The great pretender
An Oroville white supremacist who became famous after renouncing his racist tendencies in 1987 now says it was all part of a plan to infiltrate the government
I’ve never told the truth, so I can never tell a lie.—Tom Waits
In 1986, 25-year-old Greg Withrow gave a rousing speech in Hayden Lake, Idaho, at the infamous compound operated and occupied by Richard Butler’s notorious neo-Nazi Aryan Nations group. It was a fiery four-minute tirade calling for the “total extermination of all subhuman, non-Aryan peoples from the face of the North American continent: men, women and children, without exception or appeal.”
At the time Withrow, who’d grown up on the streets of Sacramento, was a rising star in the nation’s small but virulent white-supremacy movement. The founder of a racist youth group that was a progenitor of the skinheads phenomenon, he was widely known among the leadership cadre of the white-supremacy movement in this country and served as the Northern California right-hand man to California Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Tom Metzger and his son John.
But just a year later, in 1987, Withrow dramatically turned his back on the movement and denounced racism as evil, making a 180-degree and very public turn that astonished his erstwhile comrades as much as it did leaders of anti-racism groups. It also led, apparently, to his being attacked by a gang of white racist thugs with baseball bats and literally crucified—complete with nails driven through his hands—in the empty parking lot of a Sacramento Kmart.
For the next 13 years Withrow was a darling of the liberal press, a frequent guest on afternoon talk shows, an inspirational speaker before anti-hate organizations and a key witness in a government conference on hate-crime legislation. He even married a woman of Mexican heritage, an unthinkable act before his transformation.
Last year, however, Withrow changed his stripes one more time, again making a complete flip-flop. He now says his life as a reformed neo-Nazi was a scam, a dodge, a ruse conceived and played out as part of a devious effort to advance the white-supremacy cause. His goal, Withrow now says, was to become a mole and infiltrate the government and America’s anti-hate organizations, gather information, give false testimony and then blow the whistle once his mission was completed.
Toward that end, on Aug. 8 of this year he filed a lawsuit in Butte County Superior Court asking that all California hate-crime laws be thrown out and all the white people who’ve been accused of such crimes be compensated to the tune of $1 million each. He’s not kidding. He fully expects the case to move through the courts, and he’s prepared to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Who is Greg Withrow—really? Is he what he says he is, a lifelong white supremacist who spent 14 years cozying up to liberals and pretending to be the archenemy of everything he believed in? Or is he just a rather pathetic middle-aged man who lives alone in a beat-up trailer outside Oroville and, having exhausted his 15 minutes of fame, is trying to get the public’s attention again in the only way he knows how?
Part of the plan
Greg Withrow was born in 1961, the only son of first cousins who got married when his mother became pregnant. The marriage lasted three years.
His father Albert, he’s said many times, was a cold man who never told his son that he loved him and in fact used the pronoun “it” when referring to Greg. He was also a race-baiting minority hater who had himself grown up with a racist father. Carrying on what amounted to a family tradition, the elder Withrow did everything he could to turn his son into a hater of non-whites and Jews.
In one account, the younger Withrow told how his father once handed him a knife and then ordered the family bull terrier to attack his son, telling him to kill the dog or be killed.
Since his latest transformation, however, Withrow says he made up many of the gruesome anecdotes about his father’s viciousness that he recited during interviews about his past. He made those up, he says, to increase his credibility with liberals, reporters and others who wanted to see him as a victim of his father’s racism.
Withrow attended American River College in the late 1970s, and there, in 1979, he founded the White Student Union. That group later spawned the Aryan Youth Movement, which in turn aided the rise of the skinheads, all violent youth movements that in some ways arose to replace such old-generation white-supremacy organizations as the KKK.
“It’s nonsense,” Withrow says of such groups. “Lighting crosses and all that crap really accomplishes nothing.”
