American Jewish defense agencies want federal law enforcement officials to turn up the heat on a growing national hate group apparently linked to last weekend’s Midwest shooting rampage and last month’s million-dollar torching of three Sacramento, Calif., synagogues.
At the same time, a shaken Chicago Jewish community is feeling the aftershocks of the two-state killing spree by 21-year-old Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a recent member of the white supremacist group called World Church of the Creator whose attacks against Orthodox Jews, blacks and Asians left two people dead and nine wounded.
Smith’s first victims were six Jews walking to Friday-night Sabbath services in the Orthodox West Rogers Park section of Chicago.
Smith later drove to several other locations in Illinois and Indiana, where he shot and killed former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong and a 26-year-old South Korean graduate student.
“I think the [Jewish] community is shaken, there’s no question about that,” said Rabbi Michael Siegel, president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. “Whether or not people will be guarded going out the door next Shabbat or be more conscious of wearing kipot or other Jewish garb as a means towards being a target remains to be seen.”
Rabbi Siegel said there’s also a feeling of general outrage and shared pain with African Americans, Asians “and any others touched by this madman.”
Smith, who killed himself Sunday night during a police chase, had been distributing racist leaflets in April at Indiana University from the Church of the Creator. Leaflets apparently associated with the church also were found at the scene of the Sacramento fires three weeks ago.
The Anti-Defamation League Tuesday asked U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to initiate “a full field investigation” of the church under its federal terrorism guidelines.
“We believe this group’s propensity for violence and its pattern of interstate criminal activity warrant law enforcement attention at the national level,” said the two-page letter to Reno dated July 6.
The letter noted that Smith had been named “Creator of the Month” in January, and that group leader Matt Hale had encouraged other members “to emulate his ‘activism’ in distributing anti-Semitic and racist fliers.”
The ADL said World Church-connected fliers were found in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Shalom, one of the three torched Sacramento synagogues.
Neil Herman, ADL’s director of fact finding and a former FBI anti-terror expert, cautioned that the content of Smith’s fliers in the Midwest were considerably different than those found in Sacramento.
“But that doesn’t mean to suggest they couldn’t be connected,” he said, adding that forensic analysis will be necessary to make conclusions.
A Justice Department spokesman could not confirm whether Reno had seen the letter at press time, but added the office reviews such letters and “determines whether any federal action is warranted.”
A full field investigation would permit the FBI to launch an in-depth probe of the group. Without such approval, the agency is prohibited from investigating a domestic group based merely on its hateful speech and literature, according to terrorism expert Harvey Kushner.
“I believe it is warranted in this case,” Kushner said.
Law enforcement experts told The Jewish Week a full field investigation was begun against the World Church in the early 1990s but was dropped when the group became dormant.
Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate, also urged government law enforcement agencies to check into the connection between the Chicago and Sacramento incidents “very carefully.”
“We have spoken to law enforcement urging them to look into any possibility of any links between these events and whether they may be part of an organized campaign,” he said.
Weitzman said he has been tracking the Church of the Creator for four years and has seen it grow from 10 to about 40 chapters across the U.S. He said under the leadership of the 27-year-old Hale, of East Peoria, Ill., the group has attracted younger members through skillful use of the Internet, with Web sites targeting men, women and children.
Hale, who calls himself Pontifex Maximus, an ancient Roman title, confirmed that Smith was a member of the church from June 1998 until this May. But in a press release issued Monday on his Web site, Hale stressed that Smith’s membership expired last month. Hale said he did not know why Smith suddenly left the group, “but it seems obvious to us that his views on violent and illegal actions did not agree with our views on violent and illegal actions.”
“The World Church of the Creator DOES NOT promote violence or illegal activities, nor does Rev. Matt Hale,” the statement said. “To accuse the World Church of the Creator of inciting Mr. Smith’s actions is akin to accusing the Pope of causing the violence in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, authorities are attempting to understand what turned the son of an affluent suburban Chicago doctor whose family enjoyed private tennis courts and a backyard swimming pool, into a racist murderer who had the words “Sabbath-breaker” tattooed on his chest.
