Updated: October 30, 2011 at 12:00 am
People grabbed their children when Bryon Widner swaggered into a store, lowered their voices when he entered a restaurant, sidled away when he strode up to a bar.
He reveled in it — the fear he inspired, the power. It made him feel like Superman.
He had symbols of racist violence carved into his face and the letters HATE stamped across the knuckles of his right hand — the hand that knocked out countless victims, sometimes leaving their teeth embedded in his skin. "Blood & Honour" was tattooed across his neck, "Thug Reich" across his belly, swastikas adorned his shaved scalp. On his forehead, a thick, black, upward-pointing arrow symbolized his willingness to die for his race.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Bryon Widner was a skinhead thug until he found love, and turned away from racism and violence. But how could he build a new life with a face stained by racist tattoos? First of two parts.
For 16 years, Widner was a glowering, strutting, menacing vessel of hate — an "enforcer" for some of America's most notorious and violent racist skinhead groups.
Hellbent on destruction, he was living to die, though even during the bloodiest beat-downs he knew he was unlikely to lose his life as a warrior in the glorious race war promoted by the white power movement.
"It was more likely to be a bullet through the head," he says, grimly.
By the time he was 30, Widner had spent a total of four years in jail, accused of murder and other charges, though he was never convicted of a major crime. Victim intimidation, he says, took care of that.
And then he met Julie Larsen.
Like Widner, Larsen's arms and legs were covered with neo-Nazi symbols — iron crosses, a Totenkopf skull, axes crossed into a swastika, the Nazi salute "sieg heil." She posted regularly on the Internet forum, Stormfront. Its motto: "White Pride, World Wide."
And she was active in The National Alliance, a once-powerful white supremacist organization founded by William Pierce, whose writings called for the extermination of Jews and the violent overthrow of the Federal government — and had inspired the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that left 168 people dead.
But by her 30s, the single mother of four was questioning her racist beliefs. She grew tired of telling her children they couldn't watch certain Walt Disney movies because Hollywood was controlled by Jews, or listen to rap music, or eat Chinese or Mexican food. After struggling to put an abusive marriage to a skinhead behind her, she yearned for something simpler.
"I just wanted a normal family life," she said.
And to his great surprise, Widner discovered that was what he wanted, too.
But leaving a life of hate would not be easy when it was all that he had known. And when his past was tattooed all over his face.
They first met in May 2005 at Nordic Fest, an annual Memorial Day weekend extravaganza hosted by the Imperial Klans of America in Dawson Springs, Ky.
It was hardly a romantic setting. Speakers from hardcore skinhead and white power organizations like The American Front, Blood & Honour USA/Combat 18 and The Creativity Movement ranted about racial justice and race war. White power bands thundered fierce anti-Semitic and racist lyrics.
Widner, a mean and scrappy brawler with a penchant for slicing victims' faces with a straight edge razor ("I wanted to leave a gash that would make them remember me for the rest of their lives") was living in Sidney, Ohio. He worked construction and other jobs, but mostly he acted as both recruiter and enforcer for the Vinlanders Social Club, which had quickly carved out a reputation as the most thuggish and violent skinhead organization in the country. Blacks, Hispanics, Jews — the Vinelanders savaged them all.
Their credo was a racist form of Odinism, a Viking religion named after the Norse god Odin which preaches that the path to heaven (Valhalla) is to die fighting for your race.
"We sent out a clear message," Widner says. "Cross a Vinlander and we WILL kill you."
Larsen, meanwhile, was living in Ironwood, Mich., working in a bank and raising her kids. Introduced to the white power movement by her late ex-husband, she began actively working for the National Alliance, distributing fliers about racial purity, organizing fundraisers for imprisoned white supremacist leaders and their families. Her home was also a base for the Pioneer Little Europe movement, an effort to create white communities purged of ethnic or Jewish influences.
At Nordic Fest, Larsen's 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, clamored to have her photograph taken with the guy with the wildly tattooed face. Larsen thought Widner was cute. Widner thought Larsen, with her smiling green eyes and mane of raven hair, was "one cool chick."
Over the next seven months they poured out their souls in endless, late-night phone conversations that often lasted until dawn. They talked of their dreams for the future — and their doubts about the past. They marveled at how much they had in common.
Raised in broken homes — their parents divorced when they were young — both had become teen runaways, cutting school, acting out. In Albuquerque, Widner discovered that shaving his head, wearing combat boots, and randomly beating people earned him a respect he'd never had before. Larsen, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., started having babies in her teens and then bounced through different jobs and states and men. Alienated, restless, angry and self-destructive, they were the perfect recruits for the white power world.
