Despite a membership of less than 150, Matt Hale's World Church of the Creator attracts headlines and sociopaths.
For one week this summer, Matt Hale's dream became reality — he was a player on the national scene. There he was, arguing with Katie Couric on the "Today" show. His picture was splashed across the pages of Newsweek, Time and virtually every newspaper in the United States. His carefully chosen words were the subject of weighty pontifications on CNN's legal affairs show, "Burden of Proof."
That the attention came at the cost of the life of a close Hale friend — and those of a couple of others — was but a minor detail.
Clearly, July was a great month for Hale.
Emerging from his bedroom on the second floor of his dad's East Peoria, Ill., home — where his bed is cheerily lined with stuffed animals from the Chicago Bears — Hale greeted television crew after television crew, taking breaks to speak to hundreds of print reporters on the phone.
The reporters all wanted to know one thing: Hale's reaction to the bloody, two-state shooting spree of one of his closest buddies. Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, for more than a year a key leader of Hale's World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), had spent his Fourth of July weekend murdering a black man and an Asian man and wounding nine others.
Sure, Hale was sorry — sorry that Smith shot himself as police closed in. Smith was, in Hale's view, a "martyr for free speech" — a frustrated but well-meaning "racialist" who'd snapped when the Illinois Bar Association denied Hale a law license because of Hale's neo-Nazi views.
As to the real victims — a beloved former Northwestern University basketball coach and a Korean doctoral student, along with nine wounded Jews, blacks and Asians — Hale wasted little breath. WCOTC's compassion, he said, was "reserved for our own race."
The Group Behind the Curtain
Although Hale boasted to reporters that WCOTC had as many as 30,000 followers, in reality there are fewer than 150 dues-paying members — and only about a dozen who are at the group's core.
His much-vaunted "world headquarters" is actually a spare room at his dad's place, decorated with an Israeli flag doormat. He doesn't have a job, but manages instead to live off the charity of his followers and his dad's police pension.
As the so-called "Pontifex Maximus," Hale was called upon to defend his group in a moment of crisis — and responded with an everchanging series of lies, prevarications and half-truths.
Ironically, the media attention that Hale got — and the relatively intelligent facade he offered to the nation's television viewers — may actually help bring reality closer to the image he tries to project.
Hale has shown some organizing skills, to some extent revitalizing a once-moribund group. He has taken advantage of the Internet to bring his message to tens of thousands of Americans. He has managed to set up chapters in some 22 states, even if some are little more than a lone member with a post office box.
And he has projected the image of a coat-and-tie professional, not that of a brown-shirted thug.
Hale says he started down the racist track when, at age 12, he reacted with disgust after seeing a black boy kiss a white girl. In eighth grade, he started his first hate club: the New Reich. After a failed attempt to create a White Student Union at Bradley University in East Peoria, he formed the American White Supremacist Party in 1990.
The following year, Hale switched groups again, joining the National Association for the Advancement of White People and describing its leader, former Klansman David Duke, as "the greatest politician that this country may have ever seen."
In 1992, he created yet another group, the National Socialist White Americans Party, anointing himself "National Leader."
Three years later, the then 23-year-old Hale ran openly as a white supremacist for the East Peoria City Council, garnering 14% of the vote — a remarkable result for an election in middle America.
After his loss, in July 1995, he took up the reins of power in the Church of the Creator — a group begun in 1973 by Ben Klassen which Hale would rename the World Church of the Creator. A year later, he was officially coronated.
Hale and the Law
Along the way, Hale, the would-be lawyer, had a number of legal entanglements (some of which the panel hearing his law license application said appeared to be cases of selective enforcement of laws because of Hale's views).
At age 19, he was found guilty of violating an East Peoria ordinance against open burning after torching an Israeli flag at a demonstration. The next year, he was fined in the same city for littering — dumping racist pamphlets at a shopping mall.
In May 1991, Hale was arrested for mob action after he and his brother allegedly threatened three blacks with a gun; he also was charged with felony obstruction of justice for refusing to tell police where his brother was. (He was convicted of obstruction, but eventually won a reversal on appeal. The mob action charge may have been dropped because one of the men he allegedly threatened carried a baseball bat.)
In 1992, Hale was charged with criminal trespass, resisting arrest, aggravated battery and carrying a concealed weapon after allegedly attacking a security officer at a mall. (He would later be sentenced to 30 months' "intensive" probation, including six months' house arrest.)
And in January 1998, he was charged with littering after throwing pamphlets on lawns.
Then came the Smith rampage. Within days, the Illinois attorney general announced plans to sue WCOTC because it had failed to register as a charity. The family of one of Smith's victims also sued the group, Hale, Smith's parents and others.
