The trial that sent neo-Nazi Matt Hale to prison also revealed the shabby reality of his World Church of the Creator.
CHICAGO -- When Matt Hale shambled into a small Chicago courtroom on April 6, commencing the first day of a trial that could land him in prison for life, nobody gasped audibly. But the first glimpse of Hale, David Duke's only serious rival for the title of America's most famous neo-Nazi, left looks of profound confusion on dozens of faces around the courtroom.
Looks that said: That can't possibly be him, can it?
But yes, this was him. This was the man who had spent more than a decade crafting a public image as the handsome, clean-cut, suit-and-tie-wearing boy genius of American neo-Nazism.
Now, for the most critical three weeks of his life, Hale had decided to eschew his Sunday best and come to court in an orange prison jumpsuit, carelessly unbuttoned at the top, a stretch of white T-shirt showing underneath.
Puzzled reporters later discovered that Hale had chosen his attire as a way of protesting his incarceration, of marking himself as a "political prisoner" for all the world to see. But since the judge reportedly refused to let Hale's attorney explain his appearance to the jury, the prison jumpsuit only served to mark him as a criminal.
It wasn't the first time Hale had left people scratching their heads. The reality of Matt Hale — like that of the neo-Nazi group he commanded — has never come close to the image. He made grandiose claims about the World Church of the Creator's membership, for instance, sometimes telling gullible reporters and supporters there were as many as 80,000 — when the real number never reached one thousand.
But Hale exaggerated so expertly that even the normally sharp New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof fell for it, calling WCOTC the standard-bearer of "Hate, American Style."
Nothing mattered more than the personal image of Hale himself. A mere 25 years old in 1996, when he was crowned Pontifex Maximus (high priest) of an obscure, nearly moribund organization called "Church of the Creator," Hale quickly displayed a rare gift for attracting publicity.
Like Duke, he recognized that a presentable, well-spoken, youthful neo-Nazi leader would certainly have novelty on his side. Especially one who, like Hale, could boast about being a law student at a reputable university.
As he traveled the country, mingling with his fellow neo-Nazis at rallies and watering down his message of racial holy war ("RaHoWa") for small-town library audiences, Hale always made one thing perfectly clear: He was a cut above the herd.
To reinforce this illusion, Hale added "World" to the name of his group. He christened two upstairs rooms in his father's humble house in East Peoria, Ill., the "World Headquarters." Wherever he went, he made sure he was accompanied by his "elite security force," the White Berets. His thin, quavering voice spoke in measured, lofty tones.
When reporters from big magazines like GQ came calling, he might even break out his violin, emphasizing that he was not only a law student but — get this! — a classically trained musician, as well. For photos, he would often remove his glasses and clench his jaw, making his face look fuller, more dignified.
And now here he was, on the first day of jury selection, wearing that orange jumpsuit. As Hale gingerly lowered himself into his chair at the defendant's desk, he craned his thin neck around the courtroom for a quick, anxious study of the spectators.
What he saw surely dispirited him. Or, rather, what he didn't see, because the only familiar faces belonged to a couple of local reporters and Hale's divorced parents, Russell and Evelyn.
Not one of his followers had shown up for the start of what Hale, in prison letters and poems, had grandly dubbed "Nuremberg II," or, more simply, "The Great Trial."
For the man who would be führer, it only went downhill from there. Hale would watch as his defense attorney, Thomas Durkin, helped select a multiracial jury — five African Americans, one Latino, and one white college dean with a black partner — to decide whether the white-supremacist leader had obstructed justice and solicited the murder of a federal judge. (Durkin's theory, with which Hale vehemently disagreed, was that minorities would be more likely to believe that the government had framed his client.)
He would look on as Durkin tested the jurors' patience with long, rambling, frequently overruled arguments and cross-examinations. He would see revulsion spread across jurors' faces as they read his E-mail messages and listened to tapes of his public speeches and private conversations.
Hale could only watch, silent and slack-jawed, as the curtain was pulled back on his cherished empire and his carefully groomed image, revealing the shabbiness and sordidness behind the illusion. And in one final, painful twist of fate, those most responsible for pulling back the curtain would be three of the members the Pontifex Maximus trusted the most.
Vacuuming for the Führer
Jimmy Burnett was barely old enough to drive in 1991, when he happened upon a cable-access television show called "Race and Reason." The host was a nerdy-looking, smart-sounding Bradley University student who had founded a neo-Nazi group on campus.
Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Burnett had serious mental and physical disabilities that had led him to drop out of school. He was looking for something to do with his life. So he called the hotline number spelled out by the host.
And the next thing he knew, Matt Hale had shown up on his doorstep, ready to help him find his life's purpose.
After Hale assumed command of the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC), Burnett became his Boy Friday, working for him three times a week. He vacuumed the "World Headquarters." He rolled up copies of the Church's newsletter, The Struggle. He helped maintain the shrine that Hale erected to himself, adding fresh photos, articles, and videos of Hale's television appearances.
He would do anything "Mr. Hale" asked — which meant, on one occasion, stealing a batch of Thrifty Nickel newspapers and inserting WCOTC flyers in them.
"I wouldn't dare defy him," Burnett nervously testified on the second day of his former hero's trial.
In September 1998, Burnett got some help with his tasks at the World Headquarters. Ben Smith, a sweet-faced local college student, quickly became Hale's most enthusiastic proselyte — a tireless worker who left thousands of WCOTC leaflets in mailboxes, on cars and in driveways all across Illinois.
Unlike Burnett, who testified that he'd only read "just a few chapters in front" of the church's main "holy book," The White Man's Bible, Smith shared Hale's passion for the twisted ideology mapped out by Ben Klassen, the Church of the Creator founder who committed suicide in 1993.
Like Burnett, Smith had access to both the public Matt Hale and the private Matt Hale. In public, Burnett testified, Hale would inveigh against Jews and "mud races," but also advise members to "stay legal at all times."
But "it was more of a darker tone at private meetings," Burnett said, "more hinting at violence." Hale would talk, for instance, about having "Jewish leaders hanged." And what about white people who consorted with minorities?
"He would have race traitors exterminated."
Shooting for More Members
When Matt Hale spoke, Jimmy Burnett listened. Ben Smith acted. In the summer of 1999, word came down that Hale had been denied his law license in Illinois, deemed morally unfit for the bar.
A few days later, Smith — who had planned to follow Hale's lead and go to law school himself — launched out on a three-day, one-man ethnic-cleansing campaign that left two people shot to death and seven wounded. On July 4, he ended the spree by turning a gun on himself.
Hale, Burnett testified, was anything but sorry. He had only one regret, he told his faithful assistant: "He wished Ben Smith had killed more race traitors." Far from distraught at losing the man he called "my protégé," Hale seemed positively ebullient, telling Burnett the national attention brought on by Smith's rampage "would bring in more membership and more PR."
That it did. The WCOTC's membership began to climb, reaching its peak two years later with 88 chapters nationwide — more than any other neo-Nazi group could claim. Hale became a minor media celebrity in the wake of the tragedy, profiled in major newspapers and magazines, interviewed by Katie Couric on the "Today" show, visited at home by CNN.
But while he was riding high, Hale was sowing the seeds of his own destruction — and the WCOTC's.
Burnett stuck with him longer than anyone else — "till he was arrested," he testified. But by the time Burnett stepped down from the witness stand, visibly relieved to be finished with painting his former hero as a serial liar and petty tyrant, the jury was prepared to believe just about anything about his former boss.
"You've seen some members of the WCOTC," prosecutor David Weisman would remind them in his closing argument, "and [Hale] is a lot smarter than all of them. He is a manipulator. He wants somebody else to do his dirty work."
Clueless in Kentucky
A high-school dropout with severe bipolar disorder, Jon Fox was already a member of the antigovernment Kentucky State Militia when he first paid his $35 yearly dues to the World Church of the Creator in 1997. But it was only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Fox — a burly, bearded man with a well-earned reputation as one of the wilder characters in the world of white supremacy — decided to fully devote himself to Hale's cause by becoming a WCOTC "reverend."
During his testimony, Fox explained the process of becoming a high official in Hale's church: "You would just send $15 to Matt, he would send a test, and you'd just fill out the test and send it back to Matt and he would grade it."
Was the test difficult? Fox was asked.
"It's open book," he testified. "It couldn't get any easier."
"So you passed?"
"Third time around."
Fox formed a new Kentucky chapter of the WCOTC that fall. A year later, in October 2002, he met Hale at a Ku Klux Klan rally in West Virginia, where the Pontifex Maximus asked his gung-ho "reverend" to take a more important job: state leader of Hale's own Illinois chapter. Hale said he wanted "someone he could trust," Fox testified, "someone older and mature."