It is a world populated by hundreds of different groups, including several thousand skinheads in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization that tracks hate groups. The numbers are fluid: Skinhead gangs are notoriously short-lived, as members feud over leadership, create splinter groups, or join other gangs. Only a few — such as the Hammerskins — have managed to survive for a significant length of time.
The groups have no particular unifying code or coherent philosophy other than violence, says SPLC chief investigator Joseph Roy. There are racist skinheads with ties to outlaw motorcycle gangs. Some are explicitly revolutionary. Others belong to white supremacist groups with connections to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups. Still others claim to be anti-racist.
"These groups are violent, and they are dangerous," says Roy. "And when people get involved it is rare and difficult for them to get out."
The SPLC reports a growing interest in hate groups, fueled by recent events including the election of Barack Obama, the economic crisis, and the heated debate about illegal immigration. The Internet and social networking sites have also become powerful recruitment tools.
"The movement had answers for everything," Julie says. "And the answers usually revolved around the special status of the white race and the fact that most of existing problems, in society, in the economy, in the world, were created by Jews or blacks or immigrants."
But the movement provided something more — a tribal sense of belonging, a unity, brotherhood and purpose that neither Larsen nor Widner had ever experienced. Years later they would call it a cult. At the time it felt like family.
One night six months after they met, Widner staggered home from a bar brawl, picked up the phone and stammered out a proposal. He was so drunk he had to double check the next day to make sure she had said yes. It was just before Christmas 2005.
Friends told her she was crazy. But Larsen didn't hesitate. She packed up her kids and drove 12 hours to meet him.
They were married in Ironwood by a justice of the peace on Jan. 13, 2006. Their witnesses were Larsen's children and a couple of Vinlanders.
Two months later, she was pregnant.
"I am very glad that my mother found the perfect guy ever," wrote Julie's eldest daughter, Mercedez, on the inside of a book of tattoos she gave Widner as a Christmas present. "You are the greatest father any kid could ask for. Love always."
Fatherhood transformed Widner, though initially the responsibilities terrified him. For although he was utterly in love with Julie, he had a whole new family to get to know: Mercedez, then 14, Destiny, 8, and little Isabella. (Julie's eldest son wanted nothing to do with the world of skinheads or white power, though he eventually grew to respect his stepfather.)
Widner found that he loved the simple, daily routines — driving the kids to school, helping with homework, sitting around the dinner table.
"It was like overnight he went from being a drunk, a skinhead and a fighter, to being this kind, nurturing father and husband," Julie says. "He was amazing."
Widner was still drinking heavily, but he began cutting back and eventually stopped completely. He was still spending time with Vinlanders, but things were changing — in his mind and his heart.
Julie was changing as well. She had been deeply disturbed by a scene she had witnessed at the Nordic fest — tents where she says men lined up for sex with underage girls. She thought of her own daughters. She thought of the 14-word mantra of white nationalists: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children."
"These guys weren't honoring Aryan women or protecting white children," she says in disgust. "They were just thugs exploiting young girls."
She began questioning the violence of the movement, the abuse of some of her women friends who were married to skinheads and white nationalists, the arbitrary rules. Suddenly, it all began to feel oppressive and wrong.
At the time, the National Alliance was disintegrating after the death of its leader, Pierce. When Julie decided to leave, it was relatively easy. She simply stopped participating.
Things were far more complicated for Widner. Nicknamed "Babs" because of how he babbled incessantly when he was drunk, Widner was a "made" man in the Outlaw Hammerskins (a precursor to the Vinlanders), initiated in an elaborate ritual in which he placed his left hand on the gang's insignia or "patch" and his right hand on a pistol. He had "earned" the SS lightning bolts tattooed on his right forearm by beating some poor victim senseless. He was a founding member of the Vinlanders. He had stood in a circle with his "warrior" brothers in Odinist rituals and swigged mead from a sacred horn.
"I had lived with them, bled with them, sat in jail with them," he says. "That was the only way of life I knew. My crew WAS my family."
For Widner to leave would be heresy. He would be branded a "race traitor" and become a hunted man.
Vinlanders had given their blessing for him to move to Michigan in order to start a new chapter. Now they were pressuring him to be more active, to travel more, recruit more, attend leadership meetings. Julie was begging him to stay home.
It all came to a head in the summer of 2007, during a Vinlander day trip to Lake Superior. At the end of the day, the women and children returned home while the men stayed and drank.
Julie got a call: Widner had collapsed. She raced to the hospital.
Outside, she was met by Eric "The Butcher" Fairburn, a ferocious skinhead with "MURDER" tattooed across his neck. "This is Vinlander business," he said.
