World Church of the Creator Leader Matt Hale Builds National Presence

For one week this summer, Matt Hale's dream became reality — he was a player on the national scene. There he was, arguing with Katie Couric on the "Today" show. His picture was splashed across the pages of Newsweek, Time and virtually every newspaper in the United States. His carefully chosen words were the subject of weighty pontifications on CNN's legal affairs show, "Burden of Proof."

That the attention came at the cost of the life of a close Hale friend — and those of a couple of others — was but a minor detail.

Clearly, July was a great month for Hale.

Emerging from his bedroom on the second floor of his dad's East Peoria, Ill., home — where his bed is cheerily lined with stuffed animals from the Chicago Bears — Hale greeted television crew after television crew, taking breaks to speak to hundreds of print reporters on the phone.

The reporters all wanted to know one thing: Hale's reaction to the bloody, two-state shooting spree of one of his closest buddies. Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, for more than a year a key leader of Hale's World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), had spent his Fourth of July weekend murdering a black man and an Asian man and wounding nine others.

Sure, Hale was sorry — sorry that Smith shot himself as police closed in. Smith was, in Hale's view, a "martyr for free speech" — a frustrated but well-meaning "racialist" who'd snapped when the Illinois Bar Association denied Hale a law license because of Hale's neo-Nazi views.

As to the real victims — a beloved former Northwestern University basketball coach and a Korean doctoral student, along with nine wounded Jews, blacks and Asians — Hale wasted little breath. WCOTC's compassion, he said, was "reserved for our own race."

The Group Behind the Curtain
Although Hale boasted to reporters that WCOTC had as many as 30,000 followers, in reality there are fewer than 150 dues-paying members — and only about a dozen who are at the group's core.

His much-vaunted "world headquarters" is actually a spare room at his dad's place, decorated with an Israeli flag doormat. He doesn't have a job, but manages instead to live off the charity of his followers and his dad's police pension.

As the so-called "Pontifex Maximus," Hale was called upon to defend his group in a moment of crisis — and responded with an everchanging series of lies, prevarications and half-truths.

Ironically, the media attention that Hale got — and the relatively intelligent facade he offered to the nation's television viewers — may actually help bring reality closer to the image he tries to project.

Hale has shown some organizing skills, to some extent revitalizing a once-moribund group. He has taken advantage of the Internet to bring his message to tens of thousands of Americans. He has managed to set up chapters in some 22 states, even if some are little more than a lone member with a post office box.

And he has projected the image of a coat-and-tie professional, not that of a brown-shirted thug.

Hale says he started down the racist track when, at age 12, he reacted with disgust after seeing a black boy kiss a white girl. In eighth grade, he started his first hate club: the New Reich. After a failed attempt to create a White Student Union at Bradley University in East Peoria, he formed the American White Supremacist Party in 1990.

The following year, Hale switched groups again, joining the National Association for the Advancement of White People and describing its leader, former Klansman David Duke, as "the greatest politician that this country may have ever seen."

In 1992, he created yet another group, the National Socialist White Americans Party, anointing himself "National Leader."

Three years later, the then 23-year-old Hale ran openly as a white supremacist for the East Peoria City Council, garnering 14% of the vote — a remarkable result for an election in middle America.

After his loss, in July 1995, he took up the reins of power in the Church of the Creator — a group begun in 1973 by Ben Klassen which Hale would rename the World Church of the Creator. A year later, he was officially coronated.

Hale and the Law
Along the way, Hale, the would-be lawyer, had a number of legal entanglements (some of which the panel hearing his law license application said appeared to be cases of selective enforcement of laws because of Hale's views).

At age 19, he was found guilty of violating an East Peoria ordinance against open burning after torching an Israeli flag at a demonstration. The next year, he was fined in the same city for littering — dumping racist pamphlets at a shopping mall.

In May 1991, Hale was arrested for mob action after he and his brother allegedly threatened three blacks with a gun; he also was charged with felony obstruction of justice for refusing to tell police where his brother was. (He was convicted of obstruction, but eventually won a reversal on appeal. The mob action charge may have been dropped because one of the men he allegedly threatened carried a baseball bat.)

In 1992, Hale was charged with criminal trespass, resisting arrest, aggravated battery and carrying a concealed weapon after allegedly attacking a security officer at a mall. (He would later be sentenced to 30 months' "intensive" probation, including six months' house arrest.)

And in January 1998, he was charged with littering after throwing pamphlets on lawns.

Then came the Smith rampage. Within days, the Illinois attorney general announced plans to sue WCOTC because it had failed to register as a charity. The family of one of Smith's victims also sued the group, Hale, Smith's parents and others.

Attorney General Janet Reno even suggested the Justice Department might investigate WCOTC.

If many of Hale's past run-ins with the law have been over petty incidents, those of his WCOTC underlings and COTC predecessors were not. Under Klassen, COTC leaders killed a black man in Florida, shot up an occupied car in North Carolina, brawled with anti-racists in Milwaukee, robbed banks in Ohio and blew up an NAACP office in Washington state.

Under Hale, Florida members have robbed, beaten and intimidated minorities.