George Lincoln Rockwell was an internationally famous hate-monger when he was gunned down in Arlington in August 1967.
By Charles S. Clark / Photos by Jack hiller
The political ringleader who had achieved international notoriety was seen doing his own wash at a coin-operated laundromat on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. Just before noon on Friday, Aug. 25, 1967, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party whose presence for nearly a decade had been an embarrassment to many locals, told the proprietor at the Econowash in Dominion Hills Shopping Center that he had to return home to fetch some bleach.
As the 49-year-old Rockwell slid into the seat of his fading blue-and-white 1958 Chevrolet, gunshots rang out from the roof of the shopping center. Two bullets burst through the windshield, knocking his car into another vehicle as Rockwell fell and landed face-up in the parking lot, splayed beside his box of Ivory Snow and a copy of the New York Daily News. Bystanders called police, but in minutes, the flamboyant—and ordinarily well-guarded—leader of the modestly sized American Nazi movement had died of a shot through the heart.
An important witness to the killing was the owner of nearby Tom’s Barber Shop, Tom Blakeney, now 80 and retired in Fredericksburg. Blakeney knew Rockwell as a customer of his shop. He recalls, Rockwell behaved “as a gentleman, and had been a lieutenant commander, so if you didn’t know his politics, you’d never guess.” Blakeney also cut the hair of some Nazi troopers; he remembers them cursing at images of black Americans on the barber-shop television.
On the day of the shooting, Blakeney remembers, he watched Rockwell park his Chevrolet, and the two waved at one another as Rockwell entered the laundromat and then returned to his car. “Then when I heard the shots, I thought a car had backfired,” he says. “I saw Rockwell kind of jumping around in the front seat, and I thought he was having a seizure. I saw him point at the roof and then slump over the steering wheel.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Blakeney and fellow barber Jim Cummings took off after the shooter on foot in opposite directions. “I was a dummy,” Blakeney recalls, having ignored the danger of getting shot himself, “but I wanted to see who the guy was.” He stopped at the home of a woman he knew who said she’d seen a man run by. He entered her home, and after she dialed the police, he got on the line and reported her sighting. His call, Blakeney says, is what steered the police to pick up the suspect on the other side of Arlington’s Bon Air Park.
Within a half-hour of the gunfire, Arlington police would arrest, not an anti-Nazi but a disgruntled fellow Nazi: 29-year-old John Patler, a Greek American and former U.S. Marine from New York City. Patler had risen to the number-four slot in the hierarchy of the party faithful, most of whom lived in the fortified “barracks” in a swastika-bedecked old house (nicknamed “Hatemonger Hill”) across the street from the Dominion Hills Shopping Center.
Patler was arrested on Washington Boulevard as he fled from a bus stop at nearby Harrison Street. Looking suspicious with his pants wet to the knees, Patler had been spotted by Deputy Police Chief Raymond S. “Boots” Cole, who, knowing the regular Nazis by sight, radioed other officers to make the arrest.
What was believed to be Patler’s discarded raincoat and cap were found in a yard behind Dominion Hills. His suspected weapon, a 40-year-old German Mauser semiautomatic pistol that fires 7.63 mm rounds, was recovered by Arlington patrolman Francis Beakes, abandoned in the waters of Four Mile Run below a footbridge.
Rockwell’s demise would crimp the American Nazi movement. But Nazi activity in the area would stretch on another decade and a half.
Dodging the Death Penalty
The defiant and sometimes ludicrous behavior of the American Nazi Party was on full display during the controversial effort to bury the slain leader on Aug. 29, 1967. Because Rockwell was a military veteran, he had won a Pentagon ruling that entitled him to be interred in a national cemetery. But military officials refused to allow his followers to use Nazi rituals, uniforms and flags in the ceremony.
At Culpeper National Cemetery, Nazis and military police faced off in a six-hour “classic comic fiasco,” as then-Washington Star reporter Ken Ikenberry recalls. In the end, instead of being buried, Rockwell’s body was returned in a hearse to an Arlington funeral home to be cremated. His ashes were last seen with his 33-year-old successor, Matthias Koehl.
Rockwell’s suspected assassin, meanwhile, was held in the Arlington County jail.