In the many published accounts of his 1987 transformation from hardcore racist to anti-racism crusader, Withrow often mentions that, just a week after his speech in Idaho, his father died of cancer and alcoholism. Withrow says in these reports that he felt a sense of relief and for the first time the power to entertain the treasonous thought that he could question his father’s mindset.
In May 1987, Withrow told the Sacramento Bee that he was shuffling off his hate-filled past and writing a book that would blow the lid off the white-supremacy movement. He said he had fallen in love with a woman named Sylvia, whom he had met at a Sacramento card room. The light of her love had shown him the error of his ways, he said.
He soon paid the price for being race-traitor. On July 3 three skinheads, young men who were once his disciples, barged into his Sacramento apartment and beat him with a baseball bat. The attack, he said, left him with a broken jaw, a busted nose and cracked ribs. In a story in the Bee, Withrow reiterated his unflagging determination to leave his past behind.
On Aug. 9 he again was beaten up by as many as six of his former partners in hate. This time they stretched out his arms on a 6-foot-long wooden plank, held him in place and pounded eight-penny nails through the palms of his hands. In subsequent accounts, he said his attackers slashed his throat with a straight razor and then held a gun to his head. But the skinhead holding the gun was a former friend who refused to finish Withrow off as ordered. Instead he threw the gun to the ground, and the skinheads ran off, leaving Withrow to die in the parking lot of a Sacramento Kmart.
Withrow’s hands were indeed nailed, said the story that appeared two days later written by Bee reporter Ted Bell. Withrow was also described as having “a superficial cut on his collarbone.” He told Bell that he had sought out friends for help after the attack.
The following September People magazine did a feature on Withrow. This version of the crucifixion said the victim lay bleeding and moaning in a parking lot, crying for help.
“Ironically,” wrote Michelle Green, “it was a black couple, though they knew him and his racist history, who came to his aid after four whites passed him by.”
A legend was born. The attack in the parking lot took on mythical proportions. For the next few years Withrow would be courted by the press, talk-show television, anti-hate groups, the government and even Hollywood.
It was a story ready-made for the press, and eager journalists jumped on it. Quite naturally, nobody questioned whether Withrow himself had anything to do with the crucifixion. It was unimaginable that such a thing could be staged. But that’s exactly what happened, Withrow now insists. The whole thing was an elaborate, if painful, set piece designed to fool his enemies so he could infiltrate their ranks.
In other words, Greg Withrow arranged to be crucified like Jesus so he could do the work of the devil.
Darling of the media
“Some people might regret what’s happened to me,” Withrow told People magazine in the story published one month after the attack. “[B]ut they should rejoice at what’s happened to my soul. I know one thing. If I live, I’m going to find peace.”
For the next few years, Withrow found his peace by making the rounds of the talk-show circuit, appearing with Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams and a number of others, denouncing his past and embracing his new-found understanding and love for others.
And by the time his former skinhead pals were on another talk show, breaking Geraldo Rivera’s nose with a folding chair, Withrow was receiving words of praise and speaking fees from the likes of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“Dear Greg,” wrote ADL Assistant Director Jerry Shapiro on June 16, 1989. “Where to begin? In the short time that you were in Los Angeles, you managed to fascinate, intrigue and finally captivate nearly everyone you came in contact with. I only regret the toll the constant repetition of your story took on you. My apologies for that.”
The letter concludes: “Enclosed is the honorarium promised you and I will also send up any clippings or tapes we get from your visit here. … Keep your chin up.”
Two months later Richard G. Hirschhaut, regional director for the San Francisco office of the ADL, wrote this glowing endorsement of Withrow’s work-in-progress, the autobiographical Child of the Fourth Reich.
“The autobiography of Greg Withrow is a literary catharsis of a tormented soul. Moreover, Child of the Fourth Reich is a document of our times—the dark side of a demi-monde that few realize even exists. It is a riveting account of one person’s passage through the subterranean milieu of paranoia and hatred and his ultimate redemption through love.”
And in September, Withrow was flown into Texas to share his story with the Jewish Federation of El Paso.
