Former KKK leader was arrested for anti-abortion activism after he was ordained a Catholic Priest
By Nate Thayer
August 23, 2017
A Catholic priest who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan has a long criminal rap sheet and résumé for extremist political activities extending over two-decades, including after he was ordained by the Catholic church, according to numerous court documents, spokesmen for the church, and interviews with former fellow Klansmen.
Father William Marx Aitcheson, now of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, was revealed this week as a former Ku Klux Klan leader in Maryland. In the 1970’s, he was charged with assassination threats, cross burnings, bomb plots, and a variety of other state and federal crimes while a leader of a secretive unit of the KKK tasked with carrying out terrorist actions, according to several of his former Klan cohorts, Maryland court records, and FBI documents.
In 1992, five years after Aitcheson was ordained a catholic priest, he was accused of assault and battery and charged and convicted of trespassing in Nevada while protesting at medical clinics that provide abortion services.
During his Nevada trial, Aitcheson acknowledged he had been convicted of “communicating threats” which he told the court were “political crimes.” Shortly after his 1993 conviction for trespassing, Aitcheson was quietly transferred to the Catholic diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
According to a statement issued Wednesday by the diocese of Reno, Nevada, where Aitcheson served prior to coming to Arlington, they were aware of Aitcheson’s KKK past when he was ordained in Nevada in 1988.
“At the time the then Mr. Aitcheson was applying to the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, he admitted his past involvement with the KKK and talked about his conversion experience,” the Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno said. “Those persons in charge at the time, acknowledging that conversion, accepted him into the seminary.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno says it could not confirm whether the trespassing incident was a factor in Aitcheson’s move to the Arlington, Va., diocese. “Nothing in his files explains the decision to move,” said Rev. Robert W. Chorey, who serves as a spokesman for the Reno diocese.
In the 1970’s, Aitcheson was charged with threatening to kill Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.; plotting to bomb a power plant and communications facilities at Ft Meade army base, the home of the National Security Agency outside Washington, D.C.; burning crosses at Jewish community and religious centers and the homes of black residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland; plotting to bomb the offices of the NAACP; stockpiling weapons and explosives; and manufacturing pipe bombs, among other allegations.
On August 21, the Arlington, Virginia diocese of the Catholic Church acknowledged some of his Ku Klux Klan past, but insisted the public revelation was prompted by Aitcheson’s desire to seek redemption after the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the Catholic Church and the Arlington diocese have been aware of Aitcheson’s Ku Klux Klan and criminal history for three decades and only publicly revealed it this week after being contacted by reporters who said they planned on publishing the revelations, the church acknowledged Wednesday evening.
In a statement released Wednesday evening in response to a reporter’s questions, the Arlington diocese acknowledged a reporter who said “Fr. Aitcheson’s legal name matched that of a man arrested in the 1970s” contacted them after the events in Charlottesville
As a response, on Monday the Arlington Diocese published an article by Aitcheson in the church newsletter that the church said was an act of repentance inspired by the violent events in Charlottesville the week before.
Aitcheson “acknowledged his past and saw the opportunity to tell his story in the hopes that others would see the possibility of conversion and repentance, especially given the context of what occurred in Charlottesville. The Diocese agreed to publish his account,” said the diocese last Monday.
But it was not Aitcheson who was initially ‘approached’ with the information, as the Arlington diocese contended in a public statement, but rather the diocese itself in a call from a reporter. The diocese then contacted Aitcheson, the church later acknowledged.
“The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget. The reality is, we cannot forget, we should not forget. Our actions have consequences and while I firmly believe God forgave me — as he forgives anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness — forgetting what I did would be a mistake,” Aitcheson wrote. “The images from Charlottesville are embarrassing. They embarrass us as a country, but for those who have repented from a damaging and destructive past, the images should bring us to our knees in prayer.”
But in other statements, the Arlington diocese acknowledged they have been aware of Aitcheson’s Klan past since he first joined the diocese in 1993.
The Arlington diocese official biography of Aitcheson says “he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas at the Cathedral of St. Thomas Aquinas in Reno Dec. 10, 1988, and served there for five years. During that time, he was involved in Operation Rescue.”
What the diocese failed to mention was that on October 22, 1992 Father Aitcheson, then the parochial vicar at St. Therese the Little Flower Church in Reno Nevada, was charged with trespassing at a medical clinic that provided abortion services in Reno, the West End Medical Clinic. At the time, Aitcheson was a member of the Christian Action Council and the anti-abortion group “Operation Rescue”, according to Arlington Diocese records.
