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
Joining the Underworld
Now a muscular 6-foot, 4-inches with giant hands and steel blue eyes he uses to punctuate his sentences, Browning grew up in Phoenix playing football in high school and dreaming of becoming a forest ranger or a cop. He joined the Mesa Police Department 15 years ago, and it was through his work on the gang squad that he began to take an interest in political extremists.
As the only white member of an otherwise all-Hispanic squad working Latino street gangs, Browning had grown tired of being the guy who got to stay with the car. In 1996, of his own volition, Browning began looking into violent white supremacists.
"Initially, I was interested in the freemen and constitutionalists [parts of the militia movement that peaked in the mid-1990s]," Browning recalls. "As I started working the militia angle, I found out that a lot of the militia groups had Klan ties. So I joined the Klan." It was surprisingly easy.
"You know that stupid little Klan passport, that card you get from [Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard] Thom Robb? That got me all over the place. People look at that and they don't question it."
In 1997, he was transferred from gangs to Mesa's intelligence unit.
"When I became intel, I devoted almost all my time to working these guys. If there was a meeting, I'd be there. When the National Alliance started in Phoenix, I was their No. 4 guy, and it got to where they wanted me to run the East Valley chapter." Browning declined the invitation.
He used an alias and told his targets that he was a business owner infuriated because Hispanics had stolen all of his equipment. Neither his story nor his identity was questioned. Not once.
"At that time, they were so hard up for people they didn't check anything out," Browning says. "Now, I would probably backstop everything. Now, they are sending people to polygraph school to check the new people coming in."
Browning admits he made a few mistakes along the way, like the time he brought Mexican beer to a white-power barbecue. "I'd been born and raised in Arizona, so I was thinking I would just get a case of Corona. I even got the little limes. That was bad," he says, shaking his head with wry amusement. "They saw it and looked at me and I said, 'You know what? I'll be right back.' I went and bought some Heineken."
Browning worked fugitives for the FBI from 2000 until 2002, but kept up his contacts as best he could, using the story that a friend of his had been killed in a car crash in Idaho, where he had gone to take care of the widow and children.
When his stint with the FBI was up, Browning decided to call Jerry Harbin, leader of the Phoenix unit of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, and try to reenter the scene. His timing was perfect. Harbin invited him to an Alliance meeting in Phoenix attended by a cast of characters that would make the unflappable Browning more nervous than any other situation in his 15-year career.
On a smoldering day in August 2002, Browning pulled into the lot of the La Quinta Inn in Phoenix. He knew he was in the right place -- parked nearby were a jacked-up Chevy Blazer with 44-inch mud tires, a primer-grey station wagon converted into a 4-by-4, and several other vehicles spray-painted with crude Iron Crosses.
Browning stepped out of his truck and walked across the lot to the spot where Harbin stood conversing with a half-dozen burly, tattooed Skinheads.
"Welcome back," Harbin said warmly as he embraced Browning.
After some perfunctory small talk, the group strode through the lobby doors, past slack-jawed receptionists, and on to a conference room set up with 50 or so chairs. Browning was lucky to get one of the last seats near the back. He took a moment to glance around the room, which quickly filled to standing room only with the most hard-core Skinheads he had ever seen.
Nerves set in.
"These were real skins, real violent people. They were bragging about beating people down," Browning recalls. Unlike armchair neo-Nazis who talk trash about other races but rarely take action, "these were guys who actually went on hunting trips. They actually would go and hunt and find their victims and beat the crap out of them."
Browning called his surveillance back-up team. He asked them to move in closer in case things went bad.
After a while, Jerry Harbin, clad in flip-flops and khaki shorts, took his place behind a podium draped with a National Alliance flag. He began the meeting by asking the participants to introduce themselves.
The Skinheads were all members of Josh Fiedler's Unit 88, and the names they rattled off would come to be very familiar to Browning over the next two years: Chris Whitley, Sammy Compton, Justin LaRue, Patrick Bearup and others Browning would eventually help put behind bars.
Harbin welcomed the skins with open arms. "Unit 88, we're glad you're here. You are the Skinhead arm of the National Alliance. You are the enforcer arm of the National Alliance," he told them.
"I don't have any problems with your tattoos, but if you go out and do things, cover up your tattoos so nobody can see them," Harbin cautioned. Harbin's Phoenix unit was preparing to host the new Alliance chairman, Erich Gliebe, at a summit, and Harbin wanted Unit 88, which would be acting as security for the event, to make a favorable impression.
Harbin, an avid thespian, seemed to channel Hitler as he launched into an inspired rant, waving his arms and throwing out German words as he spoke of sacrificing a pig on a hilltop as part of an Odinist ritual. He told the crowd of his efforts to promote the movement while working as a respiratory technician at Phoenix Children's Hospital, talking to the young children he encountered there about racist variants of Odinism and handing out tiny Thor's hammer pendants.
Browning's eyes swept the room as Harbin spoke, memorizing faces, taking note of allegiances and tattoos, the most blatant of which belonged to the young Skinhead seated directly in front of him, Chris Whitley, who had the word "CRACKER" inked on the back of his shaven head.
After the meeting, Harbin announced that William Worley, the Alliance's sergeant-at-arms -- a cage fighter who was also a convicted sex offender -- would be teaching a class on close-quarters combat for anyone interested.
Nearly all the Skinheads stayed.
Two months later, three of those Skinheads -- Whitley, Compton and LaRue -- allegedly would put their training to use. The brutality of that night still haunts Browning, whose work eventually helped piece together what happened.