In a letter of appreciation, David Brown, the organization’s executive director, wrote: “May you find the strength to continue educating people, especially young people where you really have an opportunity to keep someone from ruining his or her own life.”
On Jan. 7, 1991, Withrow spoke to the Commission on the Prevention of Hate Violence in Los Angeles. He was there at the request of Leo McCarthy, then the lieutenant governor of California.
“I want you to know that your presence and testimony yesterday was extremely valuable to the Commission,” McCarthy wrote to Withrow the day after his appearance. “Your observations will assist us in producing policy recommendations that will make a real difference for the next generation of Californians growing up in this extremely diverse state. My intention as an elected official and Chairman of this Commission is to do everything in my power to see to it that the risks you have taken will have been worthwhile and meaningful.”
A few years after the People magazine article appeared, Withrow became the subject of longer, more in-depth stories. An example was “One Little Hitler,” which was published in The Discovery Channel magazine. Focus, a glossy city magazine then published by San Francisco public television station KQED and now called San Francisco Magazine, offered a 10-page piece by Marilee Strong. It included a striking photo of Withrow and his wife at the time, a Mexican-American woman named Maria, taken by respected photographer Dan Winters.
Hollywood wanted to make a movie based on Child of the Fourth Reich. Woody Harrelson’s company, Children at Play, contacted him. Sean Penn, Withrow says, wanted to play him when the movie was made.
The plan revealed
At the same time that Withrow was giving talks on his conversion to a life of peace and tolerance and being adulated for same, he was living a somewhat less-than-peaceful life in Butte County, where he was managing to get himself arrested on several charges, including petty theft, vandalism, making annoying phone calls and driving on a suspended license.
On Christmas Day, 1990, he was arrested and charged with causing $1,000 in damage to Jonathan Lee William’s 1978 Camaro. The following April he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in the case because a psychiatric evaluation found him “unable to assist in his defense.”
Withrow had moved to Butte County in 1990, buying a singlewide trailer on two dusty acres in southeast Oroville. Romance entered his life again when he met Maria Rodriguez, who along with her daughter moved into Withrow’s trailer after she divorced her husband, Guy Oddo.
In 1993, Guy Oddo filed a complaint and request for a restraining order against Withrow, who had allegedly threatened him over the phone.
According to a court document filed by a Donna Thomas on Oct. 18, 1993, Withrow warned her that he’d better never see Oddo again or “I’ll beat him to a pulp. I’ll kill him.”
He married Rodriguez the following May.
Even though it had been a full decade since Withrow had become the poster boy of reformed racists, there was still considerable interest in him, especially on the part of journalists. One of them was documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Thompson, who came to Butte County in 1997 to record where Withrow’s life had gone in a film called Blink, which was eventually broadcast on PBS.
“When people watch the clips I have of Greg,” Thompson told journalist Annelee Newitz, “their first question is always, ‘Is he still a racist?’ TV coverage of people like Greg tends to take the form of ‘evil racist to model citizen’ stories. But I want to draw audiences into a thorny middle ground where Greg is still battling ghosts 10 years later and wonders whether he’s still the same person who got into the movement.”
Withrow recalls the time spent with Thompson. “I wondered if she didn’t have a thing for me,” he says. “But she has done a few documentaries, and she got a grant for this one.”
Not only did Thompson not have “a thing” for Withrow, she was afraid of him, says Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, whose office long has known of Withrow’s presence in the county. She “started to move away from him,” he explains. “She said she was scared of him [because] he didn’t like what they had done [with Blink].”
According to Newitz, Blink chastises Middle America for not embracing people like Withrow, those who are a bit rough around the edges.
“Neither humbly penitent or ashamed of himself,” Newitz writes, “Withrow’s self-presentation is bound to ruffle the feathers of middle-class whites who don’t wish to confront the possibility that they might have something to learn from a hillbilly-looking guy who was once a member of the White Aryan Resistance.”
