With its leader imprisoned, its name illegal and its ranks thinned by splits, the World Church of the Creator is on the ropes.
Two days after his favorite follower began a 1999 murder spree that left two people dead, neo-Nazi leader Matt Hale told the first reporter who called that he had met Benjamin Nathaniel Smith only once, eight months earlier, and barely knew him.
Hours later, the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) chieftain admitted to a second reporter from the same newspaper that he did know Smith and conceded that he'd actually spoken to him a week before. To still another reporter, Hale claimed that Smith's membership in the WCOTC had lapsed months before. In the following days, Hale's account of his relationship to Smith would change almost hourly.
Matt Hale was lying. In fact, officials said, Hale had spoken to Smith by telephone for some 13 hours in the three weeks leading up to Smith's rampage — 28 minutes of that time just two days before the shooting began. Six months earlier, Hale had named Smith "Creator of the Year," the group's top honor, saying that his other followers should see in Smith "an example to follow." As late as a month before the rampage, Hale's publications described Smith as a group member.
Then, the week after the murders, a registered letter arrived at Hale's house in East Peoria, Ill., claiming Smith was "formally breaking" with WCOTC. Conveniently for Hale, Smith had sent the letter on the morning of the day that he opened fire.
Ben Smith killed himself as police closed in at the end of the three-day rampage that also left nine minorities wounded, and Matt Hale was never charged in connection with Smith's crimes. But now, almost four years later, Hale once again finds himself at the eye of a violent storm. This time, many who suspect he got away with something in 1999 hope, Hale may have to pay for his role in a criminal plot.
On Jan. 8, the so-called "Pontifex Maximus" of the WCOTC was arrested in the federal courthouse in Chicago and charged with obstruction of justice and solicitation to murder a federal judge.
FBI agents said that Hale had tried to recruit an informer to assassinate U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, who had been presiding in a copyright trial in which WCOTC lost the right to use its long-time name. The arrest followed weeks of furious WCOTC attacks on Judge Lefkow, who was vilified as a "probable Jew," "criminal judge" and "kike- and nigger-loving" traitor.
In 1999, Hale depicted Ben Smith's rampage as an understandably furious reaction to the Illinois Bar Association's refusal to grant Hale a law license just a day earlier. Blind rage may explain Hale's recent actions, as well. Hale had defied Judge Lefkow's order to give up use of his group's name, and he fully expected to be jailed when he showed up on Jan. 8 for a contempt hearing before her.
Despite his many pronouncements about acting legally, Hale allegedly had decided the judge's punishment would be death.
Matt Hale hadn't figured on one thing. Shortly after the Smith rampage, the FBI, apparently seeing Hale as a dangerous threat, recruited a key WCOTC official as an informant. Wearing a concealed recording device, the informant — Hale's chief of security — spent the next four years taping conversations of his leader. The result, it turns out, could be the destruction of the WCOTC.
Teddy Bears and Hitler Watches
Matt Hale began his career as a professional racist at the age of 12, when he says he read Hitler's Mein Kampf from cover to cover. He set up a tiny hate club he called the New Reich in eighth grade and tried to organize a White Students Union at Bradley University when he went there. He would form the American White Supremacist Party in 1990, switching the following year to the National Association for the Advancement of White People, run by David Duke (see Insatiable).
Hale took over what was then called the Church of the Creator in 1995, two years after its founder Ben Klassen, depressed over the death of his wife, committed suicide after several attempts to install a successor.
In 1996, at the Montana ranch of Slim Deardorff, Hale was officially elected as leader of the group, which he renamed the World Church of the Creator, by the church's Guardians of the Faith Committee, which included Deardorff. Hale's 10-year-term is set to expire in 2006.
Unusually well educated for a neo-Nazi, Hale managed to revitalize an organization that had virtually disappeared after Klassen's death. From 14 chapters in 1996, WCOTC had grown to 88 chapters by 2002, making it the neo-Nazi group with the largest number of chapters in America. Hale also built up the group's Web presence enormously, and proved adept at winning national publicity on a number of occasions. His members commonly leaflet in various cities around the country, and even after his arrest managed to pull off a fairly substantial rally in Maine.