"No, it's not," she said, angrily pushing past him. "It's husband-and-wife business."
Larsen told Widner she didn't want his Vinlander friends in the house anymore. Vinlanders warned him to get his wife under control.
Widner, who had suffered a panic attack, didn't know where to turn. "I just felt like I was being attacked at every angle," he said. "I was done."
Filled with self-loathing, he locked himself in the bathroom and swallowed a bottle of pills.
The photo on the computer screen is striking — a cherubic sleeping newborn nestled next to the hate-tattooed face of his adoring father.
Cradling Tyrson, born in November 2006, Widner had never been so sure. He would shield his son from a life of violence and hate. He would give him a safe home, a happy childhood, a devoted dad.
And yet, the joy of Tyrson's birth could not mask his daily struggles. People wouldn't look at him in the eye, wouldn't serve him in restaurants, wouldn't give him a job. He had survived the pills; Julie had rushed him to the hospital. But he was deeply depressed.
For the first time, Widner began to see himself as others did: a social freak, an outcast from the society he now so desperately longed to be part of. Potential employers cringed when they met him. When he picked the kids up from school, parents and teachers looked at him in horror. Once, as he cradled a fussing Tyrson while waiting for Julie in a doctor's office, a woman, a stranger, blurted, "No wonder the baby is crying. He's probably scared of your face."
"I was a circus freak," Widner says. "And the worst part was that I had brought it all on myself."
He hated his face and all it represented. He wanted to scream at the world that he was a good father and husband, that he had changed. He wanted to beg people to look beyond the markings on his skin, to give him a second chance.
Sensing his withdrawal, his former crew members began turning against him. They spread vicious postings on the Internet, calling Widner weak, accusing the couple of being race traitors and sexual deviants.
"It was sickening," he says. But it also erased any lingering loyalties he had for his crew or his past.
In late 2007, Widner said, Brien James, self-appointed leader of the Vinlanders, called with an ultimatum: your club or your family.
"It's my family, man," Widner said.
"Then you better turn in your patch," James said.
Widner hung up and did what would once have been unthinkable. He mailed back his patch — a laurel wreath atop a red, white and blue shield that he had designed with James. He threw all his other skinhead trappings into a bonfire. Watching it burn, he felt a surge of relief.
Finally, he thought, I'm free.
But Widner still faced the seemingly insurmountable dilemma of trying to fit into society. How could he ever be a proper father, husband and provider, when he looked like a walking billboard of hate?
The answer was painfully clear. He had to find some way to wipe the tattoos from his face.
Julie Widner was terrified — afraid her husband would do something reckless, even disfigure himself.
"We had come so far," she says. "We had left the movement, had created a good family life. We had so much to live for. I just thought there has to be someone out there who will help us."
After getting married in 2006, the couple, former pillars of the white power movement (she as a member of the National Alliance, he a founder of the Vinlanders gang of skinheads) had worked hard to put their racist past behind them. They had settled down and had a baby; her younger children had embraced him as a father.
EDITOR'S NOTE — A reformed skinhead, Bryon Widner was desperate to rid himself of the racist tattoos that covered his face — so desperate that he turned to former enemies for help, and was willing to endure months of pain. Second of two parts.
And yet, the past was ever-present — tattooed in brutish symbols all over his body and face: a blood-soaked razor, swastikas, the letters "HATE" stamped across his knuckles.
Wherever he turned Widner was shunned — on job sites, in stores and restaurants. People saw a menacing thug, not a loving father. He felt like an utter failure.
The couple had scoured the Internet trying to learn how to safely remove the facial tattoos. But extensive facial tattoos are extremely rare, and few doctors have performed such complicated surgery. Besides, they couldn't afford it. They had little money and no health insurance.
So Widner began investigating homemade recipes, looking at dermal acids and other solutions. He reached the point, he said, where "I was totally prepared to douse my face in acid."
In desperation, Julie did something that once would have been unimaginable. She reached out to a black man whom white supremacists consider their sworn enemy.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins runs an anti-hate group called One People's Project based in Philadelphia. The 43-year-old activist is a huge thorn in the side of white supremacists, posting their names and addresses on his website, alerting people to their rallies and organizing counter protests.
In Julie he heard the voice of a woman in trouble.
"It didn't matter who she had once been or what she had once believed," he said. "Here was a wife and mother prepared to do anything for her family."
Jenkins suggested that Widner contact T.J. Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead Marine who had famously left the movement in 1996, and has promoted tolerance ever since. More than anyone else, Leyden understood the revulsion and self-condemnation that Widner was going through. And the danger.