For his part, Ramsey thinks Withrow began his descent back to his racist past soon after the stark portrait presented by Blink was released. “He started to fall apart when he was no longer the darling of the press,” Ramsey suggests.
In July 1999, Withrow made a final attempt to keep alive his image as a reformed racist when he contacted the Oroville Mercury-Register, which retold his story in a three-part series.
Then, in May of 2000, Withrow now says, he “officially” ended that role by writing a dissertation called “The Truth Hurts” and sending it to Gov. Gray Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and former Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.
The document, he says, confesses he fabricated his crucifixion and gave “perjured testimony” to the government in connection with the event.
Finally, on Aug. 8 of this year, he took the next step in his devious plan by filing a lawsuit that, if successful, would abolish all of California’s hate-crime laws and grant $1 million to any “whites, Europeans, Caucasians and/or Aryans” arrested for such crimes. As if to insure that the suit would garner maximum publicity, he filled it with 68 pages of rambling accusations, renunciations and repudiations connected to his 14-year life as a “mole.”
Withrow’s case is based on the argument that his testimony before the state Senate’s Commission on the Prevention of Hate Violence in 1992 was false because he was a spy at the time. He contends, therefore, that hate-crime laws based on his testimony are invalid because that testimony was made up.
The suit is without merit and will never have a day in court, insists DA Ramsey. “Our dealings with this guy and his actions have always been clouded by what do you believe?” Ramsey adds. “Is he a racist, a non-racist or just a liar?”
Jim McElroy, a San Diego attorney for the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are both named as defendants in the suit—being sued for $32 million—questions the significance of Withrow’s role in the formation of hate-crime laws.
“He is a megalomaniac to think that his testimony had anything to do with any of the legislation of hate-crime laws that swept across the nation,” McElroy says.
McElroy served on the committee that took Withrow’s testimony nine years ago. “We wanted him to testify at the hate-crime commission because he was a fairly articulate young man then and a good speaker,” McElroy says.
McElroy’s recollection of Withrow’s sharp speaking ability is perhaps enhanced by the fact that the ostensibly reformed racist was reciting exactly what the panel and the anti-hate organizations wanted to hear—a denunciation of evil activities from one who had been there.
Marriage of convenience?
Withrow’s marriage to Maria Rodriguez lasted six years and six days, ending on May 6, 2000, in a physical dispute at the trailer—she swinging a baseball bat, he holding a knife against her throat.
(Withrow is on probation until next June in connection with the incident, and the former skinhead organizer was ordered to attend anger management classes.)
The marriage, he now says coldly, was part of the plan, a way to infiltrate the Mexican-American culture.
“The marriage got me into places that they otherwise wouldn’t let me go,” he explained. “I had as much feelings for her as you do for undocumented workers; as much feelings for her as one would have a dog, maybe less. More like feelings toward her as a slave.”
Today Withrow still lives at the end of a country road that winds through the foothills south and east of Oroville. On a recent visit, I pull into and down the gravel driveway that runs in front of his trailer. Withrow, wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a wolf on it, emerges from the front door. There’s a fence between the trailer and the driveway, and on it is a “Beware of Dog” sign.
“I’m going to ask you not to come through the fence until I see if my dogs are obeying me or not today,” he says after a greeting.
“Dogs!” he yells, “stay where you are!”
I have visions of thick-necked bull terriers ready to attack. Instead, two shepherd-mix dogs come bounding around the corner of the trailer, tails and tongues wagging.
“Uh, they might jump up on you,” their owner says.
Withrow, a short, beefy man with fair skin and a red goatee, wears his fiery red hair pulled back into a tight ponytail centered on the back of his head. He greets photographer Tom Angel and me politely and invites us into the aging blue trailer, whose interior is cluttered but clean.