Hale offered to pay for the move out of the church's coffers, and to send another one of his loyalists, Scott Gulbranson, to transport the Fox family from Kentucky.
It sounded like a sweet deal to Fox, who at the time was living with his two daughters in a homeless shelter. Besides, as Fox testified, "I thought I was doing something good, being an idealist or whatever you want to call it."
He had no clue that he was stepping into a maelstrom. By the time Fox arrived in East Peoria that November, Hale was furiously fending off challenges to his leadership from at least two disgruntled factions of the World Church. The Montana chapter had already "impeached" Hale and installed its own Pontifex Maximus.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Hale was also awaiting a court order that might force the WCOTC to change its name — the one he'd worked to make famous.
That May, a suit had been filed in federal court on behalf of the TE-TA-MA Foundation, a religious organization in Oregon that had trademarked the name "Church of the Creator." Because of the similarity in the names, attorney James Amend testified, "My clients were getting blamed for the views" of Hale's better-known "church."
When U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow issued a ruling in the trademark suit, Hale breathed a sigh of relief: Lefkow said that because "Church of the Creator" was a generic name for religious organizations, the trademark was null and void. WCOTC could keep its name.
Not for long, however. When TE-TA-MA appealed Judge Lefkow's decision, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed her ruling, declaring the trademark was valid after all. Judge Lefkow was left with no choice but to issue an order forcing the WCOTC to comply with the higher court's finding.
On Nov. 19, less than two weeks after Fox and his daughters rolled into East Peoria, the order came down. The World Church of the Creator had to stop using its name, and had to report back to the court within 30 days that the name had been removed from all print materials — or at least covered up with tape — and taken off of the group's Web sites.
Hale snapped. On Nov. 29, he dispatched an E-mail message to key WCOTC members calling the ruling "a sick, draconian order that in effect places our church in a state of war."
The order had made it clear that there was no need to destroy the WCOTC's most valuable possessions — more than 4,000 "holy books" that sold for $10 a pop. But Hale told his followers that the court had ordered a "book-burning."
Blaming "Jew vermin" for this miscarriage of justice, Hale wrote, "They are the criminals, and we can now treat them like the criminal dogs they are." The note went on to declare "open season on all Jews."
Pregnant at 12
A few days after his incendiary E-mail, Hale summoned Fox to the World Headquarters saying he needed help distributing copies of that month's Struggle. When Fox arrived, he testified, "Matt said we had a lot to talk about. The first thing he brought up was, 'We have to teach this judge a lesson.' "
As they circled the block around Hale's father's house, avoiding the microphones Hale was convinced the government had installed there, he told Fox he was in search of Judge Lefkow's home address.
"He wanted signs, posters, flyers around [her] neighborhood," Fox testified. "He wanted demonstrations every time she went to the courthouse. He wanted me to find out her daily routine. He wanted to intimidate her."
That wasn't all Hale wanted, Fox testified. "He said the judge, those attorneys, they all needed to die." So did the head of the TE-TA-MA Foundation. "He wanted the church burned down around his head. He asked if I, or anyone I knew, could do that. I told him no."
Under two long days of sarcastic cross-examination by Hale's attorney, Thomas Durkin, Fox calmly stuck to his story. But there was no hard evidence — no tapes, no E-mail messages — to back up his charge that Hale had solicited Judge Lefkow's murder. There was only the corroborating testimony of Fox's daughter, Elizabeth, who provided the saddest spectacle of Hale's three weeks in court.
Every inch the teenager, Elizabeth slouched into Courtroom 1441 wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She rolled her eyes and sneered at Durkin, at one point asking him, "Are you trying to confuse me or something?"
But she also stuck to the story, testifying that her father had told her they were moving back to Kentucky because Hale had "asked him to do stuff, like he wanted the judge dead and the church burned to the ground. My dad decided we shouldn't be a part of this anymore."
Hale's erratic behavior wasn't the worst of it. By the time the Foxes hightailed it back to Kentucky in February 2003, Elizabeth was pregnant — courtesy, they say, of Scott Gulbranson, the man Hale had sent to help them move to Illinois. At the time, Elizabeth testified, she was "almost 13" years old.
Delivery Boy or Hit Man?
Tony Evola looked like a godsend when he showed up in East Peoria in the spring of 2000. The attention generated by the Ben Smith shootings already had Hale's conspiratorial brain buzzing about what the "Jewish occupational government" might do to bring him down.