Smith, who preferred the first name “August” because Benjamin sounded too Jewish, provided some clues to his metamorphosis in an article in the church’s March newsletter.
The “genesis of my racial awakening began in the eighth grade” while studying the Holocaust. “The Jew teacher began with the slaughtering of the Indians by white people and settlers,” Smith wrote. “He then moved to the ‘evils’ of black slavery, and ended with the ‘murder’ of six million Jews. The entire class was mind manipulation, pure and simple.”
Smith’s high school yearbook quotation was “Sic semper tyrannis,” Latin for “thus ever to tyrants,” the same slogan spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he shot Abraham Lincoln.
Smith also wrote that the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles had a major impact on him. “I saw scenes of [blacks] burning down the City of Angels and dragging whites from their cars. … What would whites do if a full-scale race war broke out?”
Smith became friends with Hale at the University of Illinois at Urbana. He quit in February 1998 before being expelled over charges of domestic violence and posting racist literature.
Most recently at Indiana University, Smith became increasingly angry and frustrated at growing opposition to his hate literature from the citizens of the college town of Bloomington. Hale told The New York Times he believes that a state panel rejecting Hale’s bid to become a lawyer in Illinois last Friday could have set off Smith’s murderous rampage. An ex-girlfriend of Smith’s said also that it was not merely coincidence that the shooting spree took place on Independence Day weekend.
Smith bought his guns from an illegal street dealer after he was turned away by a licensed gun shop that performed the required background check, investigators revealed Tuesday.
Smith’s victims included Byrdsong, a 43-year-old black man killed while walking with his children near his home in Skokie, and doctoral student Won-Joon Yoon, 26, shot to death outside the Korean United Methodist Church following Sunday services.
The six Orthodox Jewish victims are Ephraim Wolfe, 15, shot in the right leg; Gideon Sapir, 34, an Israeli army captain, shot in the lower back; Hillel Goldstein, 34, a high school teacher in Skokie, shot in the stomach; Dean Bell, 31, shot four times; Ian Huper, 31, from Skokie, shot in the right forearm and right side as he was driving; and Eric Yates, 31, a computer consultant, shot in the leg.
Three other black and Asian men were injured.
Sapir said he threw his 5-year-old son to the ground when he heard the pop-pop of bullets Friday night coming from the blue Ford Taurus Smith was driving.
“It’s a bit ironic. I’m a captain in the Israeli infantry and after spending time in Lebanon and the West Bank, I get shot in Chicago.”
Michael Kotzin, vice president of Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, said he would meet with police and city officials this week to discuss increased security in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. But Kotzin is now correcting those who are using the word “Orthodox.”
“We are becoming annoyed by that distinction being made,” he said. “It’s not just the Orthodox, the whole community was under attack.”
Kotzin said Jews in Chicago have mobilized together as one in response to the tragedy. He said federation-sponsored counseling services are available to victims and community members.
Chicago Jewish leaders privately said they were less than satisfied by the response of their mayor and governor and city to the shootings. They noted the striking difference in the resounding support the Sacramento Jewish community received from its top elected officials and fellow citizens.
“We hope he will do more,” said one Jewish leader of Mayor Richard Daley, who was on vacation when the shootings occurred Friday and did not return to Chicago until Tuesday.
Kotzin said it remains to be seen what lasting effect the shootings will have on the psyche of the Jewish community.
“I’m sure some individuals have been more reluctant to go out,” he said. “In the back of your mind you know something can happen, but behaviorally you overrule that and live your life.
“As leaders our advice is not to be intimidated. We’re not going to let this person or people like him have us not be what we are.”
- Harvey Kushner
- Mark Weitzman
- Indiana University
- Beth Shalom
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Northwestern University
- group leader
- president of the Chicago Board
- Orthodox West Rogers Park
- Neil Herman
- Janet Reno
- Michael Kotzin
- Benjamin Nathaniel Smith
- Matt Hale
- Michael Siegel
- Ricky Byrdsong
- Social Issues
- united states
- Staff Writer
- Department of Justice
- Anti-Defamation League
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- attorney general