"Hide in plain sight," he advised. "Lean on those you trust."
Most importantly, Leyden told him to call the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"If anyone can help," he said, "it's those guys."
When Widner called, says Joseph Roy, "it was like the Osama Bin Laden of the movement calling in."
Roy is chief investigator of hate and extreme groups for the SPLC. The nonprofit civil rights organization, based in Montgomery, Ala., tracks hate groups, militias and extreme organizations. Aggressive at bringing lawsuits, it has successfully shut down leading white power groups, bankrupted their leaders and won multimillion dollar awards for victims.
The SPLC hears regularly from people who say they are trying to leave hate and extreme groups. Some are fakes. Some are trying to spread false intelligence. Many are in crisis, and return to the group when the crisis passes.
"Very rarely have we met a reformed racist skinhead," says Roy.
Over the years, Roy had dubbed Widner the "pit bull" of skinheads. "No one was more aggressive, more confrontational, more notorious," Roy said.
And yet, over several weeks of conversations with Bryon and Julie, he became convinced. There was something different about this couple — a sincerity, a raw determination to put the past behind them and to seek some sort of redemption.
In March 2007 Roy and an assistant flew to Michigan. Roy still marvels at the memory of the guy with the freakish face walking out to greet them, wearing a "World's Greatest Dad" sweat shirt, holding his baby boy in one arm while a little girl clung to his other one.
Over the next few days they got to see the suffering Bryon was going through. They listened in horror when he told them he was considering using acid on his face. "He was in a bad place," Roy said. "This was a guy who was fighting for his life."
Widner shared information about the structure of various skinhead groups, the different forms of probation in some gangs, the hierarchy of others. He agreed to speak at the SPLC's annual Skinhead Intelligence Network conference, which draws police from all over the country.
For his part, Roy promised to ask his organization to do something it had never done before — search for a donor to pay for Widner's tattoos to be surgically removed. Widner didn't hold out much hope. But for now, he agreed not to experiment with acid.
Financially and emotionally, things were getting tougher. Widner found part-time work shoveling snow and odd handyman jobs, but barely enough to support a family. The vicious postings on the Internet continued. Pig manure was dumped on their cars. There were hang-up calls in the middle of the night. Anonymous callers left threatening messages: "You will die." Several times, tipped off by sympathetic friends that a crew was on the way to "take care" of them, the family fled to a hotel.
So when Roy called a couple of months later saying a donor was willing to pay for the surgery, Widner could hardly believe it. The donor, a longtime supporter of the SPLC had been moved by Widner's story — and shocked by photographs of his face.
"For him to have any chance in life and do good," she said, "I knew those tattoos had to come off."
She agreed to fund the surgeries — at a cost of approximately $35,000 — on several conditions. She wanted to remain anonymous. She wanted assurances that Bryon would get his GED, would go into counseling and would pursue either a college education or a trade.
It was easy to agree. These were all things Widner wanted to do.
It would take up to a year to find the right doctors and schedule the operations. Meanwhile, it was clear the family had to leave Michigan. The white power Web forums were wild with chatter about the race traitor couple and their family. Through local police, the FBI warned that they were in danger.
In the spring of 2008 they packed their belongings and moved to Tennessee, near Julie's father. They rented a three-bedroom house in the country, joined a church. Helped by his father-in-law and his pastor, Widner found some work. The threats subsided.
Dr. Bruce Shack, who chairs the Department of Plastic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, vividly remembers the first time he met Widner. After seeing photographs and talking to the SPLC, he had agreed to do the surgery. But he was totally unprepared for Widner's face.
"This wasn't just a few tattoos," he said. "This was an entire canvas."
It was June 2009 and the couple had driven to Vanderbilt to meet him. Shack's genial manner immediately put them at ease.
"He didn't just see the tattoos," Widner says. "He saw me as a real human being."
Shack also saw one of the biggest challenges of his career.
Shack showed Widner the laser — which looks like a long, fat pen — that would trace the exact outline of the tattoos as it burned them off his face. He explained how it would deliver short bursts of energy, different amounts depending on the color and depth of the tattoo. It would take many sessions for the ink to fade. And it would be painful, far more painful than getting the tattoos in the first place.
"You are going to feel like you have the worst sunburn in the world, your face will swell up like a prizefighter, but it will eventually heal," Shack told Widner. "This is not going to be any fun. But if you are willing to do it, I'm willing to help."
Widner didn't hesitate. "I have to do it," he said, as Julie held his hand. "I am never going to live a normal life unless I do."
