GOLD HILL, Ore. (AP) – Andrew Lee Patterson still shaves his head, like he did back in his white supremacist skinhead days. Back then, he did six years in prison for beating up two homeless people and a motel owner.
As for the brown shirt from his time leading a local chapter of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, he has replaced that with the black robe and belt of a karate master.
Today, Patterson teaches at his karate studio on the main street in Gold Hill, Ore., a working class town of about 1,200 people near the California border that dates to the tail end of the Gold Rush days.
Saying he has left the violence and hatred behind, he said he hopes to march with his students in the annual Gold Dust Day Parade on June 2.
“I’ll never be perfect, but I’m trying to be better,” he said. “I want to be remembered as a person who changed his life and tried to help his community.”
City Councilor Christine Alford is not ready to give Patterson a pass just yet.
At a City Council meeting this week, she raised Patterson’s past crimes while questioning whether he should be allowed to march, saying they were more disturbing than his politics.
“He is entitled to be a Holocaust denier. He is entitled to be a Nazi. But the criminality of it, the community needed to know that,” said Alford, who lives down the street from the martial arts studio.
The parade dates from Gold Hill’s earliest days in the late 1800s. The railroad had come through the Rogue Valley and gave a free house lot to a man who won a contest to name the town. Today, downtown features a metal fabrication shop, a motorcycle shop, a couple taverns, a small grocery, the public library and a laundry business.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan held cross burnings on a hill across the Rogue River, said Janet Sessions, president of the Gold Hill Historical Society.
Patterson grew up in the Rogue Valley, enlisting in the Oregon National Guard before he finished high school. He was planning on a military career, until his arrest in 2003.
That came after he and a buddy were sent home ahead of their outfit from peacekeeping duty in Sinai after the buddy poured lighter fluid on the floor of the barracks in the shape of a cross and lit it, filling the barracks with smoke. Friends from back home, Patterson said, he wouldn’t rat on Chadwick James Ritchie, and shared his punishment.
Back home, they ignored orders to stay away from each other and were linked by police to attacks on homeless people and chasing some black teenagers. Patterson was convicted of beating a motel owner from India. Patterson said Ritchie wanted revenge after being kicked out of the motel for partying too loudly. While police were tracking them down, Ritchie shot and killed himself in a restaurant parking lot.
Drawn to the white supremacy movement by feelings that his race was treated unfairly, Patterson said he saw himself as a soldier sworn to uphold the Constitution when he started looking for gangbangers to beat up, and “that rolled over to just being violent.”
After prison, he was still wrapped up in white supremacy, establishing a local chapter of the National Socialist Movement that stood on the side of the road holding Nazi-style flags, and handed out fliers on Hitler’s birthday. Peace groups held rallies against them.
Though he still maintains pride in his race, he said he no longer hates people for being of another race, and feels violence doesn’t solve anything.
As for his conversion, he said it was not any person or event that changed him. He just grew up. “I want to be good to people,” he said. “Being identified as a Nazi is not going to serve that.”
Students and their families are ready to forgive and forget.
“The man did his time,” said Jona Henson, whose mixed-race granddaughter is in Patterson’s class.
Julie Russell said her two sons, both with attention deficit-hyperactivity, have done better in school and no longer fight at home since enrolling with Patterson.
“If things happened in people’s past, as long as it’s not child molestation, I don’t care,” she said.
Patterson attributed Alford’s feelings to the fact she owes him $250 on a $600 contract to teach her grandson martial arts.
Alford acknowledged that she did not complete payments, but said she withdrew her grandson after three lessons because the studio was not properly cleaned. She felt she no longer owed the money, because Patterson lost his franchise from a Medford karate master.
Alford said she learned about Patterson’s past from a friend who recognized him on the street.
Historical Society President Sessions said she welcomed Patterson to town like any other new business owner, with a pamphlet about Gold Dust Day, and had no idea about his past until Alford raised it. Sessions said her “hair stood on end,” and she had to sit down when she learned who he was. But she expected he will march on Gold Dust Day.
“How many of us don’t have something in their closet, a skeleton in the closet, that they might be ashamed to share with the world?” she said. “I can’t think of any of us.”
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)