Facing capital charges in a horrific torture-murder, a notorious skinhead describes a life of crime and bitter regrets
PHOENIX, Ariz. — Last Nov. 27, Sean Gaines picked up a pencil inside his jail cell and began to write a poem:
I once was quite notorious
In Arizona's racist skinhead scene
It's taken losing too many years
To discover what that means
Gaines was indeed once a skinhead's skinhead: 230 pounds of red-laced, jack-booted aggression, recklessness and bravado, notorious for flashing his gun one minute at white power gatherings, and his penis the next.
"Sean Gaines would do anything he was told or asked to do, no matter how brutal and regardless of the consequences," says Arizona skinhead expert Michele Lefkowith, the Anti-Defamation League's southwest regional investigator. "He was an animal."
But four years in jail have tamed Gaines, now 26. His swagger has vanished along with the 60 pounds he's lost since he was arrested on capital murder charges. Awaiting trial for his participation in a February 2002 torture-murder, Gaines spends his days in a solitary, closet-sized cell in the Security Management Unit (SMU), an isolated wing of Phoenix's high-tech Fourth Avenue Jail.
His placement there is vital to his survival because Gaines has publicly renounced skinhead ideology. He published a letter in an anti-racist magazine in 2006 and disparaged white supremacists in a Court TV documentary last year. Most recently, he sat for an in-depth interview with the Intelligence Report in which he re-traced his path into the dark heart of the racist skinhead movement and detailed violent crimes that remain unsolved.
Whether his jailhouse conversion is sincere or a calculated attempt to generate sympathy and perhaps escape the death penalty, Gaines is putting his life on the line by denouncing racism. White supremacist prison gangs will almost certainly put his name high up on their hit lists if he ever "hits the yard" as a general population inmate. In their eyes, he is a race traitor and a snitch.
"You printing this is gonna get me killed," Gaines said. "But I'm tired of living a lie. They can kill me, but at least they kill me with all of this off my shoulders."
By the time reality struck
I did not recognize myself
The monster people speak of
I'd swear is someone else
During the interview, which was monitored by two armed guards, Gaines was clad in a black and white striped uniform. Thick chains encircled his waist, binding his ankles and wrists. His eyes were red and watery, his skin pale, his voice shaky.
"I'm focusing so hard on the future and I'm doing anything I can to try and make that future," he said. "I want to write anti-racist literature. I want to open peoples' eyes. Myself and people in that scene, we went after youth. They got me in my youth."
Sean Gaines was born in Nogales, Ariz., in 1981. His mother was a nurse. His father, Lewis, was a drug addict who slipped deeper into abuse and criminal activity as his son entered his teens. Gaines was first expelled from school for fighting at 9, shortly before his parents divorced, then again in sixth grade. His mother was strict and tried to rein him in, but eventually she gave up and turned him over to his father. Gaines was 15.
No sooner had she dropped off Gaines' clothes, hip-hop albums and collection of football cards at his dad's place, than Lewis showed his son how to hotwire a car and sped off doing 80 on a major city street. "My dad taught me how to steal cars that night," Gaines said. When they were pulled over by the police, Lewis Gaines managed to talk his way out of trouble. His son was in awe.
"Everything totally escalated from that night. It just gets worse and worse. He impressed upon me what it was like to be a modern-day gangster and that became a cool image to me. I started to idolize my dad even more because I saw everything he was doing and getting away with. He was some superior being in this mix of screwy society and lowlifes. Everything he did, all the bad things he did, he made out to be like they were for a purpose, for a reason, like he was doing them because it was a righteous thing."
Lewis cooked and sold methamphetamine. Father and son bounced from house to trailer to apartment to extended-stay motels. Gaines was expelled from school a third and final time in his sophomore year for fighting. His father took over his education.
"What did Dad teach me? He taught me how to use my fists, steal cars, weigh and sell drugs, cook drugs, kick in doors. He taught me how to put on that mask and play the part. He taught me how to be that tough guy."
His father also showed him the ways of murder. The first killing went down when Gaines was 16.
"An Indian fella, went by 'Chief,' pilfered some of my dad's stuff out of the living room — some old John Wayne-style six-shooter guns, tweaker possessions, basically." Lewis put the word out, and when Chief tried to sell the guns Lewis got a call from an associate. They went to pay Chief a visit with Gaines in tow.
"They lit matches and dropped 'em on his bare stomach trying to get him to 'fess up. They took a pair of scissors, heated 'em up and stuck 'em right by his eye. He had two [tattooed] teardrops there and they were trying to burn them off. They beat on this dude. My father made me beat on this dude. I hit him and [Gaines' father's associate] T-Bone fractured his face, split his face open." Later, after recovering the stolen possessions, Gaines said, "They took him two blocks up the street behind this Dumpster area. I heard a handful of gunshots.
"They came back alone."
Three months later, his father's meth-fueled paranoia led to another murder. Once again, Lewis made it a father-and-son activity.
"They thought one of their group was an undercover cop, and they were doing some things with making counterfeit money to buy red phosphorus, iodine crystals, pseudoephedrine. They were using it to fund their drug cooks."
