The island, which one local describes as "a mixture of hippies on the south end, and Navy people on the north end," is also a draw for white supremacists because one of their own died there in 1984 in an incident that's a distant memory, if a memory at all, to most current residents.
WHIDBEY ISLAND — The locals who’ve been around for a while are used to it — hearing about neo-Nazi skinheads making an annual pilgrimage here every Dec. 8.
On that day, the white supremacists are said to take the ferry over to commemorate the martyrdom of a hero to their cause. That would be Robert Jay Mathews, founder of the brutal neo-Nazi gang The Order, killed in a shootout with the FBI on the south end of the island 34 years ago.
But the memories for the locals are foggy, and it’s not exactly a connection they say even remotely reflects the island.
“I grew up here. It’s a bucolic place to live. It’s a mixture of hippies on the south end, and Navy people (with the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station) on the north end,” says Joe Gunn, who with his wife, Jessie, owns Whidbey Pies & Café, a five-minute drive from the site of the shootout.
Then, earlier this month, the skinheads showed up.
“Personally, I haven’t seen any,” says Gunn, who said this part of the island is more attuned to ordering broccoli cheddar quiche, one of the restaurant’s favorites. He remarks that he was 3 years old when Mathews died.
Off and on over the years, skinheads and followers of Mathews’ teachings have made their way here to observe that Dec. 8 anniversary, although not in recent years, says Island County Sheriff Mark Brown. “We monitor every year about the time of the anniversary. There hasn’t been a display,” he says, meaning a display by skinheads such as a candlelight vigil.
That Whidbey Island role in the history of Mathews and The Order has been in the news since a group of seven white men and one woman — spouting racial slurs — attacked and beat an African-American disc jockey at a sports bar just across the water in Lynnwood.
All, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, were “self-professed members of a neo-Nazi skinhead group” and were arrested for alleged violations of the state’s hate-crime law.
The assault occurred after the disc jockey said the group wanted him to play heavy-metal music. He did cue up Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, he said, but apparently not fast enough.
“What, they couldn’t wait a minute and a half, two minutes? That’s all they had to wait to get to their music?” said the DJ. “For that they beat my ass, and called me a (N-word)?”
Documents filed when the men were booked into jail described some of the tattoos on one of them, Guy Albert Miller, 37, of Tacoma: “My race is my religion.” “Only the strong survive.” “Skulls.” Booking information for Miller and the others indicated they were affiliated with the “Aryan Brotherhood.”
Charging documents filed in Snohomish County District Court also include a no-contact order between the defendants and the DJ, for his “future safety.” The DJ said that at one point in the brawl, one of the men told him, “We will find you, and we will kill you.”
It’s a straight shot from the Rec Room Bar & Grill on the 14900 block of Highway 99, where the assault took place, to the ferry terminal in Mukilteo that takes you to the island. Drive a half-mile north on Highway 99, turn onto Mukilteo Speedway, and 10 minutes later you’re there.
Says a state ferry worker who works the ticket booth at the Clinton terminal on the island: “I saw the skinheads all day Sunday, maybe 50 cars, some with multiples in them. Some skinny jeans — the kind that are rolled up at the ankles. Lots of tattoos. Lot of those SS patches.” He was referring to the twin lightning-bolt insignia worn by members of Hitler’s Waffen-SS, the feared military arm of the Nazi Party.
The ferry worker provided his name for verification, but asked that it not be printed. Possible neo-Nazis knowing his name? No, thank you.
It’s not known whether the group that was arrested was planning to travel to or had come from the island. Walter Peale, attorney for Travis D. Condor, 34, of Pittsburgh, one of the individuals charged, says, “I’m not aware of anything relating to that possibility.”
Condor is a former Army specialist who had served in Iraq and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for a 2010 beating — with a baseball bat and other objects — of a homeless man in Cincinnati. His Snohomish County booking information states an affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood.
He’s also head of American Defense Records, which carries titles such as “Liberals Can Die,” “American Skinheads … Armed With The Truth!” and “Strength Thru Hate.”
Of the other six arrested, one was from Bothell, one from Illinois and four from Oregon. So most had traveled some distance to get to Snohomish County.
A drive to the address on Smugglers Cove Road on the island, where the 1984 shootout took place, ends at a locked white metal gate.
A photo of that site right after the confrontation shows a pile of charred timbers where there had been a two-story building with large picture windows and a deck looking out onto the Puget Sound shipping lanes.
The destroyed property was sold in 1988 for $140,000.
The next year, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom, three-car-garage mansion was built there. It’s now assessed at $1.1 million.
A Seattle Times story from then says a Navy helicopter had dropped illuminating flares shortly after an FBI special assault team opened fire. “Probably hundreds of rounds” could be heard, says the story. A few minutes later the sky “was ablaze with orange and red hues as fire erupted,” it says.
The federal agents were going to get their man, and there was good reason.
Mathews had founded The Order, also known as the Brüder Schweigen or Silent Brotherhood, a violent gang of white supremacists determined to start a race war. Throughout 1983 and ’84, they had robbed banks and armored cars, and had assassinated Alan Berg, an outspoken Jewish radio show host in Denver.
By the time Mathews arrived at Whidbey Island, “members of The Order had been involved in two shootings with FBI agents,” writes Jim Botting, the retired special agent in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles who was at the scene.
He spends a chapter on the shootout in his 2008 book, “Bullets, Bombs, and Fast Talk: Twenty-five Years of FBI War Stories.”
“The FBI responded like it had found John Dillinger,” writes Botting.
It was a high-adrenaline scene, he remembers.
Botting writes that Myron Hitch, the SWAT team leader, “jumped into the open,” aimed at the house where Mathews was holed up, and fired a 9 mm semi-automatic with one hand and a .357 revolver with the other.
Botting gave grudging awe to Mathews, dead at 31, which perhaps helps explain why he’s considered a martyr among white supremacists.
“We marveled at his stamina. He had been up for at least thirty-six hours talking to the negotiators, threatened with assault at any time and attacked by gas. And yet he had the balls to still threaten us,” he writes.
A couple of years after the shootout, 40-year island resident Thom Gunn says he stopped by one of the commemorations for Mathews. Gunn is remembered by local baby boomers as the 1968 University of Washington student body president at a time of cultural change at the school.
The gathering was at South Whidbey State Park, a three-minute drive south of the shootout location. Gunn remembers seeing Richard Butler, the racist founder of the Aryan Nations and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
“It was pathetic. There were about 15 people and they all looked like they had come from some sort of underworld. They looked like the undead or something,” Gunn remembers. “It was a wet, cold day. They basically just stood just off the road, outside of the park. They said a few things and then broke up.”
There is an image from that gathering that sticks with Gunn.
“Next to Butler was a little girl, 5 or 6, and she had a metal pin on her,” he says, kind of like the U.S. flag pin a president might wear, “except it was a swastika.”
It’s not clear where the group of skinheads who arrived last weekend at the island stayed, or where they went.
Now it’s back to the usual here on south Whidbey Island.
At the state park, a group of schoolkids, parents and teachers have a picnic. No sign of white supremacists ever having been there.
At Whidbey Pies, Dana Whitney, a server and another longtime islander, says she remembers seeing the skinheads in 2017 on the ferry at this time of year.
It wasn’t hard to figure out that they were skinheads, with some having shaved heads, and some wearing the tight jeans rolled up at the bottom, and the leather jackets, and, of course, the SS insignia. They were well-behaved when on the boat, she says.
She remembers something else about the group.
“Some of them had kids with them,” says Whitney.