Arizona Skinhead Scene Suffering from Detective Matt Browning’s Investigations
Matt Browning spent years in undercover work targeting violent racists. The Arizona Skinhead scene has yet to recover.
by Susy Buchanan
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- On March 24, 2003, neo-Nazi Skinhead leader Josh Fiedler sat regally on a sofa in the living room of his suburban Phoenix home.
Fiedler's Skinhead followers sprawled on the floor at his feet fondling pistols and slurping bottles of St. Pauli Girl while their charismatic führer unwrapped a series of rather redundant birthday gifts -- pair after pair of Dickies workpants in black, red and khaki.
Fiedler's former girlfriend, Jessica Nelson, gazed up at him longingly. Once a Skinhead matriarch, Nelson got strung out on meth while Fiedler was in prison and had only recently been allowed to rejoin the crew.
Sean Gaines, Fiedler's intoxicated second-in-command whose rap sheet included a felony conviction for bashing a Latino man in the head with a tree branch, tried to give Fiedler his pistol.
Fiedler reached for it on instinct, paused, and then snapped his hand away as if he had been burned, laughing uproariously. The terms of Fiedler's parole mentioned something about avoiding firearms, and he wasn't ready to go back to prison yet.
Skinhead activity in the Phoenix area was on an upward spiral, as dramatically evidenced by a high-profile murder five months earlier, and Fiedler was one of the scene's rising stars, holding press conferences for television cameras, posing for the cover of the local alternative weekly and clearly delighting in his role as a celebrity Skinhead. He seemed to genuinely believe he was untouchable.
Fiedler joked with his crew that day about this being the first birthday he could remember that he wasn't celebrating behind bars.
One man was determined to make it his last.
Starsky and Hutch
"Do I know you?" a confused Josh Fiedler asked, squinting into the face of the detective cuffing him in front of his home several months later.
"Yeah, you do, you moron," responded Matt Browning, a Mesa detective who spent 10 years off and on working Arizona's white power circles -- and two years in an intensive undercover period that broke two major murder cases. Overall, Browning's work has wreaked havoc on Arizona's Skinhead scene.
Fiedler's arrest came more than a year after he led a home invasion of a family whom he robbed of jewelry, guns and two pounds of marijuana. It was a typically brutal Skinhead affair -- a disabled child was duct-taped to a chair while Fiedler and a cohort ransacked the home. Fiedler wore a ski mask, but he forgot to cover up a telltale tattoo on his neck and a piercing between his eyes showed through the mask. When police working the case contacted Browning, he knew right away who the culprit was -- the tattoo and piercing removed all doubt. As a result, Fiedler was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Browning's remarkable ability to insinuate himself into a particularly ugly and vicious segment of society has helped pull a number of suspected violent criminals off the street -- including eight accused murderers. His is an uncommon profession wrought with stress and danger. But Browning makes it look easy.
"There are very few detectives that take an interest in something, develop a passion for it and focus all their energy on it. Not many detectives are willing to invest the personal time," says Browning's sergeant Mike Ivey. "He's really a lightning rod for this stuff in this area."
And a successful one at that. Out of the original 37 members and associates of Fiedler and his Skinhead crew that Browning collected intelligence on, 18 have been sentenced to prison, are in custody awaiting trial, or have been released after spending time in jail.
Of that group, seven were indicted on charges of capital murder. These were investigations that consumed Browning for more than two years, drawing him deeper into the violent world of Skinheads than he'd ever gone before.
Although Browning took satisfaction in the arrests, the toll undercover work has taken on him -- and still does -- is evident.
Phone calls and meetings with Skinheads inevitably disrupt weekends and holidays.
The gun he carries with him constantly is a burden he yearns to put down.
One of his young sons sleeps with a kitchen knife under his pillow, terrified that his father's work may somehow harm him.
The gruesome details of the cases he works etch themselves into his brain, as does the knowledge that for every skin he puts in jail there will be another to take his place.
His is a lonely road.
Charlie Fuller, founder of the 360-member Undercover Law Enforcement Officers Association and a former ATF agent for 23 years, estimates that only 2% of all law enforcement officers are involved in undercover operations, which he says are an invaluable tool but also the most dangerous part of police work. "Those guys go into very stressful situations on a daily basis," Fuller says. "People think it's like Starsky and Hutch. But it's nothing like that at all."