Neo-Nazi Leader Matt Hale Stands Trial for Murder Plot

CHICAGO -- When Matt Hale shambled into a small Chicago courtroom on April 6, commencing the first day of a trial that could land him in prison for life, nobody gasped audibly. But the first glimpse of Hale, David Duke's only serious rival for the title of America's most famous neo-Nazi, left looks of profound confusion on dozens of faces around the courtroom.

Looks that said: That can't possibly be him, can it?

But yes, this was him. This was the man who had spent more than a decade crafting a public image as the handsome, clean-cut, suit-and-tie-wearing boy genius of American neo-Nazism.

Now, for the most critical three weeks of his life, Hale had decided to eschew his Sunday best and come to court in an orange prison jumpsuit, carelessly unbuttoned at the top, a stretch of white T-shirt showing underneath.

Puzzled reporters later discovered that Hale had chosen his attire as a way of protesting his incarceration, of marking himself as a "political prisoner" for all the world to see. But since the judge reportedly refused to let Hale's attorney explain his appearance to the jury, the prison jumpsuit only served to mark him as a criminal.

It wasn't the first time Hale had left people scratching their heads. The reality of Matt Hale — like that of the neo-Nazi group he commanded — has never come close to the image. He made grandiose claims about the World Church of the Creator's membership, for instance, sometimes telling gullible reporters and supporters there were as many as 80,000 — when the real number never reached one thousand.

But Hale exaggerated so expertly that even the normally sharp New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof fell for it, calling WCOTC the standard-bearer of "Hate, American Style."

Nothing mattered more than the personal image of Hale himself. A mere 25 years old in 1996, when he was crowned Pontifex Maximus (high priest) of an obscure, nearly moribund organization called "Church of the Creator," Hale quickly displayed a rare gift for attracting publicity.

Like Duke, he recognized that a presentable, well-spoken, youthful neo-Nazi leader would certainly have novelty on his side. Especially one who, like Hale, could boast about being a law student at a reputable university.

As he traveled the country, mingling with his fellow neo-Nazis at rallies and watering down his message of racial holy war ("RaHoWa") for small-town library audiences, Hale always made one thing perfectly clear: He was a cut above the herd.

To reinforce this illusion, Hale added "World" to the name of his group. He christened two upstairs rooms in his father's humble house in East Peoria, Ill., the "World Headquarters." Wherever he went, he made sure he was accompanied by his "elite security force," the White Berets. His thin, quavering voice spoke in measured, lofty tones.

When reporters from big magazines like GQ came calling, he might even break out his violin, emphasizing that he was not only a law student but — get this! — a classically trained musician, as well. For photos, he would often remove his glasses and clench his jaw, making his face look fuller, more dignified.

And now here he was, on the first day of jury selection, wearing that orange jumpsuit. As Hale gingerly lowered himself into his chair at the defendant's desk, he craned his thin neck around the courtroom for a quick, anxious study of the spectators.

What he saw surely dispirited him. Or, rather, what he didn't see, because the only familiar faces belonged to a couple of local reporters and Hale's divorced parents, Russell and Evelyn.

Not one of his followers had shown up for the start of what Hale, in prison letters and poems, had grandly dubbed "Nuremberg II," or, more simply, "The Great Trial."

For the man who would be führer, it only went downhill from there. Hale would watch as his defense attorney, Thomas Durkin, helped select a multiracial jury — five African Americans, one Latino, and one white college dean with a black partner — to decide whether the white-supremacist leader had obstructed justice and solicited the murder of a federal judge. (Durkin's theory, with which Hale vehemently disagreed, was that minorities would be more likely to believe that the government had framed his client.)

He would look on as Durkin tested the jurors' patience with long, rambling, frequently overruled arguments and cross-examinations. He would see revulsion spread across jurors' faces as they read his E-mail messages and listened to tapes of his public speeches and private conversations.

Hale could only watch, silent and slack-jawed, as the curtain was pulled back on his cherished empire and his carefully groomed image, revealing the shabbiness and sordidness behind the illusion. And in one final, painful twist of fate, those most responsible for pulling back the curtain would be three of the members the Pontifex Maximus trusted the most.

Vacuuming for the Führer
Jimmy Burnett was barely old enough to drive in 1991, when he happened upon a cable-access television show called "Race and Reason." The host was a nerdy-looking, smart-sounding Bradley University student who had founded a neo-Nazi group on campus.

Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Burnett had serious mental and physical disabilities that had led him to drop out of school. He was looking for something to do with his life. So he called the hotline number spelled out by the host.

And the next thing he knew, Matt Hale had shown up on his doorstep, ready to help him find his life's purpose.

After Hale assumed command of the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), Burnett became his Boy Friday, working for him three times a week. He vacuumed the "World Headquarters." He rolled up copies of the Church's newsletter, The Struggle. He helped maintain the shrine that Hale erected to himself, adding fresh photos, articles, and videos of Hale's television appearances.

He would do anything "Mr. Hale" asked — which meant, on one occasion, stealing a batch of Thrifty Nickel newspapers and inserting WCOTC fliers in them.

"I wouldn't dare defy him," Burnett nervously testified on the second day of his former hero's trial.

In September 1998, Burnett got some help with his tasks at the World Headquarters. Ben Smith, a sweet-faced local college student, quickly became Hale's most enthusiastic proselyte — a tireless worker who left thousands of WCOTC leaflets in mailboxes, on cars and in driveways all across Illinois.

Unlike Burnett, who testified that he'd only read "just a few chapters in front" of the church's main "holy book," The White Man's Bible, Smith shared Hale's passion for the twisted ideology mapped out by Ben Klassen, the Church of the Creator founder who committed suicide in 1993.

Like Burnett, Smith had access to both the public Matt Hale and the private Matt Hale. In public, Burnett testified, Hale would inveigh against Jews and "mud races," but also advise members to "stay legal at all times."

But "it was more of a darker tone at private meetings," Burnett said, "more hinting at violence." Hale would talk, for instance, about having "Jewish leaders hanged." And what about white people who consorted with minorities?

"He would have race traitors exterminated."

Shooting for More Members
When Matt Hale spoke, Jimmy Burnett listened. Ben Smith acted. In the summer of 1999, word came down that Hale had been denied his law license in Illinois, deemed morally unfit for the bar.

A few days later, Smith — who had planned to follow Hale's lead and go to law school himself — launched out on a three-day, one-man ethnic-cleansing campaign that left two people shot to death and seven wounded. On July 4, he ended the spree by turning a gun on himself.

Hale, Burnett testified, was anything but sorry. He had only one regret, he told his faithful assistant: "He wished Ben Smith had killed more race traitors." Far from distraught at losing the man he called "my protégé," Hale seemed positively ebullient, telling Burnett the national attention brought on by Smith's rampage "would bring in more membership and more PR."

That it did. The WCOTC's membership began to climb, reaching its peak two years later with 88 chapters nationwide — more than any other neo-Nazi group could claim. Hale became a minor media celebrity in the wake of the tragedy, profiled in major newspapers and magazines, interviewed by Katie Couric on the "Today" show, visited at home by CNN.

But while he was riding high, Hale was sowing the seeds of his own destruction — and the WCOTC's.

Burnett stuck with him longer than anyone else — "till he was arrested," he testified. But by the time Burnett stepped down from the witness stand, visibly relieved to be finished with painting his former hero as a serial liar and petty tyrant, the jury was prepared to believe just about anything about his former boss.

"You've seen some members of the WCOTC," prosecutor David Weisman would remind them in his closing argument, "and [Hale] is a lot smarter than all of them. He is a manipulator. He wants somebody else to do his dirty work."