A bookshelf overflows with law books, reference books, geography and science books and a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
During our interview Withrow is deliberate and thoughtful, often punctuating his thoughts or answers with a sip of ice water. I want to talk about his past and this idea that he’s lived a lie for the past 14 years to further the Aryan cause, but he keeps steering the conversation back to the suit and its “theme,” quoting the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche.
“The theme is crucifixion,” he says. “What you have to understand is that, although the physical torment was real, it was basically one of two fabricated hate crimes that were submitted to the state"—meaning, I’m to gather, his and Jesus Christ’s.
“The basic question was this,” he continues. “Could the greatest democracy on earth be fooled? Its Senate, its judiciary, its talk-show hosts, its greatest minds and philosophers and whatnot—could they be fooled with a board, two nails and a hammer? And if so, ergo, could this have been done 2,000 years ago in a more primitive society by a Jew? And so the question is answered: ‘yes.'”
He goes on to say he was a “mole for the white Aryans, the cause of revolution.”
“I’ve been in that role exactly 14 years,” he says, “from Aug. 8, 1987, to Aug. 8, 2001. It was my—quote, unquote—gang, though we don’t believe in gangs, that broke Geraldo’s nose.”
He says the Aryan movement has evolved into separate cells and now operates much like the infamous Environmental Liberation Front, whose individual members act independently and yet have pulled off a number of eco-terrorist acts, leaving little evidence for investigators to go on.
“We don’t believe in gangs, like the Crips, the Sureños, the Norteños or the Bloods,” he explains. “We believe in what is called a lone-wolf policy. Every man acts on his own, or we work in small groups of two to four people, people that we can trust. It’s kind of like the Irish Republican Army. If one cell gets crushed, it has no direct empirical knowledge of the workings of another cell. That way we protect one another.
“It’s really effective,” he continues. “The FBI or the ATF or the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center can no longer send infiltrators into our group gatherings because there are none, other than, say, skinheads dancing at a mosh pit listening to Peckerwood or some other skinhead band. And that is not really a conspiracy there. They are just gathering to drink beer or whatever and fuck around, pardon my language.”
I ask him about his life since 1987—the conversion, his testimony and the magazine articles.
“It was all part of the plan,” he responds. “A leopard can’t change its spots. We began to infiltrate the Anti-Defamation League. Here are quite a few documents, and there are many more.” He says he just introduced the documents into his court case.
Then I bring up his marriage to Maria and ask how long it lasted.
“Let’s see,” he begins. “What year was that?” He pretends to have difficulty remembering. There was long pause. “About seven years,” he finally answers.
“On April 20th  I had submitted a booklet called ‘The Truth Hurts,’ which I had written myself to the Anti-Defamation League, to the governor and the lieutenant governor. At that point my wife knew. When she finally found out that I was a mole, she freaked, naturally.
“She was absolutely horrified. It’s unfortunate but true.”
I ask about children.
“Of course not,” he says quickly. “There wouldn’t be any children from such a marriage.”
I continue to ask about the marriage. He tells me that he treated her well, that she had a place where she was happy for most of the marriage.
Does he miss her? “No, not at all,” he replies. “I enjoy the company of white people much more. Just as you would think maybe you might miss somebody, but you also begin to miss the faces of your own people. There is always a part of you, no matter what ethnic group you come from, you’d like to go back to—family and old friends and acquaintances.”
How difficult was it go through the motions of a sham marriage?
“Each day was unto itself,” he says. “There wasn’t me sitting there with this malice intent. I know that she feels better off now. Racial intermarriage is something that I’ve been through, and I can empirically say, at least from my viewpoint, it’s wrong, because in and of itself, when two cultures come together like that, there is and shall be secret agendas, different things that the other may not know. Something that you might talk about with your own race you may not discuss with someone of a different race, and so you’d find a lack of communication.”
Now he grows mildly irritated. “But that’s not the theme of the suit here,” he continues. “That’s just a minor point. But yes, having her on my side allowed me access to places that otherwise I could not have attained.
“The goal,” he continues, “was to get to these people, to have sway over their minds and their souls, and that’s exactly what occurred.
