Neo-Nazi Leader Matt Hale Stands Trial for Murder Plot

Pictured at a neo-Nazi protest at the U.S. Capitol, Jon Fox stumbled into a maelstrom when Hale brought him to Illinois.
(Jennifer Warburg)

Clueless in Kentucky
A high-school dropout with severe bipolar disorder, Jon Fox was already a member of the antigovernment Kentucky State Militia when he first paid his $35 yearly dues to the World Church of the Creator in 1997. But it was only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Fox — a burly, bearded man with a well-earned reputation as one of the wilder characters in the world of white supremacy — decided to fully devote himself to Hale's cause by becoming a WCOTC "reverend."

During his testimony, Fox explained the process of becoming a high official in Hale's church: "You would just send $15 to Matt, he would send a test, and you'd just fill out the test and send it back to Matt and he would grade it."

Was the test difficult? Fox was asked.

"It's open book," he testified. "It couldn't get any easier."

"So you passed?"

"Third time around."

Fox formed a new Kentucky chapter of the WCOTC that fall. A year later, in October 2002, he met Hale at a Ku Klux Klan rally in West Virginia, where the Pontifex Maximus asked his gung-ho "reverend" to take a more important job: state leader of Hale's own Illinois chapter. Hale said he wanted "someone he could trust," Fox testified, "someone older and mature."

Hale offered to pay for the move out of the church's coffers, and to send another one of his loyalists, Scott Gulbranson, to transport the Fox family from Kentucky.

It sounded like a sweet deal to Fox, who at the time was living with his two daughters in a homeless shelter. Besides, as Fox testified, "I thought I was doing something good, being an idealist or whatever you want to call it."

He had no clue that he was stepping into a maelstrom. By the time Fox arrived in East Peoria that November, Hale was furiously fending off challenges to his leadership from at least two disgruntled factions of the World Church. The Montana chapter had already "impeached" Hale and installed its own Pontifex Maximus.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Hale was also awaiting a court order that might force the WCOTC to change its name — the one he'd worked to make famous.

That May, a suit had been filed in federal court on behalf of the TE-TA-MA Foundation, a religious organization in Oregon that had trademarked the name "Church of the Creator." Because of the similarity in the names, attorney James Amend testified, "My clients were getting blamed for the views" of Hale's better-known "church."

When U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow issued a ruling in the trademark suit, Hale breathed a sigh of relief: Lefkow said that because "Church of the Creator" was a generic name for religious organizations, the trademark was null and void. WCOTC could keep its name.

Not for long, however. When TE-TA-MA appealed Judge Lefkow's decision, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed her ruling, declaring the trademark was valid after all. Judge Lefkow was left with no choice but to issue an order forcing the WCOTC to comply with the higher court's finding.

On Nov. 19, less than two weeks after Fox and his daughters rolled into East Peoria, the order came down. The World Church of the Creator had to stop using its name, and had to report back to the court within 30 days that the name had been removed from all print materials — or at least covered up with tape — and taken off of the group's Web sites.

Hale snapped. On Nov. 29, he dispatched an E-mail message to key WCOTC members calling the ruling "a sick, draconian order that in effect places our church in a state of war."

The order had made it clear that there was no need to destroy the WCOTC's most valuable possessions — more than 4,000 "holy books" that sold for $10 a pop. But Hale told his followers that the court had ordered a "book-burning."

Blaming "Jew vermin" for this miscarriage of justice, Hale wrote, "They are the criminals, and we can now treat them like the criminal dogs they are." The note went on to declare "open season on all Jews."

Pregnant at 12
A few days after his incendiary E-mail, Hale summoned Fox to the World Headquarters saying he needed help distributing copies of that month's Struggle. When Fox arrived, he testified, "Matt said we had a lot to talk about. The first thing he brought up was, 'We have to teach this judge a lesson.' "

As they circled the block around Hale's father's house, avoiding the microphones Hale was convinced the government had installed there, he told Fox he was in search of Judge Lefkow's home address.

"He wanted signs, posters, fliers around [her] neighborhood," Fox testified. "He wanted demonstrations every time she went to the courthouse. He wanted me to find out her daily routine. He wanted to intimidate her."

That wasn't all Hale wanted, Fox testified. "He said the judge, those attorneys, they all needed to die." So did the head of the TE-TA-MA Foundation. "He wanted the church burned down around his head. He asked if I, or anyone I knew, could do that. I told him no."