In the run-up to the December trial, it emerged that Patler, who had been photographed standing with Rockwell at Nazi rallies, had maintained on-again, off-again membership status in the party. A dark-haired “greasy Greek,” as one Nazi labeled him, Patler was suspected of being a Marxist. But he also pressed to rid the American party of its German trappings. (It was Patler’s idea to change the name of the American Nazi Party to the National Socialist White People’s Party, which was accomplished in January 1967.) After joining during the party’s formative years, Patler had left in 1961 to set up a rival group, then returned. He had split again in April 1967, but a photostatted letter from Patler found in Rockwell’s wallet suggests that he was again seeking to reconcile with his mentor.
Soon after the arrest, one of Patler’s attorneys, Helen Lane, a controversial former member of the Arlington School Board and longtime Rockwell friend, announced that her client would plead not guilty. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Hassan would ask for the death penalty.
At the trial in Arlington Circuit Court, defense attorneys argued that Patler was not among the four persons on that August day who were aware that Rockwell had left the barracks to do his laundry. Instead of being at the shopping center, the defense said, Patler—who did not drive—was three miles away at his home on Lee Highway (now the parking lot of Pioneer Motors) until 11:45 a.m. He had run errands with his wife and child, making a purchase at Arlington Paper Supply in Clarendon (now the headquarters of Red Top Cab). Patler claimed he and his wife had quarreled after which he went for a walk. The defense even hired a high school track star to repeat Patler’s alleged escape route to show he wouldn’t have had the time.
The prosecution reported having found footprints traced to Patler on the roof of the Dominion Hills Shopping Center. Prosecutor Hassan also sought to prove that the murder weapon had been test-fired on Patler’s father-in-law’s property in Highland County.
On Dec. 15, 1967, after a four-hour deliberation, jurors found Patler guilty of murdering Rockwell. They gave him a 20-year prison sentence.
Within months of Rockwell’s assassination, the owner of the Nazi barracks reclaimed the house to sell to a developer; the windows were boarded up, the swastika-bedecked gatepost thrown on its side, and a Star of David painted on its driveway. (It is now Upton Hills Regional Park.)
In 1968, some 10-12 Nazis moved into a temporary headquarters in a shoddy two-story wooden house on Arlington’s Taylor Street (the site is now the building owned by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association). Later that year, the group secretly took up residence in a brick building at 2507 N. Franklin Road, just off Wilson Boulevard. (This spot is now a café and arts center called the Java Shack.) Displaying a “White Power” sign across the facade, the Nazis would share that building with dentist and former county board member Lucas Blevins, who told the Northern Virginia Sun he found the arrangement “nauseating.”
An Underwhelming Legacy
In his estate, Rockwell left behind $257 in cash, his trademark corncob pipe and various writings. Successor Koehl tried to further the movement, but was no match for Rockwell as a rabble-rousing speaker.
Newspapers in subsequent years would report sporadic feuds—even gun battles—against and between Nazis. In 1976, during Arlington’s Bicentennial Independence Day Parade, the Nazis marched with a swastika-decorated drum corps, and in 1977, some 30-40 anti-racist protestors threw rocks and eggs at the Nazi headquarters on Franklin Road. On the 10th anniversary of Rockwell’s shooting, Koehl led a commemorative ceremony at the spot where Rockwell died, displaying a swastika painted on the pavement. (Koehl continued for years to get his hair cut at Tom’s.)
Patler, after losing an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, served four years at a camp near Martinsville. He was paroled in August 1975, but parole violations landed him back in prison until the early ‘80s. In 1977, he changed his name back to its Greek original, Patsolos (he had chosen the anglicized name for its resemblance to Hitler’s). He reportedly went on to launch a Spanish-language newspaper, but after it failed, became a commercial artist.
In 1982, Martin Kerr, a leader at the Franklin Road headquarters, announced that the organization was changing its name to the New Order and moving to the Midwest (later settling in New Berlin, Wis.).
By the end of the 20th century, Rockwell’s legacy was being carried on by the National Socialist White People’s Party headed by North Carolinian Harold Covington (who uses the name Winston Smith). The group sells Rockwell’s writings and audiotape speeches on websites. But when Arlingtonians tell the story of their hometown, the name George Lincoln Rockwell is seldom mentioned.