“Some people have asked, ‘Why do you think your testimony is so important now all of a sudden. What does it matter?’ If it was important enough for them to have me testify back then, then it should reason logically that it is just as important now concerning these hate crimes.”
The fact that he is still alive is proof enough that many in the movement became aware of his plan, Withrow argues. “Most people thought of me as an ex-racist for the last 14 years,” he says. “However, many people on the inside of the movement have known all along. That is exactly the reason why I am not dead. If I felt otherwise, I wouldn’t do this interview with you.”
His efforts and sacrifices have been well worth it, he insists, and he believes he fooled everyone.
“People think whites basically commit horrid crimes, and indeed [the crucifixion] was a horrible crime. It was medieval in its effect, in the fact that I impaled myself upon the youth, the Aryan youth, and out of that grew much of the skinhead movement and Aryan youth movement throughout California and the country.
“By becoming a victim, I helped create a generation of victimizers—a kind of a reverse psychology. If you study the case carefully, you’ll see that.”
The damage, he says, has not yet been inflicted upon his enemies. That lawsuit, he says, will take care of that.
“I expect them to fight the suit, and I expect to go to at least the appellate if not the Supreme Court,” he says. “If they don’t fight it, I automatically win.”
Just who is Greg Withrow?
I ask Withrow what he does for a living. He’s currently on disability, he tells me, because he blew out his knee while kickboxing. Otherwise, he’s a bricklayer by trade.
(The Butte County court documents examined while researching this story all indicated he was on disability or unemployed at the time.)
“Nothing ticks me off more than to build a wall, a thing of such beauty, and then to have it defaced by graffiti,” he goes on. “And they don’t get in trouble for it. Pepe hits it, and [the police] aren’t going to do a goddam thing about it.”
His voice is flat as he says these words. There’s little sign of emotion. Later I tell he he’s not being convincing, that he seems merely to be mouthing the words, as if out of obligation.
“That’s because I can maintain an inner calm,” he replies.
I don’t believe him, anymore than I believe his marriage to Maria was a sham.
In the documents in his divorce case on file at the Butte County courthouse, some of Withrow’s statements support my suspicions.
“Do not wish dissolution of marriage, I love Maria,” he writes. “Possibility for reconciliation in this marriage. Although both Maria and I need help. I hurt her deeply and wish to make amends.”
The clerks who work behind the counter at the courthouse are well aware of Greg Withrow because of his frequent visits attending to his lawsuit. But they also recall him from a year ago, when he was filing papers in the divorce action.
“He’d come in, ask a few questions about filing on the divorce, and then start crying,” one of the clerks recalls. “He did it every time.”
A few days after our interview, Withrow calls to tell me that Jim McElroy, the Anti-Defamation League attorney, has contacted him and requested he drop the case.
I call McElroy.
“Mr. Withrow has a colorful background,” he says. “He seems to be jumping back and forth from one side of the fence to another. He’s been off the screen lately, and I don’t think he’s gotten a lot of media attention. For a little while he got a lot of publicity, which gave him a sense of self-esteem.
“But now you have this guy living marginally in Oroville and he’s wondering, ‘How can I get back in the limelight?'”
For his part, Metzger, the KKK grand dragon who recruited Withrow to the White Aryan Resistance movement more than two decades ago, says he received a copy of the lawsuit and is glad the Oroville man has finally “come clean” after all these years of deceit.
“The incident in Sacramento where Mr. Withrow claimed he was nailed to a cross, his throat was slashed and all that kind of stuff?” Metzger says from his Fallbook, Calif., home. “He claimed that I had something to do with it, or certainly inferred it on television. Of course, I knew I had nothing to do with it. So I’m glad he’s fessed up about that.”
Metzger also thinks Withrow never fully abandoned his racist roots.
“I believe that he remained a racist," Metzger said. "But to what degree I’m not sure, because I’ve had no real contact with Gregory for a long, long time."