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November 27, 2014

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Is ‘Polar Bear’ on ice as alleged fellow skinheads face prosecution in 1998 slayings?

State prison officials mum on whereabouts of John ‘Polar Bear’ Butler, convicted in racially motivated murders

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Lori Cain / Sun File Photo

John Butler reacts as the prosecution makes its opening statement in his penalty hearing at the Clark County Courthouse on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2001. Butler was convicted of murdering Daniel Shersty, 20, and Lin Newborn, 25, on July 4, 1998.

Updated Thursday, May 15, 2014 | 9:35 a.m.

John Butler Trial

John Edward Butler appears in Justice Court Wednesday, December 30, 1998. Butler was accused of killing Lin Newborn and Daniel Shersty in July 1998. Launch slideshow »

The public is quietly being kept in the dark about the whereabouts of the neo-Nazi skinhead convicted of the 1998 execution-style slaying of two Las Vegas residents who fought racism.

John “Polar Bear” Butler, ordered to serve multiple life sentences for killing Lin “Spit” Newborn, 24, and Daniel Shersty, 20, is no longer in state custody, according to an inmate search of the Nevada Department of Corrections website Wednesday.

The killings, which took place in the early hours of Independence Day, drew national attention.

Prosecutors argued Butler, described in court records as an "influential member of a white supremacist gang called the Independent Nazi Skinheads," killed out of hate.

Newborn, who was black, and Shersty, an Air Force airman who was white, were friends and members of the Anti-Racist Action Group, which is also known as the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.

Corrections officials are keeping mum about Butler, saying only that he “remains incarcerated, but any further information is confidential.”

The lack of transparency means nothing is certain about Butler’s whereabouts. But with a federal case against Butler’s alleged accomplices expected to go to trial in August, it’s possible Butler could be brokering a deal, said Alexandra Natapoff, author of the book "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice."

One of the prosecutors in the case who still works for the Clark County District Attorney’s Office said he couldn’t comment on Butler.

“It is my understanding that there is a federal prosecution related to John Butler and the crimes of which he was convicted; therefore, I cannot comment on any matter related to Butler or the case,” said the prosecutor, Robert Daskas, now a chief deputy DA.

Corrections officials refused to explain why their system would say an inmate had been released if the inmate was still in custody; they refused to say whether he was in federal custody; and they would not point to the law that allows Butler’s whereabouts to be kept hidden.

Butler's name did not turn up in checks with the Federal Bureau of Prisons or at the privately owned and operated Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office doesn’t comment on people it is not prosecuting, said Natalie Collins, the U.S. Attorney’s spokeswoman in Las Vegas.

But federal authorities are able to move inmates who are witnesses in federal cases into protective custody or to an out-of-state facility, said Franny Forsman, who previously headed the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Las Vegas.

In high-profile cases such as the Newborn and Shersty slayings, federal authorities can work with state authorities to offer an inmate benefits, such as a reduced sentence or an offer of parole, in exchange for information, Forsman said.

It wouldn’t be the first time federal prosecutors have attempted to cut a deal with Butler in an effort to get information.

Las Vegas Township Judge William Kephart, who was one of the prosecutors on Butler’s case, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had talked a few years ago to the Clark County District Attorney’s Office about giving Butler a deal in exchange for his help in nailing Ross Hack, Leland Jones and Melissa Hack, the three people who have been indicted in the federal case.

At that point, federal prosecutors didn’t know the extent of what Butler would say about his alleged accomplices, and the DA’s Office declined, Kephart said.

Kephart said prosecutors suspected Melissa Hack, Butler’s girlfriend at the time, and her brother Ross, who left the country shortly after the killings, were involved in the slayings but couldn’t prove it.

Kephart said he didn’t know the particulars of the federal case but wondered what Butler would be able to say that wouldn’t come off as self-serving.

Kephart didn’t know whether federal prosecutors thought the defendants had done the actual shootings, but he noted evidence in the Clark County case pegged Butler as the killer. Testimony in the court proceedings showed Butler boasted about the slayings. Clark County prosecutors were frustrated because they couldn’t prove cases against others they believed were involved, Kephart said.

Butler had women lure Newborn and Shersty out into the desert, where Butler was waiting for them, state prosecutors said. Butler shot Shersty multiple times, then left him to die while he hunted down Newborn, according to prosecutors. Butler also shot Newborn multiple times, 400 feet from Shersty.

It took authorities two days to find Newborn, and neither of the men died quickly, prosecutors said.

"Clearly (Butler) is one of the worst people out there. I don't know how else to put it,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that has been following the case.

Law enforcement should do everything it can to reach all of the killers in this case, and that appears to be what is happening, Potok said.

Potok said making deals with killers is always dicey, but sometimes the risk is worth the payoff.

Potok said he didn’t know enough about the case to say whether a deal would be a good or bad idea, but he said Butler’s two life sentences shouldn’t just be erased because he cooperated with authorities.

"In the world of criminal informants, any crime can be negotiated away — even the most serious crimes,” said Natapoff, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a nationally recognized expert on criminal informants. Natapoff said some of the best informants may be the worst offenders because they have the most information and the most incentive.

Butler isn’t without notoriety within the prison system. He was sentenced to death in 2003 but that was overturned and a new penalty hearing was conducted in 2008.

By that time, Butler had climbed the ranks of a violent white supremacist prison gang known as the Aryan Warriors, Kephart said. Butler was known as a “shot caller,” Kephart said, meaning he directed members’ actions against other inmates.

Michael Novick, a member the Anti-Racist Action chapter in Los Angeles, said any deal for Butler would just be part and parcel with how badly he feels the case has been handled from the beginning. Novick said the 2012 federal indictment of the alleged accomplices was a classic example of “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Novick said the ARA planned to mobilize nationally to attend the trial against Butler’s alleged accomplices to honor Shersty and Newborn.

Novick said he thought a deal with Butler would send the message that white supremacists can kill with impunity.

When the Hacks and Jones were indicted, the Department of Justice issued a press release with a comment from Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, saying, “This case demonstrates that the Department of Justice will be vigilant in working to ensure that every perpetrator of racially motivated violence is brought to justice.”

Novick doesn’t agree — especially if Butler is able to use his alleged cohorts’ prosecutions to his advantage.

Butler was scheduled to appear today in Clark County District Court for a status check related to arguments against his imprisonment but didn't show. Clark County District Judge Michelle Leavitt noted Butler was in Nevada Department of Corrections custody.

Butler's attorney Christopher Oram asked the judge to continue today's hearing, citing the upcoming August trial.

"I know what you are talking about," Leavitt said, expressing confusion since Butler has not been indicted in that federal case. "Is he involved in that?"

Oram paused before saying, "He may be."

Oram then asked the judge to talk privately. After the private conversation, Butler's postconviction matters were continued until Aug. 28.

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