But Hale is also a bit of a cartoon character.
At age 31, he has spent almost his entire life living in his father's two-story house in East Peoria, operating out of an upstairs bedroom painted red to depict the blood of the white race. He has never held a serious job, sports a Hitler wristwatch and uses an Israeli flag as a doormat outside his room. He keeps a collection of teddy bears on his bed, and although he has been married twice, neither union has lasted more than a few months.
His latest marriage, to Peggy Anderson, apparently ended days after his arrest, when she sent his belongings back to his father's home. An earlier marriage, to a 16-year-old follower, ended within 12 weeks.
Hale's talk was big, but his walk was small. He told reporters that he had as many as 80,000 followers — a patently ludicrous assertion for a group that never had more than several hundred. He received national publicity for a Web page he put up that was supposedly meant to recruit young children — but confided to insiders that it was a publicity stunt aimed at generating media interest. Hale appeared repeatedly on the "Today" show and other national TV news programs and a New York Times columnist recently described him as "the face of hate" in America.
But the mundane reality was that Hale, while depicting himself as a red-hot revolutionary, spent much of the last two years lecturing in small library rooms under heavy police protection. Matt Hale, his detractors joked, was rescuing the white race one library at a time.
Even so, Hale's group has attracted a number of sociopaths and other violently inclined individuals. Ben Smith left two dead and nine wounded in Illinois and Indiana. Another acolyte, Erica Chase, was convicted last fall in a plot to blow up landmarks on the East Coast.
Hale's followers have been arrested for aggravated assault, armed robbery, witness intimidation and attempted murder. Under Klassen, COTC leaders murdered a black man in Florida, shot up an occupied car in North Carolina, brawled in Ohio and blew up an NAACP office in Washington.
What's in a Name?
Matt Hale's WCOTC was already in trouble when his January arrest sent shock waves through his organization and the American radical right at large (see The Year in Hate). The group had suffered through two splits in the previous year and a half. It had lost a civil suit for failing to register as a charity and was ordered to disclose its finances as a result. Hale was personally under investigation for advertising himself as a lawyer when, in fact, he was not.
And, in the case before Judge Lefkow, he had lost the right to use WCOTC's name in a copyright lawsuit filed by a church dedicated to multiculturalism rather than neo-Nazism.
Hale's predicament actually started to take shape years earlier. In 1999, after the Ben Smith rampage, the state of Illinois sued Hale's group, which had claimed tax-exempt status, for failing to register as a charity and disclose its finances as required by state law. Hale claimed that as a "church," WCOTC was not required to register, but in 2001 he was finally ordered to do so. As of press time, the organization had still failed to register as a charity or disclose its finances.
After appealing the Illinois Bar Association's refusal to grant him a law license all the way to the Supreme Court, Hale also lost his bid to become an Illinois lawyer. Although he had passed the bar exam, the association found that he was not morally fit. A similar attempt to get licensed in Montana also failed.
Starting in 2001, the WCOTC began to suffer from internal splits and defections. In December 2001, Hale — described as a misogynist by some insiders — lost his two most important female activists.
Lisa Turner and Melody LaRue, who led WCOTC's efforts to recruit women in their roles at the head of the Sisterhood of the WCOTC, quit the organization. Turner cited her mother's failing health, while LaRue wrote cryptically that many of her reasons were "of a personal nature." With other female former Creators, LaRue set up Hypatia Publishing on the model of the Sisterhood. Hypatia has a Web site and now publishes Sisterhood magazine.
Just a few months later, in March 2002, Hale expelled long-time Montana Creators Dan Hassett and Slim Deardorff, who had helped him win his Pontifex Maximus title back in 1996. Hale told followers that he'd sent the men $8,740 in WCOTC funds for safekeeping after the group was sued by the families of Ben Smith's victims. (The civil suit was ultimately unsuccessful.) Hassett and Deardorff bought gold with the money, burying it near Deardorff's Montana cabin. Hale said the men later claimed the cabin burned down and the money had been lost.