“Oh, I remember him very well,” said Dr. Damon Stutes, the head of the West End Medical Clinic in an interview Tuesday. “He was very mouthy, loud, and violent. He came on to the clinic property and knocked one of our staff—a girl who was maybe 4 foot 9 who escorted patients through the demonstrators—to the ground. She was between him and a patient getting out of a car. He was charged with assault and battery.”
The doctor said, “Aitcheson would be dressed in full priest garb screaming at anybody, pacing back and forth like a caged animal, every day.”
During his trial, Aitcheson acknowledged, “on the stand that at age 20 or 21 he was sentenced to four years probation for sending a threatening communication through the mail. Aitcheson called it a political crime,” according to the Reno Gazette-Journal at the time.
What was not mentioned in court was that the “threatening communication” were death threats Father Aitcheson made against the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1976.
“There is a systematic blindness against pro-lifers. If a pro-lifer goes to court, he is automatically considered guilty,” said Aitcheson in an interview at the time. “Aitcheson insinuated he would continue to protest at the Mill Street location,” wrote the paper.
In February 1993, Aitcheson was fined $155 and ordered to stay at least 100 feet away from the West End Women’s Medical Group. Aitcheson maintained his innocence after his conviction.
Dr. Damon Stutes, medical director and owner of the West End Women’s Medical Group said, “I’m happy to see that something has finally been done. It’s certainly not an excessive sentence. The 100 feet will protect my patients from the (comments) this man has subjected them to for years now.”
While assigned as a priest in Nevada, Aitcheson also spoke on issues of racial strife.
In May of 1992, when Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King sparking widespread rioting, Aitcheson told his parishioners at St. Therese the Little Flower Church in Reno “I can’t help think that the Rodney King verdict was motivated in some part because of the rise in crime, and most people want to see the police get tough,” Aitcheson said. “With that toughness, are we going to end up being indifferent to the suffering of others to safeguard or comfort our way of doing things?”
Father Aitcheson and the Ku Klux Klan
William Marx Aitcheson, now known as ‘Father Bill’, joined the Ku Klux Klan by 1975 and rose to be an “Exalted Cyclops” or area leader.
He also became a leader of a cell group called the “Klan Berets” for the Maryland chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan tasked with carrying out violence against religious minorities, blacks, and the U.S. government.
Aitcheson was engaged in paramilitary organizing of small groups of Klansmen involved in violent plots that could offer a modicum of ‘plausible deniability’ to being directly connected to the Klan top leadership.
In the mid 1970’s, there began a marked spike in racist activities in Maryland, particularly in counties adjacent to Washington, D.C.
In 1976, Maryland authorities were faced with a growing number of Klan activities, with more than 17 cross burnings in Prince George’s County alone. There were cross burnings at the University of Maryland at College Park; cross burnings at Jewish houses of worship and community centers; a letter threatening death to Coretta King’s home in Atlanta; and bomb threats on the eve of her scheduled appearance on campus in April 1976.
More than 200 concerned citizens gathered in early 1977 and the Catholic Archbishop of Washington issued a pointed warning that no members of the church should join the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan, which had been largely quiet since the early 1970’s were again instigating hate crimes, from night rides to violence, and law enforcement began paying close attention.
Aitcheson sided with a hard-core thirty-member splinter group of his Klan group led by a Clarkeville, Maryland auto mechanic, Vernon Vail, that split with the leader of the Maryland chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Tony La Ricci in November 1976.
By then, Frank Rauschenberg, a state fire marshal had infiltrated the Klan groups.
Rauschenberg later testified in Aitcheson’s trial that Aitcheson was “unstable and extremely dangerous.”
As a leader of the Maryland ‘Klan Beret’s’, a Klan committee of about 7 people at the time tasked with carrying out guerrilla warfare, Aitcheson showed Rauschenburg diagrams of pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails and constructed a bomb in the fire marshals presence.
Aitcheson belonged to a paramilitary unit of the Ku Klux Klan known as the Klan Beret. Maryland State Police undercover agent Rauschenberg testified at a pretrial hearing in Carroll County Circuit Court that the Klan Beret’s avowed purpose was military training and the use of light arms, bombs and guerrilla tactics for the coming “revolution” against blacks, Jews and others in this country.
