For years, John “Polar Bear” Butler was the only person charged in the 1998 shooting deaths of two Las Vegas men who supported racial unity.
On Thursday, Butler publicly admitted his involvement for the first time while also pointing the finger at five other people.
“I’m admitting guilt to what I’ve been vehemently denying the whole time,” he told a federal jury.
Butler, 42, was convicted of both murders in December 2000 in Clark County District Court. He declined to testify at his trial, but he continued to maintain his innocence throughout the appeal process.
His death sentence was overturned, and he is currently serving a life term with no chance for parole, although he hopes his cooperation in the federal case may someday lead to freedom.
Butler, wearing jeans and a striped polo shirt that revealed tattooed forearms, took the witness stand Thursday during the trial of two other men who have been charged in the 16-year-old murder case, Ross Hack and Leland Jones. All three men were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the killings.
The courthouse has had heightened security during the trial, which is taking place in Senior U.S. District Judge Philip Pro’s courtroom.
Prosecutors have said Lin “Spit” Newborn, 25, and Daniel Shersty, 21, were killed because they were members of a skinhead group that opposed racial prejudice. Newborn was black, and Shersty was white.
Butler told the federal jury that he participated in the double homicide with Hack, Jones, Daniel Hartung, Mandie Abels and Hack’s sister, Melissa, who was Butler’s girlfriend at the time.
Abels and Melissa Hack have admitted they helped lure the victims to the desert area where they were killed. Both women have pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit murder and are cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Butler said he was present when Ross Hack told Melissa Hack and Abels that he wanted them to lure Newborn out to the desert.
When Ross Hack later learned that Newborn wanted to bring a friend along, he said, “F—- it, we’ll get him too,” Butler testified.
On the night the plan was implemented, Butler said he attended a meeting at Ross Hack’s house with Hartung and Jones.
He said the four men then went to the body-piercing shop where Newborn worked and watched as the two women left with the two victims. The four men then headed to the desert area in northwest Las Vegas where they planned to meet up with the others, the witness said.
Butler said he gave his handgun to Jones and took Ross Hack’s shotgun. He said Hartung had a “big assault rifle” with him.
The witness said he and Hartung found a place to hide while Ross Hack and Jones greeted the victims, who had followed the women in their own car.
“I could see all six of them standing right there,” Butler said.
Soon the shooting began. Butler said he saw Jones fire the first shot.
“It went so fast — just flashes of light,” the witness said.
Butler said he rose up from his hiding spot and heard Melissa Hack screaming “shoot him” as someone ran past him.
The witness said he fired his shotgun at Shersty, who was 5 to 7 feet away.
Melissa Hack then told Butler to go help her brother, who was out of bullets, the witness testified.
Butler said he followed the other victim through the darkness and fired in his direction. He could see the city lights in the distance.
“I waited till he crossed through the light, and I shot again,” Butler told the jury. He said he then saw the victim fall.
Butler said he returned to the original meeting place to find that everyone other than Melissa Hack had departed. The couple then left together, he said.
The witness said they later met up with Hartung, who returned Butler’s handgun. The next morning, Butler said, Ross Hack and Abels came and told the couple to return to the crime scene to pick up the shell casings.
Butler said he was doing just that when a group of ATV riders drove up and spotted them. One member of the group scratched the license plate number of their car in the dirt before the couple fled.
The witness said he first admitted his involvement in the murders, and the involvement of the five others, during a meeting with the FBI in July 2011.
A federal grand jury indicted Ross and Melissa Hack and Jones in February 2012, the same month Abels secretly entered her guilty plea.
Butler said he once was president of the Independent Nazi Skins, which had members in several western states. He said he later joined the Aryan Warriors, a racist prison gang.
Hartung’s brother, Ryan, testified earlier Thursday and said he once had a conversation with Jones about the double homicide, and Jones admitted his involvement.
“He told me that he shot a guy in the face,” Ryan Hartung said.
The witness said he once served as president of a local chapter of the Hammerskin Nation, an international skinhead organization. The Anti-Defamation League’s website describes the Hammerskin Nation as “the most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States.”
Hartung, who is bald and has a beard, said he is no longer associated with the organization.
The witness told jurors he recalled reading a newspaper article in July 1998 that indicated a member of a group known as SHARP, or Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, had been shot in the desert.
He said he talked to Jones after reading the article, and Jones told him he had shot the “white dude” mentioned in the article. Hartung said he also learned that his brother, Daniel, “had come up and hit the dude with something.”
In addition, Ryan Hartung told the jury, Jones told him that Ross Hack and Butler had killed a “black dude.”
The witness said he never asked his brother about the incident.
“He wouldn’t just go around talking about something like that,” Ryan Hartung said.
Daniel Hartung died in a traffic accident in 2012. He was a 36-year-old Utah resident at the time.
Ryan Hartung said he became active in the Hammerskin Nation after his brother left the organization.
“We grew up in a very violent atmosphere, I would say,” the witness testified.
Shersty’s body was found on July 4, 1998, and Newborn’s body was found 150 yards away two days later. The killings occurred on federal land.
Abels testified Wednesday and said the victims were ambushed when they arrived at the site, near Powerline Road and Centennial Parkway.
The witness said she participated in the killings with Ross and Melissa Hack, Butler, Jones and Daniel Hartung.
After Shersty was shot, Abels testified, Daniel Hartung approached him and struck him in the face with the butt of a long gun.
Ryan Hartung testified that he dated Melissa Hack from 2010 to 2012 but never discussed the double homicide with her.
The witness said he was not testifying at the trial voluntarily.
“I’m here because I have to be here,” he said. “I don’t want to be here.”
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710. Find her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.