Gregory Withrow, founder of the Aryan Youth Movement and reformed neo-Nazi thug, was standing in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, surrounded by Jews in suits. Elaborate tattoos were visible through his navy-blue tank shirt; his burnt-orange hair was uncombed.
All morning long as he was interviewed in the offices of the Anti-Defamation League, he kept scratching the wounds on his back, where swastika tattoos had been burned off with laser and chemicals two months ago in a surgery arranged by the ADL.
Withrow is a Nazi turncoat, a one-time confidant of the nation's most prominent hate mongers, who took a dark and painful trek to the other side. Bandages remain on his shoulders, but the scars, like Withrow himself, have begun healing.
The latest step in that process came last week with the first of several planned appearances the former racist from Sacramento has promised the ADL he'll make in this, his new-found role: warning teen-agers away from the hate movement.
The night before, Withrow had told a crowd of 100 at the Jewish Community Center about the costs of his defection, which peaked with his crucifixion by skinhead comrades he had led until two years ago.
"I was brought up to fear you," he began, then offered them an insider's view of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Resistance, the skinhead and other anti-Semitic hate groups, some of which preach what he once preached: "complete and total extermination of all nonwhites from the face of the American continent."
The 45-minute discussion ended in a standing ovation.
"We want him to be an advocate, and he's an eloquent one, a forceful one," said Jerry Shapiro of the ADL's Los Angeles office, which paid Withrow's travel expenses, a $100 honorarium for his talk and the cost of a night's lodging. "He seems to have a real rapport with kids."
"It scared me," Withrow said later, stroking his droopy mustache. "A man who fears begins to hate, and so it was like facing my greatest fear. I've never spoken to a group of Jews. But afterwards they gave me a standing applause. . . . I would do it again just for the hugs."
Born in 1961 in Sacramento, Gregory Steven Withrow said he never had much choice in the path he would follow. Before he was old enough to read, he remembers there were always anti-Semitic books on the shelves of his family home.
Ruler of the Roost
"The books I remember seeing at a very early age. A lot of little things that went on around the house," Withrow said Thursday as he chatted before catching a flight to San Francisco. "I was 6 1/2, maybe 7 years old."
Six-feet-four and domineering, Albert Withrow ruled the roost. His mother "really had very little to say about things," Withrow said.
He will say virtually nothing about his mother, with whom he has only recently begun building a new relationship. She is his influence now.
But his father--an auto mechanic who became a bartender and professional gambler--shaped most of his life.
He had a personality so "powerful" that it squelched other viewpoints. Though his dad worked for a time with radical conservative groups, the elder Withrow never bought in on the KKK, his son said. "He saw the Klan as cliche, as something that would never really make a difference; too ceremonial. Almost bourgeois, in his view."
His father, nevertheless, raised him "to lead the white race," Withrow said. "Some fathers raise their kids to be doctors, lawyers or ballerinas. I was raised to be sort of a 'Fuhrer. ' "
By 1979, Withrow--at 5-feet-6 and 130 pounds--was a member of the White Aryan Resistance known as WAR, the KKK, the Skinheads and the American Nazi Party. When he enrolled the same year at Sacramento's American River College, Withrow formed the White Student Union, which stuffed hundreds of fliers in high-school lockers in California and other states claiming that the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated by Jews who had enough money to rewrite history.
His adviser at the time, both men have said, was Tom Metzger--a Fallbrook television repairman, leader of the White American Political Assn. and the White Aryan Resistance, a former San Diego congressional candidate and a former California Grand Dragon of the KKK.
Post Office Box
Metzger, who hosts a cable television show, "Race and Reason," offered financial support and encouragement. While there was no official link between the groups, WAR and Withrow's White Student Union shared a Fallbrook post office box.
Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the central Pacific region of the Anti-Defamation League, said the discrimination-fighting group has followed Withrow's activities since 1979, when he founded the White Students Union. In his role as the union's leader, Withrow was a key recruiter of new membership in what later became the Aryan Youth Movement, which Hirschhaut called "the stepchild of WAR."
The association between Withrow and Metzger, considered by many experts to be the only "older" white supremacist willing to recruit and work with skinheads, has been documented on videotape, Hirschhaut said.
"He had a great deal of dealings with Tom Metzger--close and frequent communication," Hirschhaut added. "Metzger looked upon him as a key organizer and rising star in the WAR movement, and there was severe embarrassment when he dropped out of it."
Boozing and Drugging
Withrow said he also organized the Sacramento Area Skinheads, which he calls Sash. They did their share of boozing and drugging, kicking and stomping, which was dubbed "docking" after the name of the steel-toe, combat-style boots called Doc Martins.
But many of the events he participated in then are so despicable that Withrow will no longer talk about it.
Did he ever kill anyone? "No."
Did he hurt anyone? "Yes." Several people, he says, his head hanging low, fair and freckled hands reaching for his mustache again. "It's not like I kept a toll."
Were any of his victims permanently injured? "No. Everyone heals."
His gang of skins--young men who hated anybody but white Christians and had a taste for random and vicious attacks on the outnumbered and defenseless--used to "bash Japanese tourists" then rob them in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
The skinheads' weapons of choice, he said, are "personals"--items including their combat boots, knives, straight-edge razors, baseball bats and "anything that allows you to get up close and personal while you are hurting or torturing someone."
In time, Withrow said, he earned a criminal record--brandishing a gun on a police officer, assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Records show he was arrested 23 times in 14 years in Sacramento County alone for those felonies as well as misdemeanor crimes like assault and battery, drug possession and drunk driving. He did jail time at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility in Elk Grove, officials there said.
That only slowed his activities in the hate movement, which culminated in July, 1986, at a national gathering of white supremacist leaders in Idaho, Withrow said.
Admittedly an extremist within an extreme movement, Withrow, as founder of the White Student Union, urged about 400 racists at the National Aryan Congress to pursue the "total genocide" of all non-Anglos "across the North American continent."
He said he received a standing ovation from the crowd, which shouted, "Sieg, Heil!" and other Nazi slogans.
Later the same month, however, Withrow's father died of cancer and alcoholism, and it would be his son's last summer of hate.
Withrow had fallen in love with a co-worker at a Sacramento card club, a waitress named Sylvia. She was an older woman whose rejection of white supremacist notions had already begun eroding his devotion to the only guiding principle he had known since he was a kindergartner. His love for her was now squeezing out everything else.
"I cared less and less about the racist movement, and I was getting bothered by other racists and gang members who were calling me and bugging me about responsibilities I was letting go on," Withrow said.
Sylvia, whose whereabouts are a mystery but whose name remains tattooed on Withrow's biceps, introduced him to his first Christmas, the notion of giving gifts, visiting the ocean.
Then, the following summer, Albert Withrow died. While viewing his father's body in the hospital, Withrow said he had an epiphany.
"I honored my father; when he died it hurt. But there was also a sense of relief. I was actually kind of feeling for the first time," Withrow said, his voice breaking. "I didn't know what to do for a long while without him.
"I had this thought that, 'Gee, maybe I don't have to carry this on anymore,' " Withrow said. "Then I thought, 'No, no, no, it's my duty. I must carry on my duty. Honor my family, my ancestors, my race, my nation!' I just kept forgetting to honor myself."
The internal struggle continued until, finally, Withrow said, he traveled south to Fallbrook and visited Metzger at his home.
Told of his interest in dropping out of the hate movement, Withrow said, Metzger was furious.
His son, John Metzger, also a white supremacist, appeared with Withrow in September, 1987, on the Phil Donahue show. There, Metzger told him he deserved to die for deserting his cause, Withrow claims.