He also testified that Aitcheson had given him a book called “How to Kill,” that Aitcheson was “obsessed” with bombs, had constructed two pipe bombs in Rauschenberg’s presence, and had talked about placing a pipe bomb at the foot of the door of the home of a black family where Aitcheson had already burned a KKK cross in College Park, Maryland in January 1977.
The Maryland State Police already had described the Klan as growing since the early Seventies, and forming small “action groups” that operated independently of the leaders and general membership and said they were “very difficult to penetrate” because the groups were confined to three or four men, specifically to keep out informers. Similar groups — flamboyantly named “Terrors,” “Holy Terrors” and “Execution Squads” — had been blamed for violence during the Civil Rights movement. They, too, had operated under the “Don’t tell me” rule.
“Every group has ’em,” said Maryland Klan leader Will Minton, who worked with Aitcheson, in a 1993 interview, saying they acted “on their own.”
Maryland Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Tony LaRicci, who worked with Aitcheson said “Aitcheson … if he did it while he belonged to this organization, it was against our bylaws, and I had no knowledge of it. Because, even though we do have a training program, it did not exist with the knowledge of any explosives of any kind. Simulations, yes. This they were authorized to do. They could do such things as a smoke bomb, but not explosives themselves.”
Maryland Klan leader Bob White also worked with Father Aitcheson when they were both in the Klan.
“I had done time before because of the Klan. The state police set us up. I did four years” for an attempted bombing of a synagogue, White told Daryl Davis, a black Maryland resident and author of “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.”
“There was a fellow in the organization named Bill Aitcheson. He was charged with hate bombing and sending threatening letters to Coretta Scott King which caused the state police to come into the organization, undercover.”
“I haven’t heard from Aitcheson in years,” White told Davis.
William Aitcheson was a student at the University of Maryland while a member of the Maryland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan under Grand Dragon Tony LaRicci. “He later became an Exalted Cyclops in a group that splintered off of the Maryland Knights. He was arrested for sending death threats to Coretta Scott King, who was to appear on the university campus. In addition, he was charged with possession of weapons and explosives and numerous cross burnings. He was also suspected of plotting to blow up the local NAACP office and the communication facilities at Ft. Mead, Maryland,” wrote Davis. Davis contacted Aitcheson’s parents and asked that Aitcheson contact him but the priest never called.
In March 1976, the Baltimore Sun quoted Aitcheson anonymously as a “University of Maryland student” describing him as “coming on like a fire- brand” when he spoke at a Klan rally organized by then Maryland KKK Grand Dragon Tony LaRicci. According to the Sun, Aitcheson called the university “the Berkeley of the East” and “denounce(ed) Communists, liberals, Common Cause and food co-ops on campus. Calling on people to arm themselves with weapons and ‘thousands of rounds’ of ammunition.
Aitcheson spoke at a Klan rally that month advocating paramilitary training to prepare for an anticommunist counter-revolution. “We’re going to have a little Bolshevik America unless we keep our powder dry, clean our weapons, and get ready to go into the streets. I tell you something. You got this robe, but it don’t mean a thing unless you’ve got something to back it up. I mean a good weapon, a rifle, a good pistol. And ammunition. . . thousands of rounds, not hundreds,” Aitcheson told the crowd of gathered Klansmen. “The next war is going to be a big one and it’s going to last a long time. The only way this country can ever revive its laws, can ever revive the laws of God, is going to be through violence.”
By March of 1977, law enforcement thought they had had identified the source of a considerable portion of the racial hate crimes in the state of Maryland: then University of Maryland student and now Catholic priest William Marx Aitcheson.
By March, 1977, Aitcheson was charged with crimes in three Maryland Counties.
In Prince Georges County, he was charged with unlawful cross burnings and possession of black powder in excess of the lawfully permitted amount. In Carroll County, he was charged with manufacturing explosives and held on $15,000 bond. In Howard County, he was charged with unlawful cross burnings, and manufacturing and possessing explosives without a license or permit and was placed on $100,000 bail.
The then Carroll County district attorney said Aitcheson was plotting “to put toxic chemicals in Washington, D.C water supplies”, “was planning a terrorist campaign against blacks”, and was “planning attacks on military reservation communication centers, abortion clinics, and offices of the NAACP.”
That month Aitcheson was first arrested by Maryland law enforcement who raided his parents’ home in Maryland and found nine pounds of black powder and “several” weapons and bomb components in his bedroom and the basement. Investigators found a KKK plot to blow up a power plant and communications facilities at Ft Meade and firebomb offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Prince Georges County, according to police at the time.
