Execution of Pagan Devotee Set for Tonight

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006

It is often said that inmates find God when they get to prison. That is only partly true for Michael Lenz. Once behind bars, he became a devoted pagan, worshipping multiple gods from Norse mythology -- some with familiar names such as the mighty Thor and his father, Odin.

Lenz, a drifter from Prince William County serving 29 years and 30 days in prison for burglary and firearm possession, converted to Asatru, an ancient heathen religion, and helped found a prison chapter called Ironwood Kindred.

The religion became the focal point of his life -- "the only thing that mattered to him," according to legal documents. And it was this devotion to his gods that, according to his testimony, prompted him to plan a murderous ambush at a makeshift pagan altar set up in a prison conference room.

Tonight, Lenz, who still practices Asatru from his cell on Virginia's death row, is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection for killing in the name of his gods. He has applied for a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court and for clemency from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

Lenz is one of a few inmates in Virginia prisons who practice Asatru. But in prisons across the United States, the number of converts has increased in recent years, according to experts, some of whom say prisoners find encouragement for violence in the gods they worship.

"This is a warrior thing," said Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and extremist organizations. "What they take out of it is violence, physical dominance and racial purity. To them, Thor represents the ultimate white male."

Beirich said many of the inmates who have converted to Asatru or Odinism are white supremacists. "It is anti-Christian, and these particular pagan religions glorify deities created by the white race," she said. "They reflect values they are drawn to, like being really strong, being able to fight -- Thor with his hammer. And that's what they worship."

Beirich said there are racist and nonracist versions of the religion in prisons and among the general population.

Stephen McNallen, director of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a leading Asatru group in the United States, has been fielding calls from the media as Lenz's execution approaches.

"There is nothing in Asatru that would justify what he did," McNallen said of the killing by Lenz and Jeffrey Remington, Lenz's best friend, who also was an Asatru devotee.

"There is just not justification for what he did. Like any other group, we expect the holy powers to be honored. Clearly, when someone does something that is just plain wrong, just plain evil, obviously it hurts us. It hurts us in the same way that the lunatic-fringe Muslims hurt Islam. It is an embarrassment."

Once a Catholic altar boy, McNallen, 57, said he became a devotee of Asatru about 35 years ago while contemplating a career in the U.S. Army. "This warrior thing loomed in my own life," he said. He prefers not to use heathen or pagan as adjectives because, he said, both terms carry too much baggage.

"The best way to describe Asatru is to compare it with other native religions: Native American or other native or indigenous religions in any location on the globe," McNallen said in a telephone interview from his California home. "We are a group of people attempting to follow the way of our ancestors and look toward our ancestors as a source of spiritual comfort, nourishment and connection."

He estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 people in the United States share his religious beliefs and only a small percentage of devotees -- less than 5 percent -- are white supremacists. He guessed that a good number of those people are prison inmates.

What drew Lenz, 42, to Asatru while in prison is unclear. He had a "troubled childhood and adolescence," according to his clemency application. He was living in a tent in Prince William and broke into three homes and a restaurant to steal food. In 1993, he was convicted of burglary and possession of a firearm and sent to Augusta Correctional Center.

In court documents, he is described as a rule-abiding inmate with no violent episodes before or after the killing of Brent Parker.

Parker was a convicted murderer serving a 50-year sentence for killing a man in Winchester in 1985 by beating him for an hour. Parker laughed while beating the man, who did not fight back, taking breaks to smoke, according to court documents.

Lenz testified that Parker had threatened Remington and that his efforts to organize his Asatru group in prison were being "thwarted" by Parker.

On the evening of Jan. 16, 2000, Lenz, Parker, Remington and three other inmates attended a meeting of the Ironwood Kindred. A guard was stationed outside the door. Lenz read some poetry and afterward called Parker to the altar.

"I called [Parker] up to the altar and I asked him -- and I said to him, 'It has been a long, hard path between us,' " Lenz testified at his trial. "And Parker said, 'Yes, it is.' And I pulled a knife out of my pocket and I said, 'Are you trying to take it to the next step?' And he said, 'Yes, I am.' And so I stabbed him."

Remington also pulled a knife and began stabbing Parker. The three other inmates ran out of the room and notified the guard. The corrections officer called for backup and yelled at the two men to drop their knives -- an order they ignored. Parker was stabbed 68 times, according to the medical examiner's report, and received multiple stab wounds to the lungs and liver, each of which would have been fatal by themselves.

Remington also was sentenced to death for Parker's slaying, but he killed himself on death row in 2004.

Lenz's attorney, Jennifer L. Givens, said that Lenz's religion surely played a role in the killing but that the jury should have been told about Parker's history of violence. Her appeal to the Supreme Court is also based on the fact that a juror was reading a Bible during deliberations.

Staff writer Eric Rich contributed to this report.

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