As minorities move into the region known as the Inland Empire, white supremacists unleash a hate crime backlash.
CHINO HILLS, Calif. -- Despite all their big talk of honor, pride and the Aryan warrior's code, neo-Nazi Skinheads don't like a fair fight. Cowards by nature, they prefer to travel in packs and gang up on hate crime victims. The trio of Nazi skins laying in wait near a playground in a park here the morning of May 1 proved no different.
Around 11 a.m. that Sunday, a 21-year-old black man from the nearby city of Diamond Bar arrived at the park with a group of foster children from a group home where the man volunteered as an activities coordinator. He'd brought the kids to play basketball. As the players divided into teams, according to witnesses and police reports, the Skinheads swaggered over. They called the foster home worker a "nigger." They told him he'd made a big mistake by showing up in their park that morning with a bunch of mongrel brats.
The subject of their taunts and threats hastily tried to gather his charges to leave, but the Skinheads surrounded him and then attacked. They thought the odds were three to one. But they were wrong. Several of the kids jumped into the fray. Seconds later, two more adult employees of the group home arrived in a separate vehicle and heard the intended victim yelling for help. They also joined the combat. The Skinheads suddenly found themselves badly outnumbered in a fight they'd started.
One of them ran for their car, jumped in, gunned the engine, and promptly crashed into a park bench, then a metal exercise station, then a concrete barrier, and then, at last, a tree. Unfortunately, the damage did not disable the vehicle, and the Nazi at the wheel was able to throw it in reverse then roar across a field and toward the cluster of kids and adults from the group home, who by then had beaten one of the remaining Skinheads to the ground and were physically restraining the other while they waited for the police to arrive (several bystanders had called 911 on mobile phones).
The first officers on the scene found the enraged driver of the battered car wheeling erratically around the park, chasing the kids and group home workers in a deadly game of tag. They immediately blocked his vehicle with their own and arrested him for attempted murder. The other two Skinheads were taken into custody on charges of aggravated assault (one of them escaped from a local hospital that night after being treated for his injuries). A spokesman for the Chino Hills Sheriff's Department described the 20-year-old Skinhead driver as "a known white supremacist" who had previously been arrested for several racially motivated attacks in San Bernardino County. "He places himself in places where minorities will be and makes slurs," the spokesman said. Police found neo-Nazi pamphlets, stickers, and patches inside his car.
The attack in Chino Hills, a suburban city with about 70,000 residents, was no isolated incident. It occurred in the heart of the Inland Empire, a booming region of Southern California where tract homes are cheap, the air is filthy, and white power violence is on the rise.
The New Minority
Made up of an area stretching from western Riverside County to the southwest corner of San Bernardino County, the Inland Empire used to be a sparsely populated, rural area of ranches, vineyards and farms, where whites were the clear and dominant majority.
All that has changed.
Driven from Los Angeles and San Diego by soaring housing prices, middle- and working-class black, Hispanic and Asian families have migrated to the Inland Empire in massive numbers, drawn by a surplus of comparatively affordable, big homes in sprawling, suburban-style developments. The rolling, high-desert terrain of the Inland Empire is now studded with more than 50 small to mid-sized cities containing a combined population of roughly 3 million. This continuing exodus inland from Southern California's expensive coastal cities has fueled large-scale residential, commercial and industrial development in the region. Horse pastures and orange groves have been paved over for strip malls and chain restaurants. Simultaneously, the Inland Empire has experienced rapid demographic shifts as more and more minorities move into a region that has long been a hotbed of white supremacist activity. Between 1990 and 2000, the Inland Empire's white population increased only 7%, while the number of blacks grew 61%, Asians 62% and Latinos 82%.
Whites are now a minority in the Inland Empire.
These seismic changes in the region's racial make-up have corresponded with a steady rise in hate crimes, including a particularly vicious spike in racially motivated violence and harassment in the past two years. During that period, as hate crimes dropped 10% statewide in California, the number of reported hate crimes in the Inland Empire shot up 20%. Last year, there were 148 hate crimes reported in the Inland Empire, most of them committed by racist Skinheads and other white supremacists.
This year, this disturbing trend has shown no signs of abating.
