Former prosecutors allege difficulties with federal agencies in Klan-Nazi trial

by Jordan Green

As the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission gears up for a community dialogue and begins the process of determining the substance of a final report, key questions remain unanswered about the circumstances of the November 1979 shootings that took the lives of five communist labor activists while new information has come in fits and starts.Three members of the prosecution team, including then District Attorney Michael Schlosser gave a lengthy statement to Commissioner Bob Peters and Research Director Emily Harwell on Aug. 4. The prosecution proved to be unsuccessful in obtaining convictions of Klan and Nazi defendants in a 1980 state murder trial.The three declined to testify before the commission at a public hearing, but their statement provides a new glimpse at the role of federal law enforcement. It presents the survivors, who did not testify in the trial, in an unflattering light.The statement, which was provided by the commission, paraphrases the three interview subjects rather than quoting them directly. According to the document, the three agreed that ‘“indirect attributed quotes may be drawn from the summary for use in publications without prior approval.’”Jim Coman, now a prosecutor with the NC Department of Justice, told Peters and Harwell that both the defense and prosecution believe acquittal of members of the Klan and Nazis in the state and federal criminal trials came about because of the testimony of the FBI audio analyst Bruce Koenig. Coman said he believes Koenig misled the prosecution. When he first testified Koenig told the court that shots 3,4 and 5 came from the general area of the Klan-Nazi caravan, Coman said, but in later testimony the same day he indicated that the shots came from in front of a pickup truck where members of the Communist Workers Party were standing. The third, fourth and fifth shots are considered crucial in determining whether the Klan and Nazis should have been found liable for the communists’ deaths, with defense lawyers having characterized the first two shots as ‘“friendly’” warning shots. Coman also said the prosecution team felt lied to by Koenig because he told them before the trial that the majority of the shots came from where members of the Klan were standing.Reached by phone on Oct. 13, Koenig said he doesn’t remember the details of his testimony. A former supervisory special agent for the FBI, Koenig now owns a private forensics company in Clifton, Va., Bek Tek, that performs contract work for government agencies.’“I work 50 hours a week on audio and video recordings,’” he said. ‘“Without my work notes I’m not in a position to say anything. I did testify at the state and federal trials.’”The FBI was not the only federal agency that made life difficult for the prosecution team. Bernard Butkovich, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who infiltrated a group of Nazis prior to their participation in the confrontation with the communists, did not want to answer the prosecution team’s questions, Coman said.Coman said the ATF was uncooperative and there was tension between the prosecutors and the federal agency. He said he believes the agency was intent on keeping Butkovich from having to testify, and that he thinks a federal law enforcement officer should have more of a sense of moral responsibility than he seemed to display.Schlosser, the lead prosecutor, said in an Oct. 12 phone interview that he found Butkovich’s behavior frustrating.’“He was coy,’” Schlosser said. ‘“We had some difficulty in getting the ATF to bring him forward. We talked for a good part of the evening. We felt like he finally came forward and told us the truth and it was not helpful in getting a conviction.’”Ultimately, the three prosecutors told the commission, the lack of testimony by surviving members of the Communist Workers Party was the key element in their failure to obtain a conviction. They chafe at allegations in accounts by survivors that the prosecution participated in a conspiracy to allow the Klan and Nazis to escape justice.Rick Greeson, another prosecutor, told the commission all three members of the team believed the Klan and Nazis were guilty of murder, that they are still frustrated and emotional after dedicating a year of their lives to the case. He said he and Coman were sick after the conclusion of the trial. If the prosecution could have humanized the victims, they could have won the case, he said. It was like they had five bodies entrusted to them, but couldn’t get a conviction.Conflicting public statements by the prosecution team and the survivors about the two sides’ relationship during the trial remains an unresolved aspect of the case. But a little more agreement emerged when Rev. Nelson Johnson told the News & Record in a front-page story that he now better understands Schlosser’s position and believes the lead prosecutor made a good-faith effort to win the case. Just as many parts of the truth puzzle remain missing, the reconciliation piece is also still incomplete.Johnson is a plague on the community of Greensboro, Schlosser told Peters and Harwell. Asked if he felt differently about Johnson in light of his recent statement, Schlosser said: ‘“I would decline to comment on that.’” Schlosser said the three prosecutors met with Peters and Harwell for five or six hours.’“We were permitted to have a private setting where there were no time restraints and we answered every question fielded,’” he said. ‘“We preferred that rather than the public arena. We found that more productive.’”To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at