Before dawn on Feb. 8, a man in a dark jacket, mask and boots crossed the grounds of Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, pulled out a can of red spray paint and began desecrating the property. Staring into a surveillance camera, he first sprayed its lens to cover it, then moved on, marking one side of the synagogue with a swastika and defacing a Holocaust memorial.

Chilling images from the cameras, described in court documents, led a member of the congregation to another revelation: the man was local.

The suspect was soon identified as Raymond Bryant, 44, of nearby Airway Heights, Spokane County, a member of a new neo-Nazi group that had sprung up in town, the member told police. He knew it was Bryant because he had dealt with him before.

On Tuesday, Bryant was arraigned in Spokane County Superior Court, and his trial has been scheduled for April 26.

For months, authorities said, Bryant had been spreading hate-filled leaflets in different pockets of Spokane and Airway Heights for his chapter of the 14First Foundation. Foundation fliers also have been distributed in Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana, according to the Western States Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that tracks extremism.

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Citing the group’s website, police said the name is a reference to a 14-word white power slogan attributed to David Lane, a white nationalist and convicted felon who died in prison more than a decade ago.

Experts who track extremism in the Spokane area said 14First’s members had been attempting to show an increasing presence locally. While small, 14First’s beliefs and appearances remind them of a virulent strain of extremism present in the Inland Northwest decades ago, when the skinheads held broader presence before the Aryan Nation’s compound in North Idaho was demolished in 2001. 

Extremist groups have lingered in the Northwest, but a neo-Nazi group brazen enough to stand in front of a synagogue and perform a Nazi salute seemed to harken back to that era.

“They really seem to be trying to set themselves up as more of a skinhead group, which frankly is pretty old fashioned,” said Kate Bitz, a fellow with the Western States Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that tracks extremism.  

The group had also taken responsibility for placing flyers around several Texas cities, including San Antonio, Abilene and Austin. Bryant told officers he was a lieutenant in the organization.

Disseminating flyers in public spaces has become an increasingly common tool of white nationalists during the pandemic for recruitment, publicity and intimidation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which also monitors extremists.

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The act allows for minimal person-to-person contact and those distributing the flyers can remain masked, meaning there’s a higher chance they’ll remain anonymous, the organization said. 

“Stark reminder”

In September, a small group of 14First members had shown up and held up white power posters at a Black Lives Matter march in Spokane while taunting protestors at the racial justice demonstration, according to the Western States Center. 

Bryant had also been to the Temple Beth Shalom synagogue in Spokane at least once before in what appeared to be an earlier attempt at taunting members, according to court documents. 

A photo first published in The Spokesman-Review shows six members of the 14First group standing in front of the synagogue, though the date of the photo remains unclear. That time, only one group wore a face mask as the six of them looked straight into the camera. Each threw up a Nazi salute, and a man identified as Bryant holds a stack of flyers in his hand. 

The defacement of the synagogue in the middle of the night last month marked an escalation in tactics that drew alarm. 

Rabbi Tamar Malino of Temple Beth Shalom and the synagogue’s board of directors issued a statement, saying they were angered and saddened by the clear act of hate but thankful to those in the community who had donated to help fund the cleanup.

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They vowed that they would not be deterred by what an officer described as an “obvious threat.”

“This was an act, if you will, rather than just propaganda,” said Lance Kissler, who chairs the Spokane Human Rights Commission. 

Like others who granted interviews for this story, Kissler recalled the region’s history as a hotbed for neo-Nazism from the 1970s through the 1990s before the Aryan Nations decline,  especially in the area that straddles the Washington and Idaho state line. 

“This was that stark reminder,” Kissler said. “It’s not gone, it’s still here and it’s very real.” 

Bryant has been charged in Spokane County Superior Court with a felony, malicious harassment, and pleaded not guilty. Federal authorities have declined to say whether they have opened their own hate-crime investigation in the case. 

In an interview with a Spokane police detective outside his home on Feb. 16, Bryant initially denied ever having been to the synagogue the day that he was arrested, saying the group had long ago decided that violence and vandalism “just doesn’t do anything,” according to court documents.

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But he took responsibility for having placed flyers around town and being a member of 14First, the detective wrote. “We are all proud nationalists,” he said.

Eventually, Bryant acknowledged that he had been the person who spray-painted the synagogue and Holocaust memorial, according to documents. When pressed, Bryant said he had carried out the act for the publicity “because a lot of times they would discard our flyers.” But the act wasn’t worth it in the end, he said. “It was stupid,” he said. 

A leader of the 14First group has since told local Spokane media that Bryant has been suspended from the group after being accused of carrying out an illegal act. A phone number affiliated with the group has been disconnected. 

Extremism in the Northwest

The emergence of 14First in Spokane adds the group to a long list of extremists that have sought a foothold in the Northwest over the years — from the Church of Jesus Christ Christian-Aryan Nations to the Northwest Front.

The Aryan Nations compound in Hayden, Idaho, about 30 miles northeast of Spokane, had been a central meeting spot for white supremacists from the 1970s until the 1990s, when a lawsuit led to its downfall.

Led by the Rev. Richard Butler, it had been among the United States’ most infamous examples of extremism and held the goal of creating a “national racial state,” according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

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The Aryan Nations had influenced other groups, including The Order, which was also known as the Brüder Schweigen, or Silent Brotherhood. The violent neo-Nazi gang’s roughly two dozen members included followers of Butler. 

From 1983 to 1984, The Order’s members robbed banks, set off bombs and murdered Alan Berg, a Jewish radio host in Denver. Robert Jay Mathews, the Order’s founder, was killed in a shootout with the FBI on Whidbey Island in 1984. 

More recently, the Northwest Front, a neo-Nazi group, advocated for an all-white state in the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, its founder, Harold Covington, died in his Bremerton apartment. 

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In total, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 22 hate groups in Washington state in 2020, including 14First. 

Miri Cypers, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest office, said her organization classifies 14First as a small neo-Nazi group that began promoting itself and distributing propaganda around October 2019. 

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“This to me feels different and very violating,” she said. “I mean it’s a literal, huge spray-painted swastika at a synagogue in a community that is really vulnerable and very aware of white supremacy.” 

Despite its size, however, its recent acts — including the photo in front of the Spokane synagogue last year — have been cause for alarm, Cyper said. 

She considered the vandalism that the group leaders say Bryant carried out on his own as “very severe” and shocking amid a rise in hate crimes and threats in the region.