World Church of the Creator In Turmoil After Leader Matt Hale Imprisoned
By Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
Two days after his favorite follower began a 1999 murder spree that left two people dead, neo-Nazi leader Matt Hale told the first reporter who called that he had met Benjamin Nathaniel Smith only once, eight months earlier, and barely knew him.
Hours later, the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) chieftain admitted to a second reporter from the same newspaper that he did know Smith and conceded that he'd actually spoken to him a week before. To still another reporter, Hale claimed that Smith's membership in the WCOTC had lapsed months before. In the following days, Hale's account of his relationship to Smith would change almost hourly.
Matt Hale was lying. In fact, officials said, Hale had spoken to Smith by telephone for some 13 hours in the three weeks leading up to Smith's rampage — 28 minutes of that time just two days before the shooting began. Six months earlier, Hale had named Smith "Creator of the Year," the group's top honor, saying that his other followers should see in Smith "an example to follow." As late as a month before the rampage, Hale's publications described Smith as a group member.
Then, the week after the murders, a registered letter arrived at Hale's house in East Peoria, Ill., claiming Smith was "formally breaking" with WCOTC. Conveniently for Hale, Smith had sent the letter on the morning of the day that he opened fire.
Ben Smith killed himself as police closed in at the end of the three-day rampage that also left nine minorities wounded, and Matt Hale was never charged in connection with Smith's crimes. But now, almost four years later, Hale once again finds himself at the eye of a violent storm. This time, many who suspect he got away with something in 1999 hope, Hale may have to pay for his role in a criminal plot.
On Jan. 8, the so-called "Pontifex Maximus" of the WCOTC was arrested in the federal courthouse in Chicago and charged with obstruction of justice and solicitation to murder a federal judge.
FBI agents said that Hale had tried to recruit an informer to assassinate U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, who had been presiding in a copyright trial in which WCOTC lost the right to use its long-time name. The arrest followed weeks of furious WCOTC attacks on Judge Lefkow, who was vilified as a "probable Jew," "criminal judge" and "kike- and nigger-loving" traitor.
In 1999, Hale depicted Ben Smith's rampage as an understandably furious reaction to the Illinois Bar Association's refusal to grant Hale a law license just a day earlier. Blind rage may explain Hale's recent actions, as well. Hale had defied Judge Lefkow's order to give up use of his group's name, and he fully expected to be jailed when he showed up on Jan. 8 for a contempt hearing before her.
Despite his many pronouncements about acting legally, Hale allegedly had decided the judge's punishment would be death.
Matt Hale hadn't figured on one thing. Shortly after the Smith rampage, the FBI, apparently seeing Hale as a dangerous threat, recruited a key WCOTC official as an informant. Wearing a concealed recording device, the informant — Hale's chief of security — spent the next four years taping conversations of his leader. The result, it turns out, could be the destruction of the WCOTC.
Teddy Bears and Hitler Watches
Matt Hale began his career as a professional racist at the age of 12, when he says he read Hitler's Mein Kampf from cover to cover. He set up a tiny hate club he called the New Reich in eighth grade and tried to organize a White Students Union at Bradley University when he went there. He would form the American White Supremacist Party in 1990, switching the following year to the National Association for the Advancement of White People, run by David Duke (see Insatiable).
Hale took over what was then called the Church of the Creator in 1995, two years after its founder Ben Klassen, depressed over the death of his wife, committed suicide after several attempts to install a successor.
In 1996, at the Montana ranch of Slim Deardorff, Hale was officially elected as leader of the group, which he renamed the World Church of the Creator, by the church's Guardians of the Faith Committee, which included Deardorff. Hale's 10-year-term is set to expire in 2006.
Unusually well educated for a neo-Nazi, Hale managed to revitalize an organization that had virtually disappeared after Klassen's death. From 14 chapters in 1996, WCOTC had grown to 88 chapters by 2002, making it the neo-Nazi group with the largest number of chapters in America. Hale also built up the group's Web presence enormously, and proved adept at winning national publicity on a number of occasions. His members commonly leaflet in various cities around the country, and even after his arrest managed to pull off a fairly substantial rally in Maine.
But Hale is also a bit of a cartoon character.
At age 31, he has spent almost his entire life living in his father's two-story house in East Peoria, operating out of an upstairs bedroom painted red to depict the blood of the white race. He has never held a serious job, sports a Hitler wristwatch and uses an Israeli flag as a doormat outside his room. He keeps a collection of teddy bears on his bed, and although he has been married twice, neither union has lasted more than a few months.
His latest marriage, to Peggy Anderson, apparently ended days after his arrest, when she sent his belongings back to his father's home. An earlier marriage, to a 16-year-old follower, ended within 12 weeks.
Hale's talk was big, but his walk was small. He told reporters that he had as many as 80,000 followers — a patently ludicrous assertion for a group that never had more than several hundred. He received national publicity for a Web page he put up that was supposedly meant to recruit young children — but confided to insiders that it was a publicity stunt aimed at generating media interest. Hale appeared repeatedly on the "Today" show and other national TV news programs and a New York Times columnist recently described him as "the face of hate" in America.
But the mundane reality was that Hale, while depicting himself as a red-hot revolutionary, spent much of the last two years lecturing in small library rooms under heavy police protection. Matt Hale, his detractors joked, was rescuing the white race one library at a time.
Even so, Hale's group has attracted a number of sociopaths and other violently inclined individuals. Ben Smith left two dead and nine wounded in Illinois and Indiana. Another acolyte, Erica Chase, was convicted last fall in a plot to blow up landmarks on the East Coast.
Hale's followers have been arrested for aggravated assault, armed robbery, witness intimidation and attempted murder. Under Klassen, COTC leaders murdered a black man in Florida, shot up an occupied car in North Carolina, brawled in Ohio and blew up an NAACP office in Washington.