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In his late teens, Bangerter’s band played at an anti-nuclear encampment in southern Utah where Martin Sheen, other celebrities and hundreds of everyday people orchestrated their own arrests to protest nuclear power and testing. Bangerter’s family believes his older sister’s leukemia was caused by nuclear testing, but her claim for compensation and care was denied.
In 1986, at age 16, Bangerter wed his girlfriend of a few months. They’re still married, parents to four children.
But tensions in Fuck, Shit, Piss were growing—as they were in the greater punk scene—as Bangerter and his stepfather drifted toward the skinhead current while his two other bandmates followed the anti-racist current, whose patience with Nazi beliefs and iconography was wearing thin.
The divide in the punk scene predated Bangerter. In 1982, the Dead Kennedys recorded the prescient song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” a retort to openly racist bands.
At a 1987 Fuck, Shit, Piss show, Bangerter wore a swastika armband onstage, which amounted to taking sides in the neo-Nazi vs. anti-Nazi divide. The anti-Nazi members of the band and audience wouldn’t take it. A riot ensued.
“One side was yelling, ‘White power, white power!’ The cops showed up,” Bangerter says.
He knew what he was doing: He was blowing up and burning down his whole scene, the way a militant punker would, and the divorce would be symbolized on his face. Then widely known as Johnny Bangs for his haircut that made his bangs jut from his head like a unicorn horn, he cut off his namesake bangs in favor of a buzzcut. Bangerter had found a new muse.
A year prior to Fuck, Shit, Piss breaking up, Bangerter had met an older man who got him a construction job that paid $1 more per hour than he’d been making. The man invited Bangerter, 17, to a meeting of an anti-government tax-resistance group Committee of the States, founded by anti-Jewish activist Col. William Gale.
As Bangerter was wooed by the far-right anti-government scene, he began recruiting young people from the punk scene, pulling them into his meetings and organizing them under the name Vegas Skinheads. “They were a bunch of guys with shaved heads who, months earlier, had mohawks,” he says.
Asked what made him so angry—his family’s exposure to radiation, his terrible experience in Las Vegas public schools, his family torn apart and run out of town by moralistic Mormons?—he sort of shrugs. It’s all of those things, and none of them, he says—even Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” segments made him hate the government.
It’s far more clear what led him to racism. As Bangerter tells it, the racists like Aryan Nations were the only militant anti-government people he found. He’d grown contemptuous of left-leaning groups who, in order to stop nuclear power plants, lay down in the road to be arrested, rather than provoke revolution. He’d tired of the punks, he’d tired of liberals. Johnny Bangs’ future was in right-wing insurrection.
Christian Identity Skinheads
Still working in construction, Bangerter began his rise as a skinhead leader.
He estimates that in the late 1980s, there were maybe 300 skinhead-identified people in his community, many who saw him as a star in the movement. The Las Vegas Review-Journal already referred to him as a “notorious” skinhead leader.
During the gaming commission’s investigation, the militant Jewish Defense Organization came to protest the hotel in March 1989. About 20 of Bangerter’s skinheads showed up to support the casino, chanting, “Heil Hitler.” According to news reports, a fight broke out between protesters, and nine people from both sides were arrested.
The day after appearing on national news with his 500-name hit list, Bangerter’s home was raided by law enforcement. “They kicked in the doors, they had a search warrant, [FBI agents] were accompanied by Las Vegas Metro Intelligence,” Bangerter says.
One cop figured out they were a bunch of 15- to 20-year-old punks manipulating the media to get attention. He seemed to want to give them an out.
“A cop tells me, ‘You’ve got 500 counts of solicitation of murder, if this is a hit list,’ ” Bangerter says. “ ‘If this is just a hate list, you can go on hatin’ whoever you want. So is this a hit list or a hate list?’ I said, “ ‘Well—it’s a hate list.’ ”
Later, Bangerter appeared as a militant racist on The Montel Williams Show, and his sister and mother appeared on Geraldo for a show about women in the racist movement.
But a number of Bangerter’s actions were neither violent, racist nor anti-Semitic, like Operation Burning Bush. Upon the invasion of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, Bangerter and his crew subverted a federal program promoting letters of support to members of the military. For 25 cents, you could send a letter addressed to “any serviceman.” Bangerter and his band printed and mailed thousands of fliers portraying President George H.W. Bush being burned at a stake and asking the soldiers to revolt. Bangerter says that their P.O. box was seized, and they received threatening letters from the Department of Defense, but no legal charges ever resulted. Newspapers nationwide carried the story.
At this point, the Las Vegas home of Bangerter, his wife and kids, and his mother and stepdad was surrounded by chicken wire, and they’d built a defensive bunker in their front yard. They had been the targets of multiple drive-by shootings—Bangerter remembers that Las Vegas residents reported hundreds of residential drive-by shootings each year during this time.
In 1991, race riots broke out across the country. They also struck Las Vegas, which prompted Johnny Bangerter to relocate. Sensing it was a moment of revolution and chaos—something like end times brought on by race war—his family and followers headed for La Verkin, Utah, where they hoped to organize a militia and defend themselves.
Lion in Zion
Upon arriving in Utah in 1991, Bangerter’s Vegas-formed groups Las Vegas Skinheads and Christian Identity Skinheads became the Army of Israel. He continued his work in construction, as did some of his friends. Others worked in restaurants, but they all became mini-celebrities of reality-television caliber in small-town Utah. “We caused a big scene in Utah in ’91 and I played on my last name. I knew my last name in Utah held significance, so I used it,” Bangerter says.
The Army of Israel attended city-council meetings, published a newsletter with 150 subscribers, organized a small skinhead rally in Salt Lake City, and disrupted an October 1994 meeting in St. George that had been called to discuss issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Everything and everyone seemed rehearsed, as if they were going through the minimal motions to guarantee news reports,” says Dave Nelson, a longtime Salt Lake City LGBT rights activist who was at the meeting. “If that was the muscle of Utah white supremacy, I was left unimpressed.”
Bangerter traveled to Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, where federal law-enforcement officials were seeking to enforce weapons charges against anti-government isolationist Randy Weaver. After a 10-day standoff at the remote property in northern Idaho, they ended up killing Weaver’s wife and child; a U.S. marshal was also killed.
Even though he took loads of ammunition to Idaho, Bangerter says he only peacefully picketed, supporting Weaver and taunting federal officials. Having known Weaver prior to the standoff, Bangerter says, he spoke with Weaver during the standoff and urged him to end the raid.
Bangerter also traveled to Waco, Texas, in 1993, to support the Branch Davidians religious group in their standoff with federal agents and the Texas National Guard, which resulted in the deaths of the Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, and 76 other Branch Davidians after a 51-day siege.
The Branch Davidians helped make him more skeptical of racists, Bangerter says, as some of the Aryan Nation-aligned groups refused to stand in solidarity with the Davidians due to conflicting doomsday politics: Koresh stood in solidarity with the Zionists of Israel, the white supremacists’ archenemies.
The Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians standoffs would catalyze the nascent militia movement, making an increasing number of Americans question the government’s authority and violent tactics.