On June 22, 2009, Widner lay on an operating table, his mind spinning with anxiety and hope. A nurse dabbed numbing gel all over his face. Shack towered over him in protective goggles and injected a local anesthetic. Then he started jabbing Widner's skin, the laser making a staccato rat-tat-tat sound as it burned through his flesh.
Widner had never felt such pain. Not all the times he had suffered black eyes and lost teeth in bar brawls, not the time in jail when guards — for fun — locked him up with a group of black inmates in order to see him taken down. His face swelled up in a burning rage, his eyes were black and puffy, his hands looked like blistered boxing gloves. He had never felt so helpless or so miserable.
"I was real whiny during that time," he says.
"He was real brave," says Julie.
After a couple of sessions, Shack decided that Widner was in too much pain: The only way to continue was to put him under general anesthetic for every operation. It was also clear that the removal was going to take far longer than the seven or eight sessions he had originally anticipated.
They developed a routine. Every few weeks, Widner would spend about an hour and a half in surgery and another hour in recovery, while Julie would fuss and fret and try to summon the strength to hide her fears and smile at the bruised, battered husband she drove home. It would often take days for the burns and oozing blisters to subside.
Shack and his team marveled at Widner's determination and endurance. The Widners marveled at the team's level of commitment and care. Even nurses who were initially intimidated by Widner's looks found themselves growing fond of the stubborn former skinhead and his young family.
Slowly — far more slowly than Widner had hoped — the tattoos began to fade. In all he underwent 25 surgeries over the course of 16 months, on his face, neck and hands.
On Oct. 22, 2010, the day of the final operation, Shack hugged Julie and shook hands with Bryon. Removing the tattoos, he said, had been one of his greatest honors as a surgeon. But a greater privilege was getting to know them.
"Anyone who is prepared to put himself through this is bound to do something good with his life," Shack said.
In a comfortable yard in a tidy suburban subdivision, Bryon and Julie Widner smoke Marlboros and sip energy drinks as they contemplate the newest chapter in their lives. Only a few trusted friends and family members know where they live — they agreed to be interviewed on condition that the location of their new home not be disclosed.
This time, they moved because they had deliberately exposed themselves to danger. After much consideration, the couple had agreed to allow an MSNBC film crew to follow Widner through his surgeries. The cameras didn't spare the details, capturing Widner writhing and moaning in agony. Widner didn't care. If anything he felt that he deserved the pain and the public humiliation as a kind of penance for all the hurt he had caused over the years.
But there was a deeper motivation for going public with his story. There was a chance that some angry young teenager on the verge of becoming a skinhead would see Widner's suffering and think twice.
Maybe he would realize that, as Widner says now, "I wasn't on any great mission for the white race. I was just a thug."
They moved the day after the documentary — "Erasing Hate" — aired in June.
Widner's arms and torso are still extensively tattooed. He is in the process of inking over the "political" ones, like the Nazi lightning bolts. His face is clean and scar free, and he has a shock of thick black hair. With his thin glasses and studious expression, he looks nerdy, Julie jokes.
His neck and hands have suffered some pigment damage, he gets frequent migraine headaches and he has to stay out of the sun. But, he says, "it's a small price to pay for being human again."
The move took a financial toll. Julie had to pawn her wedding ring to buy groceries and pay the rent. But Widner has found some work — construction and tattoo jobs. He got his GED and they both plan to start courses at the local community college.
They say they feel safe. Several police officers and firefighters live nearby; the FBI has visited and the local police know their story.
Still they can't help but worry. It's one thing getting out of the white power movement as others have done, fading into obscurity. It's another to publicly denounce the violent world they once inhabited.
Bryon has constant nightmares about what injuries he might have inflicted — injuries he can only imagine because so often he was in a drunken stupor when he beat someone up. Did he blind someone? Did he paralyze someone? He doesn't know.
But there are moments of grace. After a recent screening of the documentary in California, a black woman embraced Widner in tears. "I forgive you," she cried.
They've thrown out everything to do with their racist past, including photographs of Widner and his crew posing at Nordic fests and of the white power conferences Julie used to attend. And yet there are reminders all around, and not just the remaining tattoos. Tyrson's name — inspired by the Norse god of justice, Tyr — troubles them for its connection to the racist brand of Odinism his father practiced with the Vinlanders. But how do they ask a 4-year-old to change his name to Eddie?
The child tugs at his daddy's Spiderman T-shirt, begging him to come play video games. "OK, buddy," Widner says. "Let's go shoot a few bad guys." With that, the man who once brandished his hate like a badge of honor scoops up his son and turns on his Xbox.
Widner plays the role of Captain America. The bad guys are Nazis.