Attorney General Janet Reno even suggested the Justice Department might investigate WCOTC.
If many of Hale's past run-ins with the law have been over petty incidents, those of his WCOTC underlings and COTC predecessors were not. Under Klassen, COTC leaders killed a black man in Florida, shot up an occupied car in North Carolina, brawled with anti-racists in Milwaukee, robbed banks in Ohio and blew up an NAACP office in Washington state.
Under Hale, Florida members have robbed, beaten and intimidated minorities.
WCOTC in the Spotlight
Still, until Ben Smith opened fire, WCOTC was little known to the public. Hale did get some national publicity earlier this year, when the Illinois Bar Association first turned down his application to practice law, but it did not last long. Largely, he was remembered as the smooth-talking neo-Nazi who sported a furrowed brow for his interviewers.
The latest publicity clearly pleased Hale. "This just increases the interest in our church, our religion and the White Man's Bible," he told a group of anti-racist protesters who held a vigil outside his home in late July.
Under Hale's leadership, WCOTC has revolved around a small cadre of Hale's buddies. While Hale was studying for the law degree he completed in May 1998, the core of the group was Hale, Smith and John McLaughlin.
(McLaughlin, now 48, had his own brush with fame when he got into an altercation with journalist Geraldo Rivera at a 1992 Wisconsin rally. Rivera was charged with battery and McLaughlin with disorderly conduct. In 1995, McLaughlin was sentenced to 2 1/2 years' probation after police found a cache of his illegal weapons, including 24 silencers, machine-gun converter kits and armor-piercing and explosive bullets. He allegedly told police he was preparing for the "ultimate race war.")
When Hale returned to East Peoria, fewer than a dozen followers moved to be near him. Today, the real strength of WCOTC is concentrated in California, Florida and Illinois. Authorities in other states where the group lists chapters reported that they had seen no activity from members aside from a few minor pamphleting incidents.
Another measure of WCOTC's numbers comes in its mailings, which have been sent out from Champaign, Ill., under a bulk mail permit held by McLaughlin. An Aug. 27, 1998, postal receipt shows that the latest edition of The Struggle, which is sent to both members and prospective members, was mailed to just 207 people. The cost: $63.34.
Despite that, Hale had a chance to put the best face on his group after Smith's shooting rampage. But in interview after interview, he changed his story about his relationship with Smith and the question of Smith's membership.
Tales from the Crypt
Two days after the July killing began, Hale told the first Chicago Tribune reporter to call that he had had met Smith once, some eight months before, but didn't know him well. Hours later, he told another that he did know Smith and had seen him about a week before the shootings started.
He gave other reporters a variety of stories about Smith. To several of them, he explained that Smith's membership had lapsed months earlier.
But many of these statements were disingenuous at best.
According to media accounts, officials believe Smith spoke to Hale by phone for 28 minutes just two days before beginning his rampage. In the three weeks leading up to the shooting, the two men reportedly spoke for some 13 hours.
Despite his early statements, Hale was extremely close to Smith. Last October, The Struggle reported that Hale had named Smith "Creator of the Month," a high honor for a group whose "religion" is called "Creativity."
In January, Hale named Smith "Creator of the Year," saying, "I urge all of you, my Brothers, to view Brother Smith's activism as an example to follow." Officials also believe Smith spent $6,190 of his own money to print WCOTC pamphlets.
Hale also claimed that Smith's membership had expired in May for nonpayment of dues. But the June issue of The Struggle, which was written in late May or early June, reported that Smith had moved to East Peoria to work alongside Hale.
Soon Hale was putting a new spin on this story, too. In a bizarre twist the week after Smith's rampage, Hale showed reporters a registered letter that he said he'd just received from Smith (he had the postal receipt to prove it).
Mailed on the day the shooting began, the letter said Smith was "formally break[ing]" with WCOTC because he no longer could abide Hale's alleged nonviolence. Smith claimed that he had not been a "member" since April 1 — yet another date to consider.
Women, Babies and the FBI
Reporters weren't the only ones interested in Hale's relationship with Smith. The week after the shootings, local police and FBI agents showed up at Hale's home. A shaken Hale agreed to answer questions only if a Chicago Tribune reporter was present.
Hale told these authorities that he had suspected Smith was the shooter halfway through his three-day rampage.
Why hadn't he called police? "I felt this was something you could do yourselves. You're the police. When you haven't heard from a friend ... and you usually talk to him every other day or so, and the suspect is driving a light blue Taurus, my dad and I both kind of wondered. And if you don't like that answer, too bad."
Smith had something other than racism in common with Hale. Both men had had trouble with women. Indeed, despite WCOTC efforts to reach out to women (see All in the Family), some insiders have described Hale, and the men around him, as misogynists.
