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
Butchers at Work
Browning first heard stories about a body in the desert in June 2002, but it would be a year before he located the remains -- little more than a jawbone by then -- and several more months after that until he could make any arrests.
Browning can't talk about the details of this case, either, as it has yet to go to trial. But police records largely compiled by Browning spell out the authorities' allegations.
In early 2002, these records say, Jessica Nelson, Josh Fiedler's former girlfriend, was living with friends of Fiedler's while he was away in prison. They were Cecilia and Bruce Mathes and Bruce's brother, Mark.
In February 2002, eight months before the Cole Bailey murder, Nelson allegedly decided that Mark Mathes had stolen money from her purse. She called Sean Gaines and asked him to take care of the situation.
Gaines assembled a crew, including long-time Skinhead Patrick Bearup and a new initiate, or "freshcut," Jeremy Johnson. Police say the three reached the home that Jessica shared with Mathes around 10 at night, armed with a baseball bat, a shotgun and a large knife.
In a prearranged setup, Mathes and Nelson were sitting in the backyard smoking, drinking beer and playing with their cats when the Skinheads rolled up. They quickly surrounded Mathes, according to the police account.
"You fucked up," Gaines said, pointing the 12-gauge at Mathes' head.
Gaines allegedly ordered Johnson to "take his legs out" with the baseball bat. Johnson swung at Mathes' knees, ankles and back. Nelson jumped in and punched him in the face. With Mathes on the ground, police say, Gaines smashed his head with the butt of the shotgun until Mathes' screaming finally stopped.
Bearup dragged Mathes to the car Johnson had borrowed from his girlfriend and heaved him into the trunk. With Mathes moaning behind them, police say, Johnson and Gaines drove the car more than an hour north, to a remote area known as Swastika Mine. Bearup and Nelson followed in a separate car.
When they reached the mine, they stopped near an embankment. Johnson opened the trunk to find Mathes staring at him, gurgling from his injuries as he tried to speak.
Bearup and Nelson ripped the clothes from his body, police say. They used bolt cutters to cut off one of his fingers when they couldn't easily slide a ring Nelson fancied from his finger. Mathes screamed, but Gaines again silenced him with the butt of his shotgun. Then Gaines allegedly shot Mathes twice in the face. His lifeless body was thrown into a ravine.
It wasn't long before some of the Skinheads had bragged about the crime to friends. Jeremy Johnson -- who eventually confessed to police and agree to cooperate in the capital murder trial of his comrades -- told his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hall, what had happened that night. After all, it was her car he'd borrowed to transport the body.
Several months later, when Hall was no longer Johnson's girlfriend, she went to the police with her story. Quantities of Mathes' blood were recovered from her trunk.
Browning worked the case until the suspects' arrest in September 2003. He is expected to testify at their upcoming trial.
To Hunt the Hunters
What gets to Browning is that no matter how many Skinheads he sends to jail, the problem seems to remain constant. He describes it as a never-ending circle.
"You have your main core group that you are working, you work them and all of a sudden, pow! You get them on charges and they go to prison. Because of the way the prison system works, they go in, become educated, become more versed in combating law enforcement, their beliefs become stronger. They come out and it's really still for a while and then it starts building up and building up and then your circle starts over again. Your core group is back out, just stronger, wiser and more and more violent than before."
After spending much of the last decade working undercover in white power groups, Browning has mixed emotions. "If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn't," he says in a moment of frustration.
But it's hard to believe him. Minutes later, Browning is talking with excitement about a project he started last year, the Skinhead Intelligence Network (SIN), a tri-state network composed of 60 law enforcement officers from Arizona, Nevada and Utah who meet on a regular basis to trade information on Skinheads. Browning hopes in the future to hold training seminars and take SIN national.
He wants to testify before Congress one day and lobby for stronger hate crime laws that would call for mandatory sentencing for those convicted of crimes committed because of the race, orientation or religion of the victim.
He says law enforcement needs to take Skinheads more seriously and look into using racketeering laws to take down entire organizations, as he had hoped to do in the Cole Bailey case.
"We started looking at RICO [the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], but before we could use RICO on them, the NA guys got into a pissing match and pretty much destroyed the National Alliance before we could do it."
As he talks, his excitement and passion for his work is genuine, and the weight seems to lift from his shoulders. The stress, frustration and constant threat of violence that come with the job are things he is quite willing to shake off once he focuses back on his work. Browning seems to relish the challenge of beating Skinheads at their own game without ever really playing it, and he's full of advice, not discouragement, for those considering following a similar path.
"I think the most important thing to remember if you want to go undercover is do a lot of research," Browning says. "You can't go into a Skinhead meeting and say hey, I like your suspenders [the Skinhead term is braces]. They'll kick you out. Just like they will if you go into a Skinhead meeting wearing patrol-issued boots."
Learning to recognize things like white power tattoos is important, he says. And it's critical to earn the trust and respect of your targets -- just like it's important to choose the right targets.
"Skinheads are extremely easy to work once you get into it. There's that courting time, and you have to know who the players are and if the group you are getting into is worth the effort," Browning says. "Are they just a bunch of beer-drinking guys who wear a swazi [swastika] shirt now and then or are they the ones who are actually going out there and doing boot parties?"
Browning sits back and smiles.
"I want the boot party guys. I want to party with them. I want the guys who go on hunting trips and kill Mexican nationals and dump their bodies. That's who I want to go after."