Tom Metzger did not return phone calls to discuss Withrow. John Metzger, reached at the family's Fallbrook home, also declined to comment on Withrow, saying only, "We aren't satisfied with your newspaper and some of the articles in it."
Tired of badgering from colleagues in the white supremacist front, Withrow said, he made his retirement from racism public, denouncing the hate movement on local television shows aired in Northern California.
On Aug. 8, 1987, one show, "Good Morning Bay Area," featured Withrow quitting racism for love.
That night, Withrow said, a group of skinheads, including his best friend, ambushed Withrow outside Nashville West, the Sacramento club where he worked and partied.
He said they drove nails through his palms, leaving him hammered, crucifixion-style, to an 8-foot-wide board. They slashed his throat with a razor and left him near a dumpster.
On the Sidewalk
Sacramento Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sharon Telles said deputies summoned to the Nashville West on Auburn Boulevard found Withrow about 11:30 that night.
"He was lying out front, tied to this thing," she said, as she referred to the police incident report. "We found him lying on the sidewalk in front of this bar he was known to frequent. There was a superficial laceration to the neck, both arms were out to his side, his left wrist was tied, and both hands had been nailed palm up to the board. And (responding officers) described them as No. 8 sinker-type nails."
Paramedics cut off the nails and rushed Withrow to a hospital but he refused to identify his attackers or cooperate with investigators, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said.
With no witnesses and no help from Withrow, authorities said they had no choice but to abandon the investigation.
Withrow said he never will identify his assailants because doing so might endanger his best friend, whom he calls Dutch and no longer sees.
Of those times, Withrow said, "It hurts me even to talk about it now."
But talk he will, whether he feels like it some days or not. Withrow is torn between wanting to leave his past behind him and feeling responsible for warning young people about the dangers of hate. Rehashing the things he did is visibly excruciating to him. Sometimes he just bolts out of a room, or hangs up the phone mid-interview.
Like a cancer, the most frightening and rapidly growing element in the national white supremacist front is that of the skinhead, both the ADL and Withrow say.
Withrow, who said he is unemployed and receives state assistance because the crucifixion-style attack left his hands virtually useless, is working for a consultant to law-enforcement agencies battling racist gangs. He estimates there are fewer than 16,000 white supremacists nationally, including 1,500 to 2,000 Nazis and 3,000 to 5,000 skinheads.
In recent weeks, a handful of suspected skinheads were arrested in two different Southern California attacks.
In Laverne, an Iranian couple was attacked outside a market by a woman and three men who wore short-cropped hair. They allegedly shouted racial epithets about their being Jewish. The man was kicked to the ground; the woman, carrying a week-old infant, also was struck. A black man who came to their rescue was assaulted before officers arrived and arrested the suspects. The foursome had racist group membership cards in their possession and were bound for a truck carrying baseball bats at the time of their arrests, police said.
On Thursday, a young man dressed like a neo-Nazi skinhead was arrested for allegedly defacing a Costa Mesa elementary school classroom with swastikas. Police said the suspect stole $40 that was used to teach second-graders how to count, and took food supplies from earthquake emergency kits. It was not difficult to nab the vandal, officers said. He photographed himself with a Polaroid camera in the classroom, then left the picture in a student's desk.
Why do such people seem so threatening and why does Withrow plan to speak at schools statewide, spreading a message of caution to some of the same students he tried to reach with hate fliers years ago?
"Because it is not the quantity but the quality of their violence," Withrow said. "It's not like their members are a bunch of bitter, decrepit old bigots. They are young people throwing their entire futures into something that is empty, instead of the last gasps of some old burned-out guy. They are the future generations of tomorrow."
Although the attack outside the Sacramento bar left him frightened and living a transient existence, flopping at this hotel or that one around the state, Withrow--who once took many drugs but now said he has been "clean" since September--has found a great deal of joy in just plain existing without hate.
"I hate to see people toss their lives away for something that's really not worth it."