Enraged, Hale accused the men of embezzlement and "treason." He charged that Hassett had threatened to inform on WCOTC members to the FBI. Deardorff, Hale added, was having "fatherly relations" with his two mixed-race children — born before he joined the COTC — and was thereby defiling the white race.
But Hassett and Deardorff had apparently been unhappy with Hale for some time when these events occurred. In late 2001, Deardorff had sent a private letter to William Pierce, then the leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, asking him if he might be interested in taking over WCOTC. Pierce declined. In May 2002, after Hale made his accusations, Hassett, Deardorff and three other Creators – men who said they made up the Guardians of the Faith Committee that had once elevated Hale to leader — fired back. They sent Hale a letter informing him that he was no longer WCOTC's leader. Hale ignored the rebels, but Hassett and Deardorff started a rival Northwest COTC that has since rejoiced in Hale's legal troubles.
Here Comes the Judge
These losses were setbacks for Hale, but by far the most important threat to WCOTC came from a trademark complaint that was brought against Hale and the WCOTC by the TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation, a peace-loving, multicultural church in Oregon that supports "the Family unification of Mankind."
In 1987, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the foundation's request to copyright the name "Church of the Creator." After five years during which no contest was filed against its trademark, the foundation's ownership of it became legally "incontestable," even though Creators had used the phrase since COTC's founding in 1973.
In May 2000, upset about confusion between Hale's violently racist outfit and its own peaceful aims, the foundation sued the WCOTC. Hale won the first round in January 2002, when Judge Lefkow ruled in WCOTC's favor. But an appeals court reversed the decision, sending the case back to Lefkow for reconsideration.
Last July 25, Lefkow ruled against Hale, issuing a toughly worded injunction on Nov. 19 that forbade WCOTC from using the term "Church of the Creator." The WCOTC was ordered to give up its Web Site domain names and remove or cover up the phrase "Church of the Creator" on all WCOTC publications and other products.
Rather than comply, Hale told his followers that Lefkow's orders meant that the group's "bibles" — The White Man's Bible and other books written by Klassen — would have to be burned. Vowing to defy her, he transferred WCOTC's publications and its "world headquarters" to Riverton, Wyo., in an apparent bid to keep the books safe from the court. "No tyrant's paws will ensnare our Holy Scriptures," Hale said, adding that Wyoming state leader Thomas Kroenke was being elevated, in effect, to second in command ("Hasta Primus," or Spearhead) of the WCOTC.
All the while, Hale raged against the judge. In early December, he sent out an E-mail about the case that quoted from The White Man's Bible. "We have every right to declare [Jews] open criminals for violating the Constitution," he wrote. "They then obviously are the criminals and we can then treat them like the criminal dogs that they are and take the law into our own hands. This is the obvious, logical thing to do. We must then meet force with force, and open warfare exists."
On Christmas Eve, Hale sued Judge Lefkow, lambasting her for caving in to "pressure from the Jews" and deriding her personally (and apparently falsely) for her "marriage to a Jew" and her "three half-bred Negro" grandchildren. He apparently had forgotten that Lefkow originally ruled in his favor, and he neglected to mention that her injunction only required covering up the words "Church of the Creator" with sticky labels. It was simply untrue that any WCOTC books had to be burned.
'Exterminate the Rat'
On Jan. 8, Matt Hale arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago to face a contempt hearing for refusing to comply with Judge Lefkow's order. He gave a typically angry press conference, criticizing the judge in no uncertain terms, and then headed through the courthouse metal detectors for his hearing.
Emerging, he was seized by agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and arrested. His much-vaunted "White Berets" security force was pushed out the building's glass doors as a shocked Hale was hustled into an elevator.
The details of what Hale is accused of came out that day and in a later bond hearing held before another judge. After Lefkow had entered her order — barring the neo-Nazis from using "Church of the Creator" or any "facsimile thereof, including specifically the World Church of the Creator, WCOTC, COTC or the words 'church' or 'creator' together in the same name or mark" — Hale was enraged. Early last December, he vowed never to change his group's name and even wrote to followers that a "state of war" existed between Lefkow and their organization.
