Leyden well remembered their conversations in Idaho. On Tuesday, he watched the television footage of bomb specialists removing thousands of bullets and a military handbook from the red van Furrow abandoned near Van Nuys Airport. "Then I saw the book they removed -- 'War Cycle Peace Cycle,' by Richard Hoskins, and I knew immediately where this guy was coming from."

Leyden surmises that Furrow bolted when his plan began to go awry, after the carjacking. "He probably got a little worried, and thought, now what have I got to do? I'll turn myself in and make a statement." But Leyden speculates that he headed for Las Vegas in a taxi thinking he might get help from fellow members. "Vegas is a good place: It's a big meeting point in the West, you can get anywhere around the West from there, so he probably figured he would make some phone calls."

Instead, Furrow walked into the FBI field office there on Wednesday morning and simply announced: "You're looking for me."

His trial will provide Furrow with a stage he would never have had if he had simply slipped away and escaped. "Think about it," says Leyden, "this will be an incredible trial. There's going to be so much shit that comes out. He will be able to make all the statements he wants."

While Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti was outlining the charges against Furrow in a press briefing Thursday morning, Leyden was teaching a class of police officers in the city about the methods for his former colleagues in the supremacy movement. "I told them these things are sad, disgusting," he said, "but that it's probably going to happen again."

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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