In January, in just one example, a gang of 10 neo-Nazi Skinheads attacked three Hispanic men outside a topless bar in Redlands, yelling racial slurs while they knocked the men to the ground then kicked them mercilessly. One of the victims suffered a broken arm. All three were hospitalized.
"The unfortunate reality is that the Inland Empire is California's own northern Idaho," said John Ruiz, assistant Riverside County district attorney, who has successfully prosecuted several high-profile hate crimes, including one in 2002 when he sent five members of the neo-Nazi Western Hammerskins to prison for stomping a black man with combat boots and cutting him with razor blades. With that case, Ruiz basically ran the Hammerskins out of town. The gang subsequently moved its base of operations to Mesa, Ariz.
"A lot of people are moving out here, and some of them don't like rubbing elbows with ethnic minorities," Ruiz said. "It's a small but very vocal segment of our society."
And, too often, a very violent one.
Cow Hands Wanted
The brochure reads, "Welcome to the City of Lake Elsinore, among the fastest growing cities in Riverside County. Picturesque mountains, Southern California's largest natural lake and a strategic location along the booming I-15 corridor make Lake Elsinore unique. Value for industrial expansion and new businesses are cornerstones of our economic gardening strategy. Discover what over 38,045 residents already know — Lake Elsinore's got more!"
Lake Elsinore's also got neo-Nazis.
In September 2003, three students were suspended from Lake Elsinore High School for hoisting a swastika banner up the school's flagpole during a patriotic assembly to commemorate the second anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One of the students told a local newspaper, "I don't like black people."
And last June, on the second-to-last day of school, two Nazi Skinheads — who were not students at Lake Elsinore High — accosted two black male students who were walking across the school's parking lot with a white female friend who was also a student. One of the Skinheads pulled up his shorts to display tattoos on his legs of a swastika and an Iron Cross. When the targets of his scorn just kept walking, the Skinhead drew an ice pick, ran after them, and stabbed one of the males repeatedly while shouting, "Die, nigger!" The second Skinhead threatened the other two students with a claw hammer when they tried to come to their wounded friend's aid. The stabbing victim, a starting linebacker on the school's football team, was seriously injured but survived.
The Skinhead who wielded the ice pick, 19-year-old Armando Perez, appears Hispanic but insisted to police that he was white. He later pleaded guilty to aggravated felony hate crime assault. When the judge asked him if his crime was motivated by racial hatred, Perez replied, "It definitely was."
The Lake Elsinore assault took place 10 months after a comparable hate crime at a high school in Murietta Valley, a similarly sized, practically identical city that's just a short drive south on Interstate 15. In that case, a black basketball player at Murietta Valley High School was violently fouled by a white opponent in a game during which white fans yelled racial slurs from the stands. The next day, two white students attacked the ball player outside the high school principal's office, severely beating him while yelling more racial slurs. The attackers, then aged 14 and 17, pleaded guilty to assault and making racial threats, and served short sentences in a juvenile detention center.
At many Inland Empire high schools, racial conflicts arise when large numbers of incoming black and Hispanic students accustomed to urban environments undergo a clash of cultures with their new white classmates in semi-rural locales like Norco, a city of about 24,000 located 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles that still calls itself "Horse Town USA." Norco's official Web site plays "Ghost Riders in the Sky" as theme music, greets visitors with "Howdy, Partner!" and proclaims, "We are dedicated to providing a high quality of life while keeping our rural lifestyle." City jobs are listed under the header, "Cow Hands Wanted."
At Norco High School, two black female students who sat for lunch at a table in the shade that a group of white students told them was designated "Whites Only" last September were hit in the face with burritos and then punched in the face by two white males. A few days later, a group of white students beat another black student unconscious. Racist graffiti appeared on the school's walls. Yet another black student found song lyrics about shooting blacks placed on her desk.
"People of color move their families out here because they can get a house for the price of an apartment in the big cities on the coast, and because they think it's safer out here than the neighborhoods they can afford there. But a lot of times they get here and they find a different kind of danger, a different kind of tension," said Lorraine Watts, president of the NAACP in Lake Elsinore. "Truth is, they have second thoughts once they're here, and if they could afford housing elsewhere, a lot of them would leave."
