World Church of the Creator Leader Matt Hale Builds National Presence
Still, until Ben Smith opened fire, WCOTC was little known to the public. Hale did get some national publicity earlier this year, when the Illinois Bar Association first turned down his application to practice law, but it did not last long. Largely, he was remembered as the smooth-talking neo-Nazi who sported a furrowed brow for his interviewers.
The latest publicity clearly pleased Hale. "This just increases the interest in our church, our religion and the White Man's Bible," he told a group of anti-racist protesters who held a vigil outside his home in late July.
Under Hale's leadership, WCOTC has revolved around a small cadre of Hale's buddies. While Hale was studying for the law degree he completed in May 1998, the core of the group was Hale, Smith and John McLaughlin.
(McLaughlin, now 48, had his own brush with fame when he got into an altercation with journalist Geraldo Rivera at a 1992 Wisconsin rally. Rivera was charged with battery and McLaughlin with disorderly conduct. In 1995, McLaughlin was sentenced to 2 1/2 years' probation after police found a cache of his illegal weapons, including 24 silencers, machine-gun converter kits and armor-piercing and explosive bullets. He allegedly told police he was preparing for the "ultimate race war.")
When Hale returned to East Peoria, fewer than a dozen followers moved to be near him. Today, the real strength of WCOTC is concentrated in California, Florida and Illinois. Authorities in other states where the group lists chapters reported that they had seen no activity from members aside from a few minor pamphleting incidents.
Another measure of WCOTC's numbers comes in its mailings, which have been sent out from Champaign, Ill., under a bulk mail permit held by McLaughlin. An Aug. 27, 1998, postal receipt shows that the latest edition of The Struggle, which is sent to both members and prospective members, was mailed to just 207 people. The cost: $63.34.
Despite that, Hale had a chance to put the best face on his group after Smith's shooting rampage. But in interview after interview, he changed his story about his relationship with Smith and the question of Smith's membership.
Tales from the Crypt
Two days after the July killing began, Hale told the first Chicago Tribune reporter to call that he had had met Smith once, some eight months before, but didn't know him well. Hours later, he told another that he did know Smith and had seen him about a week before the shootings started.
He gave other reporters a variety of stories about Smith. To several of them, he explained that Smith's membership had lapsed months earlier.
But many of these statements were disingenuous at best.
According to media accounts, officials believe Smith spoke to Hale by phone for 28 minutes just two days before beginning his rampage. In the three weeks leading up to the shooting, the two men reportedly spoke for some 13 hours.
Despite his early statements, Hale was extremely close to Smith. Last October, The Struggle reported that Hale had named Smith "Creator of the Month," a high honor for a group whose "religion" is called "Creativity."
In January, Hale named Smith "Creator of the Year," saying, "I urge all of you, my Brothers, to view Brother Smith's activism as an example to follow." Officials also believe Smith spent $6,190 of his own money to print WCOTC pamphlets.
Hale also claimed that Smith's membership had expired in May for nonpayment of dues. But the June issue of The Struggle, which was written in late May or early June, reported that Smith had moved to East Peoria to work alongside Hale.
Soon Hale was putting a new spin on this story, too. In a bizarre twist the week after Smith's rampage, Hale showed reporters a registered letter that he said he'd just received from Smith (he had the postal receipt to prove it).
Mailed on the day the shooting began, the letter said Smith was "formally break[ing]" with WCOTC because he no longer could abide Hale's alleged nonviolence. Smith claimed that he had not been a "member" since April 1 — yet another date to consider.
Women, Babies and the FBI
Reporters weren't the only ones interested in Hale's relationship with Smith. The week after the shootings, local police and FBI agents showed up at Hale's home. A shaken Hale agreed to answer questions only if a Chicago Tribune reporter was present.
Hale told these authorities that he had suspected Smith was the shooter halfway through his three-day rampage.
Why hadn't he called police? "I felt this was something you could do yourselves. You're the police. When you haven't heard from a friend ... and you usually talk to him every other day or so, and the suspect is driving a light blue Taurus, my dad and I both kind of wondered. And if you don't like that answer, too bad."
Smith had something other than racism in common with Hale. Both men had had trouble with women. Indeed, despite WCOTC efforts to reach out to women (see All in the Family), some insiders have described Hale, and the men around him, as misogynists.
In 1997, Hale, then 25, married a 16-year-old WCOTC member. But she left him within three months, and many WCOTC members left the group in sympathy. Another former girlfriend and member was granted a protective order after a court finding that Hale had abused her. (Hale didn't bother to contest the woman's allegations in court.)
By early 1998, Hale was reduced to advertising on the Aryan Dating Page for "a young, attractive, positive, dependable, creative, intelligent and open-minded White woman... ."
Hale has even asked potential female members to send along a photo. He has told several that he wants to help propagate the white race by making babies.
Hale also has raised the specter of interracial sexual violence in particularly ugly ways. In 1995, he wrote a letter to a woman who had had a letter to the editor opposing racism published in a local newspaper.
According to the Illinois Bar Association panel, he suggested that the woman's rape by a "nigger beast" might enlighten her.
Like his mentor, Smith also faced a protective order against him, obtained by a former girlfriend who described him as extremely abusive. Officials at Indiana University — where Smith was a criminal justice major who hoped to one day become an attorney, like his hero, Hale — have reported that Smith was caught peeping into women's windows.
He also had numerous run-ins with officials around Bloomington for smoking marijuana — something expressly forbidden by the WCOTC rules laid down by Klassen.