Already, he was defying the judge, and Hale understood that he was risking being sent to jail for contempt of court. But there was much, much more. In the bond hearing, prosecutors read some transcripts of recordings made by their informant and presented other evidence. On Dec. 4, they said, Hale E-mailed their source under the heading 'assignment' and asked him to find out Lefkow's home address.
The next day, the man told Hale he was working on it.
"When we get it, we going to exterminate the rat?" the source asked, according to a transcript that was read in the Jan. 23 hearing.
"Well, whatever you want to do basically," Hale reportedly replied.
"The Jew rat," the informant said.
"You know, my position has always been that I, you know, I'm going to fight within the law ... but that information has been provided," Hale allegedly added on the informant's tape recording. "If you wish to do anything yourself, you can."
On Dec. 17, 12 days later, prosecutors said that their source told Hale that plans were in place to assassinate Lefkow. Hale did not directly endorse the murder, but he did tell the source to remember they were discussing Little League baseball. Apparently, Hale feared the conversation could come back to haunt him.
In other tapes, Hale also allegedly discussed with the source — identified by prosecutors as "Tony," the head of the WCOTC "White Beret" security team — how angry he was with a certain church member. "If I was to tell you to go out and shoot this bastard," Hale allegedly confided to the source, "I know you would."
'World Church of the XXXXXXX'
When prosecutors announced who their informant was during the bond hearing — all without using his name — Hale looked shocked, visibly slumping in his chair. Within days, other bitter Creators had named Tony Evola of Chicago in various E-mail groups as the man who had betrayed their organization.
"TONY, YOU PIECE OF SHIT, RUN FOR SOME OTHER NIGGER COUNTRY," wrote Jon Fox, a key WCOTC "reverend" who took Hale's place at the head of a January anti-immigration rally in Lewiston, Maine. "It has been said that treason against one's country is worthy of death. And certainly we as Creators believe that treason against one's race is a crime of much greater magnitude. This withstanding [sic], Rev. Kroenke, Hasta Primus, orders all Creators worldwide not to harass or touch Tony Evola. ... We have enough on our plate."
After Hale was denied bond, many Creators spoke bravely of the fight they intended to put on to save their organization. But WCOTC has always been a group that largely revolved around the personality of Matt Hale.
And it relied heavily on the "holy books" penned by Klassen — books that cannot be sold now without having WCOTC's name blotted out first. What's more, after federal agents seized a large amount of the group's material in raids in East Peoria, WCOTC virtually ran out of the racist paraphernalia that it sells in order to finance the organization.
Today, there already are signs of severe strains on the group that has lost its leader. Hale was denied bond, even though his retired police officer father offered to put up $200,000 in property to free his son, and it seems unlikely that the group is capable of producing another charismatic leader.
In general, there is a pall across the larger white supremacist movement, thanks to Hale's arrest in combination with a series of other arrests, deaths and departures in the last year. Many veterans of the movement are disheartened, and some fear mass arrests are coming soon.
For the WCOTC, it all adds up to a feeling of quiet desperation. In a Jan. 25 E-mail headed "BEG-A-THON," Kroenke, the group's current nominal leader, pleaded for money from his comrades. If he couldn't raise $600 in two weeks, he wrote, WCOTC's Web sites would be shut down. Newly apprised of the dangers of defying federal judges, Kroenke gave the WCOTC a nickname that betrayed much about its future prospects: "World Church of the XXXXXXX."
It's not known how strong Hale's defense against the federal charges facing him will be. Prosecutors revealed very little of what were apparently hundreds of hours of taped conversations between Hale and their source. But one recording they did quote threw light on Hale's attitude toward those who kill for the cause.
"I wish he hadn't done it," Hale told the source in a recording made July 23, 2000, about a year after Ben Smith's bloody rampage. "But he made us a household name. That's why I will always remember him, respect him and appreciate him."