From his home in Fallbrook, just south of the Inland Empire, notorious racist Tom Metzger has a front row seat to the rising racial hatred in his part of the world.
He likes what he sees.
"The chemistry out here is perfect for more and more racism," said Metzger, the leader of the white supremacist hate group White Aryan Resistance. "You've got all these non-whites moving here from Orange County and Los Angeles, trying to flee the crime perpetrated on them by their own kind in their ghettos, and when they come out here they're basically shoving forced integration down the throats of the whites who have traditional claim to this area, and that is provoking a negative racist reaction among whites, as it damn well should. It's great!"
Most locals don't share Metzger's enthusiasm.
Several Inland Empire school districts have formed diversity coalitions in hopes of curbing racial tension among students. Anti-racism community meetings in the Riverside County city of Hemet have drawn as many as 400 people, and last November more than 7,000 residents in Lake Elsinore — nearly a fifth of the city's population — marched down the city's main street to protest against racial violence in their community.
Not all such violence in Lake Elsinore or elsewhere in the Inland Empire is committed by whites. In 2003, four racially motivated fights between blacks and Hispanics broke out on campus at Hemet High School, resulting in mass suspensions, and last May, shouted racial slurs between black and Hispanic students at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore escalated into a brawl involving 200 students. And this May, three Hispanic youths chased down a 15-year-old high school freshman and stabbed him to death outside his home in Corona in what prosecutors have termed a racially motivated homicide. The three made racially derogatory statements while their victim lay dying.
But by far most of the hate crimes in the Inland Empire are white-on-black or white-on-Hispanic. The most recently reported of these crimes occurred July 10, when four Skinheads with "White Power" tattoos and swastika patches repeatedly drove past a Hispanic family's home in Hemet, shouting slurs and threats while brandishing knives. After the family called for help, police officers tracked down the Skinheads and arrested them for making terrorist threats with a hate crime enhancement. According to an investigative report, the Skinheads denied being members of any organized white power gang. They told the officers they were "just proud about being members of the Aryan race."
In November 2003, the FBI formed a task force with the Riverside and San Bernardino County sheriff's departments that was designed to crack down on neo-Nazi Skinhead and other white power gangs in the Inland Empire, including the High Desert Freak Boys and the Angry Nazi Soldiers.
Since then, the task force has arrested more than 60 individuals associated with white power hate groups on charges including illegal weapons possession, drug dealing, and hate crime violence. The task force has also seized more than 15,000 rounds of ammunition; more than 75 firearms, many of which had been illegally converted to fully automatic; a half-dozen stolen cars; bulletproof vests; a pharmacopeia of methamphetamine, hallucinogenic mushrooms, steroids and marijuana; and enough swastika flags, Hitler youth banners, knock-off SS daggers, WWII German army helmets, and white supremacist propaganda to fill a Dumpster.
"Sixty years after the discovery of Auschwitz, I'm amazed we're still fighting this garbage in our country," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokesman Tom Freeman.
Last November, one of 19 alleged white supremacists arrested on drugs and firearms charges was an assistant football coach at Paloma Valley High School in Menifee, which is near Hemet. According to investigators, the coach had supplied players with steroids and had recruited several of them, along with other Menifee and Hemet teenagers, to join a heavily armed white supremacist group affiliated with the growing neo-Nazi Skinhead prison gang Public Enemy Number One. The football coach is a convicted felon and has a prison tattoo of a swastika on his stomach below the letters S.W.P. for "Supreme White Power." He said the arsenal of rifles and handguns police found in his house were for hunting rabbits and coyotes. Prosecutors charged him with illegal possession of firearms anyway, perhaps swayed from leniency by the numerous photos also discovered at the coach's house. The pictures appeared to have been taken at a series of neo-Nazi rallies held at rural locations in Riverside County. In one, two 12-year-old girls salute a swastika flag.
Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said the amount of white power literature seized from the coach's house is the most he's seen in three decades of law enforcement.
"Hate groups such as these endanger lives," he said. "These types of people are trying to find a refuge here, and we're trying to stop it."