He felt certain that his house was being bugged. He knew that the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a bare-knuckles bunch of hate-group haters, was out to get him. He had good reason to suspect that his chief White Beret, Ken Dippold, could no longer be trusted.
Enter Evola. A wide, solidly built block of a man with a thick mustache, receding hairline and heavily accented, deep-as-a-well voice, Evola could pass for a cast member of "The Sopranos." But for Hale's purposes, his situation in life was even better than that. Held back by a severe learning disability, Evola was living on social security as he approached middle age, delivering pizzas and working volunteer security at Chicago public schools.
In March and April 2000, Evola turned up at two of Hale's speaking engagements in the company of a WCOTC member from Chicago, whom he'd met at the pizza parlor. As Hale was leaving one of the events, JDL members tried to start a scuffle. Evola stepped in instinctively, protecting the Pontifex Maximus as he made a safe exit.
The second time they met, Hale asked Evola to be his security chief. As Evola testified in court, he hadn't even joined the WCOTC at that point. But Hale was desperate.
And when Evola brought him a gift the next time he visited East Peoria — a T-shirt he'd printed up, calling Ben Smith a "First Amendment Martyr" — Hale knew he'd found just the man to keep him safe.
From the spring of 2000 till Hale's arrest in January 2003, Evola went everywhere the Pontifex Maximus went. They drove and flew together to speaking engagements and racialist gatherings all over the country.
While they traveled, there was plenty of time to talk — sometimes about killing people. Evola had contacts, you see, friends of his cousin who could do a "good quiet job" of "exterminating" any "rats" who needed it. And as trouble increasingly swirled around Hale, the rats seemed to be everywhere.
Hale never initiated the conversations about "exterminating" his enemies. But he never put a halt to them, either. During his four days of testimony, the jury heard a dozen tapes of Evola and Hale discussing these matters at length — all of them following the same basic script as their May 2002 conversation about Dan Hassett.
Hassett was a longtime church leader in Montana who'd been instrumental in choosing Hale as Pontifex Maximus in the first place. Now he was calling for his impeachment, sending E-mail messages calling Hale — among other things — a "Jew lover."
On the tape, driving home from a rally, Evola brings up Hassett's "campaign" against Hale, and asks what Hale wants "done with him." As Nazi marching music blares in the background, Hale protests that he can't discuss such things — at least not directly. "[Y]ou have to understand my position. I can't ever say anything illegal and nor can I ever encourage anything illegal and that's why I simply have to say or hope ..."
Evola: "You wouldn't mind him falling off the face of the earth."
Hale: "No, I wouldn't mind at all. ... All I can say is that I hope the guy, however, one day, shuts up. I mean, what else can I say?"
Evola: "It'd be like that." On the tape, he can be heard snapping his fingers to demonstrate. "All I need is the cash to make it happen."
Hale: "Let me think about it."
The conversation continues in this vein for several more minutes, with Evola making suggestions and Hale equivocating. "I know damn well that if I were to tell you right now to go out there and shoot the bastard, you would in a heartbeat," Hale finally says. "I know you would and you know, believe me, it's tempting, believe me." On the tape, Hale can be heard laughing nervously over the martial strains of marching Nazis.
'Dumber Than a Bag of Hammers'
All told, Matt Hale talked with Tony Evola about bumping off five of his enemies: three WCOTC members, JDL Executive Director Ian Sigel and Judge Joan Lefkow.
For many courtroom observers, the most surprising thing about these taped conversations was that Hale, with his law-school training and his conspiratorial mind, never seemed to suspect the truth: that Evola was an FBI plant who'd been taping him from the git-go.
"After the 10th time he's brought up killing somebody, how could you not be suspicious?" asked Richard Warman, a Canadian human-rights attorney who came to Chicago for the trial. "Hale must have read entrapment cases in first-year law. How could it not occur to him, 'Gee, it's almost like this guy's trying to get me to order a killing'? The first few times, sure, maybe you just think the guy's being overzealous. There are plenty of overzealous neo-Nazis out there. But the ninth, 10th time?
"Even if you're dumber than a bag of hammers, you're not going to keep failing to suspect anything."
The boy genius of neo-Nazism never suspected a thing. Not even when Evola showed up unannounced at World Headquarters, the day after Hale sent out an E-mail message to selected WCOTC members, providing them with Judge Joan Lefkow's home address.
After greeting the Pontifex Maximus with a hearty "RaHoWa!" Evola asked Hale why he'd given out the address. "[F]or educational purposes," Hale said, "and for whatever reason you wish it to be."