In 1997, Hale, then 25, married a 16-year-old WCOTC member. But she left him within three months, and many WCOTC members left the group in sympathy. Another former girlfriend and member was granted a protective order after a court finding that Hale had abused her. (Hale didn't bother to contest the woman's allegations in court.)
By early 1998, Hale was reduced to advertising on the Aryan Dating Page for "a young, attractive, positive, dependable, creative, intelligent and open-minded White woman... ."
Hale has even asked potential female members to send along a photo. He has told several that he wants to help propagate the white race by making babies.
Hale also has raised the specter of interracial sexual violence in particularly ugly ways. In 1995, he wrote a letter to a woman who had had a letter to the editor opposing racism published in a local newspaper.
According to the Illinois Bar Association panel, he suggested that the woman's rape by a "n----- beast" might enlighten her.
Like his mentor, Smith also faced a protective order against him, obtained by a former girlfriend who described him as extremely abusive. Officials at Indiana University — where Smith was a criminal justice major who hoped to one day become an attorney, like his hero, Hale — have reported that Smith was caught peeping into women's windows.
He also had numerous run-ins with officials around Bloomington for smoking marijuana — something expressly forbidden by the WCOTC rules laid down by Klassen.
Picnic at the Coliseum
Indeed, quite apart from hatred of Jews, blacks, gays and many others, WCOTC frowns upon drug use of any kind, even legal drugs. (Klassen wrote often of the merits of "salubrious living" — eating uncooked organic foods and abstaining from the use of drugs, alcohol, medicines, vitamins or refined sugar.)
Members are exhorted to follow the "16 Commandments," which are often read at Creativity Sunday "services." These services amount to group readings of the commandments (including a reminder that "the inferior colored races are our deadly enemies"), the 18 precepts of "what we believe" and the five "fundamental beliefs of Creativity," along with a "sermon" drawn from Klassen's writings.
But in truth, Creativity can be summed up in a single sentence: Whites are the creators of civilization, and all others are its destroyers. Creativity reviles Christianity as a Jewish plot and is essentially atheistic, seeing God as a phantom "super-spook."
Klassen's writings often were explicit in their encouragement of racial violence. In his magazine, Racial Loyalty, examples of racial violence were offered and members were encouraged to emulate them.
Klassen even rated racial violence according to the "Enemy Toll Effectiveness Factor" (E.T.E.F.) — the ratio of white supremacist lives lost to the total number of lives taken by each violent act. The lower the ratio, the better the act.
"Creators" revere ancient Rome as the chief example of white greatness — a fascination that is reflected in the titles, like Pontifex Maximus, of the group's leaders. In the words of Klassen, whose writings are treated by members as the Holy Writ, Rome "reached dazzling heights of accomplishment because of the excellency of her racial stock."
Reading through Klassen's materials, it's easy to picture the ideal Creativity outing: a day at the Coliseum, watching Christians, Jews and others being thrown to the lions.
Today, WCOTC suffers from internal divisions related more to its youthful membership than to the collapse of the Roman empire.
On one side are the "rockers," mainly racist Skinheads fascinated with racist and other rock music. On the other are the classicists, of whom Hale — who plays classical violin — is clearly one.
As ludicrous as it may sound, in the youth-oriented world of WCOTC these are important matters. Some have joked that what Klassen didn't wreck, Hale will — with his violin.
Despite that, this is a group that has left a trail of blood across America for much of its 26-year life. In the case of Smith, Hale provided a home — a group that justified and condoned Smith's violent attitudes, along with providing him with a ready-made set of friends.
Similarly, after two men in California were arrested in late July in connection with the murder of two gay men (see Odyssey of Hate), authorities found that they possessed WCOTC literature. Although it's highly unlikely that they were members — their philosophy was clearly distinct from Creativity — WCOTC's materials provided moral support.
In the past, the organization has suffered with leaders who have not always effectively promoted their cause. Although Klassen, unlike Hale, did have contacts with other key racist leaders, he was something of a loner who was letting the group fall into disarray well before his death.
One of his would-be heirs was a pizza delivery man, and another, Richard "Rick" McCarty, was principally an entrepreneur who hoped to turn WCOTC into a moneymaker (he embarrassed many members with his lukewarm racism).
It remains to be seen whether Matt Hale, a man who counts his successes in newspaper clippings, can do better. He has managed to revitalize an organization that in 1995 had virtually disappeared, bringing the number of chapters it counted from 14 in 1996 to 46 at the end of 1998 — far more than Klassen ever had.
Although the group is small in absolute numbers, that may not be the most important measure of its danger. It doesn't take many Ben Smiths to leave a trail of bloody carnage, broken lives and smashed dreams.