Authorities are stepping up the pressure on the World Church of the Creator, an Illinois-based white supremacist group that law enforcement officials are linking to three synagogue fires in Sacramento, Calif., and a shooting rampage in the Midwest that targeted blacks, Jews and Asian Americans, leaving two dead.
In Illinois, state tax officials have launched a tax-evasion probe. Sacramento police have increased the monitoring of members and followers of the group.
Meanwhile, California law enforcement is providing special protection to some of the 32 Sacramento Jewish and civic leaders whose names were found on a possible “hit list” in the home of two brothers from the northern California town of Redding. Authorities believe the brothers are connected to the June 18 synagogue arsons.
The list, which included Sacramento congregants who were quoted in the media following the arsons, was discovered when a law enforcement task force searched the home of Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29. The brothers, described as deeply devout Christians, were arrested in the July 1 double slayings of a prominent Redding-area gay couple.
Besides the list, investigators also found a cache of weapons and ammunition, as well as handouts from the World Church of the Creator, the group linked to Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the Midwest murderer. Smith shot himself to death as police closed in after he killed two and wounded nine, including six Chicago Jews walking to Sabbath services, during a Fourth of July weekend rampage.
As of Wednesday, the Williams brothers had not been charged in the murders or the arsons, said an FBI spokesman.
World Church leader Matt Hale rejected any involvement with the brothers and said comments by investigators linking his group to crimes in California are part of a federal “smear campaign.”
Hale insisted last week that Smith left his group in May, even though church newsletters indicated that Smith was still involved.
Nevertheless, Hale’s group — and hate groups in general — are coming under increased scrutiny by state and federal officials.
The Illinois Department of Revenue last week began investigating whether the World Church had broken the law by not paying sales tax on white supremacist books it printed and sold. The church is not registered as a charity, business or religious organization in the state, officials said.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is mulling a request by the Anti-Defamation League calling for a full scale FBI investigation of the church because of its alleged link to several violent hate crimes, its aggressive leafleting of racist pamphlets and its presence on the Internet.
Reno told the ADL she will review the request but stressed there needed to be “a reasonable indication of criminal conduct on the part of the group” before a probe could begin.
On Monday she attended the funeral of Won-Joon Yoon, an Indiana University doctoral student killed by Smith. “Haters are cowards who must be confronted until they back down,” a solemn Reno told the crowd of more than 1,400 in Bloomington, Ind.
At the same time, more than 120 civil rights leaders met at the White House and urged Americans to voice their concern about hate crimes to encourage Congress to expand federal civil rights protections.
Last week, the House of Representatives condemned the Sacramento synagogue arsons.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor, called the arsonists “the scum of our society who are taking advantage of the freedom we all enjoy to express their hate.”
In New York, the Jewish Defense Organization, a self-described militant group, called for “correct retaliatory measures” against the World Church and other hate groups, including training and arming Jews so they can protect themselves on their way to services, and flooding the Illinois phone company with calls urging it to shut down the church’s hate line.
In Sacramento, authorities last weekend questioned dozens of people believed to be members or followers of white supremacist groups — focusing on the World Church of the Creator — as part of a continuing campaign to rein in such groups following the fires. But church members claimed they are being harassed because racist, anti-Semitic literature bearing the group’s name and logo was found at one of the burned temples.
“Stories linking us to the synagogue fires are grossly misinformed,” a member of the group who identified himself as “Reverend Nick” told the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
“They’re trying to make a connection where there is no connection,” said the man, who sported a tattoo on his shoulder that read “Delenda est Judaica,” Latin for “Destroy the Jews.” Another tattoo spelled “RaHoWa,” an abbreviation for “racial holy war.”
Synagogue members, meanwhile, were shocked to learn from the FBI that their names appeared on a list compiled by the Williams brothers, suspected in the coordinated arson attacks at B’nai Israel, Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center. The blazes destroyed a Jewish library and caused more than $1 million in damages.
Matthew Friedman, incoming rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that synagogue officials have been meeting with law enforcement to boost security at the temples.
Rabbi Friedman said he did not sense fear in the synagogue leaders since they were told of the list. He said the arrest of the Williams brothers gave the community “ a sense of relief.”
“If these two men were the ones to do the crime, then the most immediate danger is past. But the larger issue is the role of hate groups in general,” he said.
The Reform rabbi said congregants were uplifted by the tremendous show of financial and emotional support locally and nationally. But perhaps more than anything else, Rabbi Friedman said, his flock is “pooped.”
“They’re tired from the intensity of what happened,” he said.
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