A federal agent operating undercover infiltered a North Carolina unit of the Nazi Party and attended a planning meeting for a Nazi-Klan caravan that ended with the deaths of five anti-Klan demonstrators here last Nov. 3, according to four sources.
Bernard Butkovich, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the U.S. Treasury Department, knew of the planned caravan at least two days in advance, according to three Nazi and one Klansman who said they were present at the meeting.
There is no evidence that he informed any federal agency of what he had learned. Local police here said he failed to inform them.
There is no indication that he knew in advance that violence would erupt.
He did not participate in the Nazi-Klan caravan.
Several Nazis and their associates, however, charge in on-the-record interviews first reported in the Greensboro Record newspaper here that on several occasions before the Nov. 3 shootings, Butkovich suggested a variety of illegal acts to party members.
They say that he suggested the murder of a rival Klan leader, urged members to buy equipment to convert semi-automatic guns to fully automatic weapons, offered to procure explosives, including grenades, and encouraged a former party member to harbor fugitives soon after the shootings, according to two Nazi-Klan witnesses in each instance. None of these acts was carried out.
Officials with BATF say the agent was indeed working undercover in the Winston-Salem-Greensboro area last fall, investigating possible violations of federal firearms laws. But the officials declined to discuss details of his investigation.
Butkovich would not comment on the charges.
"Just assume he was there for a good reason; that's what he's paid to do," said Howard Criswell, BATF spokesman in Washington, who declined to elaborate because "it might jeopardize a future case."
This latest twist to last fall's bloody firefight here between Nazi and Klansmen on the one hand, and communist marchers on the other, is the first time in almost a decade that a government agent has surfaced in connection with an extremist group later involved in violence.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the FBI used "dirty tricks" to harass and discredit political extremists, including members of the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, black militant organizations and antiwar protesters. The program, known within the FBI as domestic counterintelligence program, or Cointelpro, was carried out between 1956 and 1971. Its disclosure resulted in strict new guidelines for federal agents engaged in undercover operations.
"Undercover activities like this are very closely monitored," said William Nickerson, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for enforcement. "An agent can't initiate, provoke or agitate any individual to commit an act of violence, or serve as an agent-provocateur.
"It's against our guidelines and, depending on the incident, could be a violation of the law. . . ."
Another BATF official said an internal investigation by the bureau into the undercover activities of Butkovitch immediately after the Nov. 3 shootings concluded that the agent had acted within guidelines regulating government undercover activities.
The Treasury Department did not say, although other lawyers have, that it could be useful to the Nazis at their trial to be able to say that a law enforcement official encouraged them toward illegal acts.
Two days after Klansmen say Butkovich attended their planning meeting, five Communist Workers Party members wer slain in front of local television cameras at a public housing project. The shootings took place just before what the communists had announced as a "Death to the Klan" rally and march.
Six Klansmen and Nazi Party members charged with five counts of first-degree murder each are facing a trial in Greensboro for which a jury is being empaneled.
"It is very possible he might have played a role and might be considered . . . to be a witness," said John Westra, special agent in charge of BATF's North Carolina's operations. However, Butkovich's name does not appear on the list of 273 witnesses Guilford County District Attorney Michael Schlosser may call to testify. Schlosser has refused to discuss the agent.
In a series of recent interviews, Nazis and Klansmen said Butkovich attended a key meeting in Winston-Salem the evening of Nov. 1. Butkovich, they said, listened for most of the session and left shortly after Roland Wayne Wood, the former local party unit leader, who is charged with murder, decided his group would participate in a Klans-Nazi demonstration planned to counter the communists' Greensboro rally.
Wood says that Butkovich returned to Wood's home the next night to double-check whether the Nazis would make the 30-mile drive east to Greensboro the following morning.
"He wanted to make sure I was going," Wood said. "He said he would go, but he didn't show up."
Critics have taken local police to taks for not being present when shooting broke out at the public housing project.
Greensboro Police Chief W. E. Swing said that he learned only recently of the BATF agent's work with the Nazis.
But police said that an informant did inform them at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 3 that some of the individuals in the Nazi-Klan caravan probably would be carrying handguns. Butkovich was not the informer, said Swing.
Acting on the basis of the informant's information, Swing said police dispatched their own undercover man to stake out a Nazi-Klan safe house on the edge of town. He followed the Klansmen into town in an unmarked car, said the chief. "Rumors" in the preceding days that Klansmen and Nazis would accept the communists' challenge to show up at the rally "was all the information available," he said.
Butkovich's first contact with the North Carolina Nazis occurred last June 24, following a rally for the White Power Party at a park in Parma, Ohio, according to party members.
The White Power Party is an affiliate of the national Nazi organization.
Nazi party leader Harold Covington, who spoke at the rally, recalled that Butkovich appeared at a nearby motel after the rally and said he wanted to join the party.
Butkovich reportedly told Covington he was a driver for the McLean Trucking Co. and was being transferred to Winston-Salem in a few weeks. Butkovich wanted to know if the party had a unit there, members said.
Covington gave Butkovich the name and address of Wood, head of one of the party's newest units.
Shortly afterwards, a dozen anti-Nazi protesters armed with baseball bat and ignited ether cans disrupted a White Power Party press conference.
Several party members received minor injuries, but there were no arrests.
Covington said that Butkovich fought alongside the Nazis. The Nazi leader said that on the basis of Butkovich's performance during the melee, he personally vouched for him when Butkovich came south.