Evola: "[W]e gonna exterminate the rat?"
Hale: "Well, whatever you wanna do."
As usual, Hale then quickly qualified his remarks. "Ah, my position's always been that I, you know, I'm gonna fight within the law and, but, ah, that information's been pro-, provided. If you wish to, ah, do anything yourself, you can, you know?"
Hale: "So that makes it clear."
Evola: "Consider it done."
Four days later, the FBI directed its informant to send Hale an E-mail message. "I called the exterminator," Evola wrote. "He is working to get rid of the femala [sic] rat right now." Records show that Hale got the message. In the past, he had always backed off when Evola told him a murder was actually going to go down. This time, he sent no reply at all.
A Dangerous Gamble
The prosecution rested on April 20, Hitler's birthday. Matt Hale's defense team called no witnesses, gambling that the jury would not convict him on the most serious charges he faced — soliciting Judge Lefkow's murder. But just to make sure, attorney Thomas Durkin gave a fiery closing argument that kept the courtroom riveted for more than two hours.
This case was not really about Hale, Durkin insisted — and it certainly was not about his "ugly, hateful, vile" ideas. Instead, Durkin argued, the case was a chilling example of "how dangerous it is when the government ... infiltrates and attempts to capture people for what they think might have been done."
FBI agents had been out to get Hale ever since the Ben Smith shootings, he said — and when they couldn't find a way to blame Hale for Smith's rampage, they used Tony Evola to frame him in a clear-cut case of government entrapment.
"This is not Hale trying to solicit Evola," Durkin bellowed, pacing up and down in front of the jury box. "This is Evola trying to induce Hale! If there was any soliciting, it was [done by] the government."
It took the jury two days to decide differently.
Still stubbornly wearing the orange jumpsuit, Hale squinted at the jury foreman — the college dean with an African-American partner — as he pronounced Hale not guilty of soliciting Jon Fox, but guilty of soliciting Evola.
He was found guilty on all three of the lesser obstruction charges: attempting to intimidate Judge Lefkow, sending a letter to Lefkow with false information about the WCOTC's materials, and asking his father — in a taped phone conversation from jail — to lie in grand jury testimony about his son's reaction to the Ben Smith shootings.
Hale's face showed no expression at all. But he knew the math, no doubt: he would now be facing up to 50 years in prison. (He is to be sentenced on Aug. 23.)
Hale tipped his head in the direction of his parents as he was led away, headed back to the solitary cell where he had spent the previous 15 months, helping his attorneys prepare for "Nuremberg II."
Back in the halcyon days of Matt Hale's empire, when his shrine to himself was adding items even faster than the World Church of the Creator was adding members, he called his followers together for a one-year memorial service honoring Ben Smith.
"Nothing builds a movement like persecution," Hale said with typical bravado. "Let them arrest me, and someone will take charge tomorrow."
It didn't turn out that way. Renamed the Creativity Movement, Hale's former "church" has practically dwindled to dust. A few days after his convictions, his remaining loyalists scheduled an "emergency meeting" to select a new "interim" leader.
But there aren't many Creators left to lead. Some have peeled off into other neo-Nazi groups like White Revolution. Others, stung by their experience with the WCOTC, have sworn off neo-Nazi groups altogether.
One Montana Creator went out with a bang last year, taking 4,100 of the "holy books" from the storage shed where they had been shipped for safekeeping. Identified in newspapers only as "Carl," he hauled off every last holy book and peddled them to the Montana Human Rights Network — for a token $300.
"One day I just asked, 'What am I doing?' " Carl told the Billings Gazette. "There was no integrity. There was no sense to it."
For the rest of the neo-Nazi universe, the message of Hale's conviction is crystal clear.
"This whole thing, from beginning to end, is nothing but a Jewish conspiracy," former WCOTC stalwart Billy Brown recently railed at a White Revolution rally in South Carolina. "If we'd have had a legitimate judicial system, he'd have never been charged."
Those sentiments were echoed in countless online postings. "We hate the jews [sic] ten times more today than yesterday," wrote one poster on the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network.
It was only a matter of days before a Creator calling himself "Exterminance" took a trick out of Matt Hale's old playbook. He posted an address, cell and telephone number for an Anthony Evola outside Chicago, "In Case Anyone Wants To Say Hi." Within hours, threatening messages had started to pop up on Anthony Evola's answering machine.
Just one problem: It was the wrong Anthony Evola.