A month later, Aitcheson was indicted on federal charges for threatening to assassinate Coretta Scott King in a message sent with cut out letters glued to a piece of paper warning her to “stay off the University of Maryland campus or you will die.”
Aitcheson wrote Coretta Scott King “Africa or death by lynching, take your pick, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The letter, mailed February 20, 1976 and addressed to Mrs. King’s Atlanta home, said she would be killed if she did not stay off the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, where Aitcheson is a communication student, the indictment said. Federal investigators found twenty-five identifiable fingerprints that matched his on the letter Aitcheson sent to King’s home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Aitcheson was arrested at his parents’ home in Ellicott City, Md. Police seized nine pounds of black powder, a 9-mm Browning pistol, an Armalite AR-18 semiautomatic rifle, 4,500 rounds of ammunition and a year’s supply of food, including 25 containers of survival Minuteman Food Tablets. At his August 18, 1977 court trial, Howard County, Maryland officials revealed that Aitcheson had a “small arsenal” in his home when he was arrested, including a cache of 14 rifles and shotguns.
Aitcheson pleaded guilty to the federal charges of an assassination threat and was sentenced September 6, 1977 by the federal US District Court of Baltimore to 90 days at a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri and four years supervised probation. Court documents ordered Aitcheson undergo psychiatric evaluation at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.
He also plead guilty to state charges of two counts of cross burning and two of manufacturing pipe bombs, and was given a two-year sentence, all but thirty days suspended. He was not indicted in the Fort Meade plot.
He was sentenced on Maryland state charges of cross burnings and “manufacturing explosives without a permit.”
Aitcheson was sentenced on the state charges to 90 days and placed on supervised probation for four years.
After serving a brief prison sentence in a federal prison psychiatric facility in late 1978, Aitcheson went on to attend the catholic church affiliated King’s College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, who were unaware of his criminal and racist past, according to interviews with college administrators Tuesday, who confirmed Aitcheson graduated with a degree in politics and government in 1979.
In 1979, he graduated from King’s College, a Catholic Church affiliated school in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania with a degree in government and political science, the school confirmed. Aitcheson then spent two years teaching in Missouri, according to records of the Arlington, Virginia Catholic Diocese.
In January 1977, Aitcheson burned a “6-7 foot wooden cross” on the front lawn of a black couple, Barbara and Phillip Butler in College Park, Maryland, eight months after they moved.
More than five years after the cross burning, a federal judge ordered William Aitcheson to pay the couple $23,000 in civil damages and issued an injunction barring him and unidentified others who acted with him from further acts of intimidation or terror against the Butlers or any blacks or Jews in the metropolitan Washington area. As part of the same case, the judge ordered Aitcheson to pay $1,500 each to the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Maryland and the Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville, where he burned crosses in 1976 and 1977.
But Aitcheson’s “whereabouts were unknown” at the time.
It was also in that same year, according to records of the Arlington Virginia Catholic diocese, Aitcheson enrolled at “the North American College Seminary in Rome and (later) earned a bachelor’s in sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.”
An Arlington diocese spokesman it learned of “the civil suit from 40 years ago” only this week but would be “working with Fr. Aitcheson to ensure he meets all of his legal and moral obligations to make restitution.”
Aitcheson came to the Arlington Diocese in 1993 and served as parochial vicar of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach, 1993-97, and St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg, 1997-2000. Father Aitcheson was appointed administrator of St. John Bosco Church in Woodstock, 2000-02. He served St. John as pastor from 2002 until 2005, when he had to take a short leave of absence for medical reasons,” reads a church biography of Aitcheson.
A church spokesman would not comment on what the “medical reasons” were that caused Aitcheson to take a leave of absence in 2005.
“Father Aitcheson has been involved in Scouting, offering Masses and hearing confessions at Scout events and campouts,” the church biography reads.
Aitcheson was appointed a member of the Presbyteral Council in 2004 by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and served as a parochial vicar of St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, 2005-08, and has been a parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly since 2008 until he took another leave of absence last week.
“Racists have polluted minds, twisted by an ideology that reinforces the false belief that they are superior to others,” Aitcheson wrote this week in the Arlington diocese newsletter. He said that “the irony that” he “left an anti-Catholic hate group to rejoin the Catholic Church is not lost on me.”
“It is a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.”
“If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology. Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside,” Aitcheson wrote in the church diocese newsletter this week.
The diocese said Aitcheson has taken a temporary leave of absence “for the well-being of the Church and parish community.”