An alleged hate crime in Lynnwood this week prompted news organizations across the country to retell the story of the white supremacist leader killed by FBI agents on Whidbey Island in 1984.
Law enforcement and some of those who remember the deadly standoff were a little surprised by the revelation that the six people accused of assaulting an African-American DJ at a bar Dec. 8 had just come from a vigil in Greenbank for Robert Mathews, a founder of a neo-Nazi group called “The Order.”
Mathews died on that day 34 years earlier.
Neo-Nazis used to hold high-profile rallies on Whidbey Island on the anniversary of Mathews’ death, but nobody seems to have heard anything about them for years.
Detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff’s Office said he didn’t even remember the anniversary until he heard about the hate-crime assault.
In recent years, a small number of neo-Nazis would hold a brief ceremony on the road near the site of the Smugglers Cove Road property where Mathews died, he said.
“They just quietly do their thing,” he said.
Jim Larsen, former editor of Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record, said he remembers “a few Nazis” would stop in Freeland for pizza and then hold a candlelight vigil at the entrance to the driveway of the property. He stopped checking about 15 years ago and hasn’t heard anything since.
In the years following Mathews’ death, groups of as many as 100 neo-Nazis from throughout the Northwest would rent out South Whidbey State Park and hold their event. Famous people in the white supremacist movement attended, including Richard Butler, founder of the Aryan Nation.
Much larger groups of locals and people from Seattle mounted counter-protests.
“A massive cop and police dog presence kept them separated,” Larsen said.
As the numbers of attendees diminished, so did the police presence. Wallace said it got to a point where any kind of response didn’t make sense. The six people accused of the hate crime in Lynnwood weren’t on law enforcement’s radar.
None of them were from Whidbey.
Mathews is recognized as a martyr in neo-Nazi circles. His group robbed armored cars and counterfeited money to fund the movement. Mathews and four other members of The Order moved to Central Whidbey to hide out from law enforcement in 1984; he pretended to be a writer, according to the original Whidbey News-Times story.
Fred Obee was editor of the News-Times in 1984 when the staff heard Puget Sound was being closed down for all shipping traffic. The FBI later explained it was concerned about the potential of boats being hit if agents used grenade launchers against Mathews, the newspaper reported at the time.
After a lengthy shootout in which Mathews fired thousands of rounds at agents, the FBI shot flares into the house. The flares caused a fire that killed Mathews.
Obee said he crawled through woods to get a photo of agents going through the ashes of the house the next day.
“But when I returned the roadblock, they had started letting people in to the scene so I was able to walk down there and get some better photos,” he said.