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But all that ended abruptly in 1995, Bangerter says, with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted and later executed for the bombing, and co-conspirator Terry Nichols claimed to be motivated by the Waco raid, even timing the Oklahoma City bombing to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco assault on the Branch Davidians.
McVeigh and Nichols had several connections to the militia movement. It wasn’t just Bangerter’s world McVeigh was connected to, but also Bangerter himself—ever so loosely. Phone records from McVeigh’s trial allegedly show phone calls between John Bangerter’s father’s house and a known member of the Michigan Militia, which held a meeting attended by Terry Nichols shortly before the bombing, though Bangerter denies a personal connection to the bombing.
He believes Oklahoma City was an inside job, perpetrated by the government to delegitimize the anti-government movement that Ruby Ridge and Waco had ignited. The phone records, Bangerter says, were faked, and he believes he narrowly escaped being framed and implicated in the bombing.
But maybe that’s just John Bangerter, still “screaming” after all these years. Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, covered the Oklahoma City bombing and trial for USA Today and today tracks racist leaders.
He recalls Bangerter’s legacy in the racist movement not as an influential philosopher or ideologue, nor as a real soldier or general, but as a “screamer”–someone who makes threats but never cocks a gun in pursuit of the goal.
Potok says despite Bangerter’s penchant for violent talk but no violent action, there was something genuinely very frightening about him during his racist days. “There are plenty of guys out there with racist dispositions, but he was so amped up on speed he looked incredibly dangerous.”
In a 1997 segment of 48 Hours, the sheriff of Washington County registered concern that all of then-28-year-old Bangerter’s big talk and big anger might force Bangerter to act someday. The sheriff also complained about the media making southern Utah look like a home for kooks.
The episode featured Bangerter and his newly named Rocky Mountain Militia. Cameras followed Bangerter as he resisted going to court for some traffic violations. The sheriff met with Bangerter politely to coax him into court—and, after a lot of buildup that leaves the viewer expecting a violent standoff, Bangerter eventually voluntarily went to court.
After the taping ended, Bangerter would indeed fail to appear in court after having moved to a St. George apartment for 10 months—more of a hideout than a standoff, but defiant nevertheless. When police found him there, they arrested him. He did a little time in prison—which he served at “Purgatory,” the Washington County Jail—on two stints: a couple of months in 1998 for carrying a loaded weapon and evading police, and nine months in 2000 after being arrested for possession of methamphetamine. But his six years of frequent meth use distracted him significantly from self-righteous race pride.
“[Methamphetamine] was probably the best medicine I’d ever had, as far as moving me away from the white-supremacy bullshit,” Bangerter says.
During his second sentencing hearing, Bangerter renounced the Aryan Nations and white supremacy. Though his star power had faded significantly by then, the local media were still there to report on his fate. But for the first time, what he was saying wasn’t mostly for the cameras.
Since starting on his racist ride in the 1980s, Bangerter had had four kids. His oldest son came out of the closet as gay around 2000, just after Bangerter got out of prison the second time. Soon, his daughter would marry a part-Hispanic man. This all forced Bangerter and his family to reassess, and by then, everyone’s fervor for white power had waned—and the dream of a militia-lead insurrection with it.
After he got out of prison, he refocused his life. He re-established his punk band in 2001 with a couple of new members. He moved back to Las Vegas for some time, still working construction, then moved back to southern Utah in 2005, where he’s been ever since.
“I’ve been dormant,” Bangerter says. “I’ve changed my name to Johnny Bangs, my old punk-rock name. I’m under the radar. I dropped out of the race.”
Now older, bigger and barely more docile, this grizzly is awaking from hibernation to the sound of gun fire. Bangerter attended rallies with supporters of Danielle Willard, 21, shot dead by West Valley Police in November 2012; Corey Kanosh, 35, shot dead by a Millard County Sheriff’s deputy in October 2012; and Kelly Simons, 38, shot dead in Salt Lake City by a Joint Criminal Apprehension Team in January 2013; and others. He also spends countless hours on Facebook connecting victims of police violence to one another across the country. That’s where the whispers about his racist past pop up. “I’m pretty sure that’s Neo-Nazi John Bangerter from Southern Utah,” people warn when his name pops up on newspaper comment boards or Facebook.
But he has even bigger worries than what his new comrades think of his past. “I have a genuine concern for my family’s safety. The only people I worry about murdering me are old people from the radical right and the federal government,” Bangerter says. “Because I said racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong, because I joined a Gay-Straight Alliance with my son. I’ve done things that lead to certain execution in the radical right.”
Looking back, Bangerter is ambivalent about his involvement in the skinhead/militia movement. He says he’s not proud of it, but also says he has no regrets. You might say he’s still processing it. After all, a person doesn’t erase internalized racism simply by desiring to do so. “My [mother’s father] was half Cherokee Indian,” he says. “That’s how I got my high cheek bones and probably where I get my bad temper when I drink.” He jokes about his part-Jewish father being really good at pinching pennies to start a vending-machine business.
But however great or lean his progress is, Bangerter’s urge to fight the government—and oppression—has been reignited.
Jesse Fruhwirth is a former City Weekly staff writer and is now a full-time community organizer and movement journalist reporting issues of the prison-industrial complex and climate justice. Find him on Twitter @fruhwirth or go to http://ut4ps.tumblr.com.