Under two long days of sarcastic cross-examination by Hale's attorney, Thomas Durkin, Fox calmly stuck to his story. But there was no hard evidence — no tapes, no E-mail messages — to back up his charge that Hale had solicited Judge Lefkow's murder. There was only the corroborating testimony of Fox's daughter, Elizabeth, who provided the saddest spectacle of Hale's three weeks in court.

Every inch the teenager, Elizabeth slouched into Courtroom 1441 wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She rolled her eyes and sneered at Durkin, at one point asking him, "Are you trying to confuse me or something?"

But she also stuck to the story, testifying that her father had told her they were moving back to Kentucky because Hale had "asked him to do stuff, like he wanted the judge dead and the church burned to the ground. My dad decided we shouldn't be a part of this anymore."

Hale's erratic behavior wasn't the worst of it. By the time the Foxes hightailed it back to Kentucky in February 2003, Elizabeth was pregnant — courtesy, they say, of Scott Gulbranson, the man Hale had sent to help them move to Illinois. At the time, Elizabeth testified, she was "almost 13" years old.

Delivery Boy or Hit Man?
Tony Evola looked like a godsend when he showed up in East Peoria in the spring of 2000. The attention generated by the Ben Smith shootings already had Hale's conspiratorial brain buzzing about what the "Jewish occupational government" might do to bring him down.

He felt certain that his house was being bugged. He knew that the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a bare-knuckles bunch of hate-group haters, was out to get him. He had good reason to suspect that his chief White Beret, Ken Dippold, could no longer be trusted.

Enter Evola. A wide, solidly built block of a man with a thick mustache, receding hairline and heavily accented, deep-as-a-well voice, Evola could pass for a cast member of "The Sopranos." But for Hale's purposes, his situation in life was even better than that. Held back by a severe learning disability, Evola was living on social security as he approached middle age, delivering pizzas and working volunteer security at Chicago public schools.

In March and April 2000, Evola turned up at two of Hale's speaking engagements in the company of a WCOTC member from Chicago, whom he'd met at the pizza parlor. As Hale was leaving one of the events, JDL members tried to start a scuffle. Evola stepped in instinctively, protecting the Pontifex Maximus as he made a safe exit.

The second time they met, Hale asked Evola to be his security chief. As Evola testified in court, he hadn't even joined the WCOTC at that point. But Hale was desperate.

And when Evola brought him a gift the next time he visited East Peoria — a T-shirt he'd printed up, calling Ben Smith a "First Amendment Martyr" — Hale knew he'd found just the man to keep him safe.

From the spring of 2000 till Hale's arrest in January 2003, Evola went everywhere the Pontifex Maximus went. They drove and flew together to speaking engagements and racialist gatherings all over the country.

While they traveled, there was plenty of time to talk — sometimes about killing people. Evola had contacts, you see, friends of his cousin who could do a "good quiet job" of "exterminating" any "rats" who needed it. And as trouble increasingly swirled around Hale, the rats seemed to be everywhere.

Hale never initiated the conversations about "exterminating" his enemies. But he never put a halt to them, either. During his four days of testimony, the jury heard a dozen tapes of Evola and Hale discussing these matters at length — all of them following the same basic script as their May 2002 conversation about Dan Hassett.

Hassett was a longtime church leader in Montana who'd been instrumental in choosing Hale as Pontifex Maximus in the first place. Now he was calling for his impeachment, sending E-mail messages calling Hale — among other things — a "Jew lover."

On the tape, driving home from a rally, Evola brings up Hassett's "campaign" against Hale, and asks what Hale wants "done with him." As Nazi marching music blares in the background, Hale protests that he can't discuss such things — at least not directly. "[Y]ou have to understand my position. I can't ever say anything illegal and nor can I ever encourage anything illegal and that's why I simply have to say or hope ..."

Evola: "You wouldn't mind him falling off the face of the earth."

Hale: "No, I wouldn't mind at all. ... All I can say is that I hope the guy, however, one day, shuts up. I mean, what else can I say?"

Evola: "It'd be like that." On the tape, he can be heard snapping his fingers to demonstrate. "All I need is the cash to make it happen."

Hale: "Let me think about it."

The conversation continues in this vein for several more minutes, with Evola making suggestions and Hale equivocating. "I know damn well that if I were to tell you right now to go out there and shoot the bastard, you would in a heartbeat," Hale finally says. "I know you would and you know, believe me, it's tempting, believe me." On the tape, Hale can be heard laughing nervously over the martial strains of marching Nazis.