Lewis lured the suspect to the house. Again, the victim was tortured.
"I saw my dad take a crescent wrench and hit that dude right in the rib cage and I could hear it crack. I walked out. I didn't want to see anymore."
Lewis left his son alone at the house with the man tied up in the bedroom. Some hours later, a biker arrived, spread a tarp out on the floor and told Gaines to leave the room. He refused. "I was thinking maybe he'd wrap him up in the tarp, throw him in the car and leave. But out comes Crocodile Dundee [a large hunting knife], and he slit his throat right in front of me."
Lewis Gaines was never charged with either killing, and the victims have not been further identified. He was himself murdered Oct. 1, 2007, five days after Sean Gaines related these stories to the Report.
After living so long full of
Misguided anger, hatred and rage
I find myself these days
Locked inside a cage
It wasn't long before Gaines starting finding trouble on his own. He says he committed his first felony in May 1998, when he assaulted a man he claims was trying to rape his girlfriend. Gaines split the victim's head open with a tree branch, then dumped him outside a nearby convenience store, called 911 and fled. A court official's pre-sentencing report in that case recommended that Gaines be returned to his mother's custody and given probation. Instead, the judge sent the 17-year-old to adult prison.
"I was a little hip-hop junkie thug until I got locked up. I didn't have any idea of racism till I hit prison, short of my dad saying, 'Nigger-this, nigger-that,'" Gaines said. "I went to prison as a kid, mad at the world, could not understand why they pulled me away from my family, why they locked me up for protecting my girlfriend. I didn't know who I hated. I was just full of hate and they [racist skinheads in prison] see that. They latch on to that."
"I've always had choices," Gaines admitted. "But prison introduced me to what got me to where I am."
Soon after he entered prison in March 1998, Gaines drew the attention of David Soprito, a 28-year-old racist skinhead who went by the gang name Odious. Soprito was serving 10 years for armed robbery. He took Gaines under his wing and began molding him.
Gaines earned his first racist gang tattoo — "White Pride" across his shoulder blades — for beating up a man who owed money to Soprito's crew. "What they do is they get what they call 'torpedoes'," Gaines explained. "That is any youngster on the yard, and if they tell you do it, you do it. It's called running a mission."
Soprito attempted to indoctrinate Gaines in white nationalist ideology but it mostly went in one ear and out the other. "I got out of prison and didn't know my '14 Words' [a reference to a famous white power slogan], wasn't given a pair of boots, nothing."
Two days before Gaines was released in July 2000 after serving nearly three years, he slipped a phone number to a female prison guard he'd flirted with. She called a week after he got out and the two entered into a casual sexual relationship that ended after a few weeks. Three months later, she called Gaines and arranged a meeting.
"She lets me know that she's dating one of the skins on the yard, a pretty high-up-there skin, too, who went by the name Misfit. He was still locked up and she was doing all those wonderful things that guys in prison only dream about female guards doing for them.
"Three weeks later, we're hanging out at a mall and she says, 'Misfit says that since I'm his 'byrd' and since he's in his reds [that is, has earned the right to wear red shoelaces], I gotta get mine.' So we're going into the store and she's like, 'Well, I think you need yours too.' This is how I got my reds."
Dancing With the Stars
Gaines didn't know what boots to buy, didn't know how to straight-lace his boots in proper skinhead fashion, didn't know much of anything about being a skinhead until he met Patrick Bearup and Joshua Fiedler at a party in late August of 2001, not long after he was given his red laces.
In between prison stints, Fiedler had become one of the dominant skins on the Phoenix scene. A natural leader, charismatic and silver-tongued, Fiedler was organizing and recruiting heavily and Gaines was eager to be a part of something.
"I told him straight out, 'Look, I ran with a guy in prison but I really haven't run into anybody out here.' I said, 'I'm cool with hanging out but I really don't have the education.' He said, 'You know I run National Socialist Front [NSF] and I run everything out here.' He was playing the big tough guy role. He gives me a flyer and some literature and he says, 'You think about it, you hang out for a while, and if we like you then you can probate for me under NSF.'"
This time, Gaines paid attention and did his homework. "Next time I hung out, he's like, 'What are the 14 Words?' and I just spit 'em out and he's like, 'All right, just checking.'"
Less than six months later, Gaines participated in the murder of a man suspected of stealing from Fiedler's girlfriend, Jessica Nelson, while Fiedler was in prison. The details are chilling. After Nelson discovered money missing from her purse, she blamed her roommate, Mark Mathes, and called Gaines for help. He and two other skinheads, Bearup and Jeremy Johnson, went to her house that night to deal with the situation.
Johnson beat Mathes senseless with a baseball bat. The four skinheads then loaded his bloodied and broken body into the trunk of a car and drove him to an area known as Swastika Mine, north of Phoenix. Bearup chopped off one of Mathes' fingers with bolt cutters before they hurled his body over an embankment. Johnson alleges that Gaines then shot Mathes in the face with a shotgun to obliterate dental records, an allegation Gaines adamantly rejects. (Nelson and Johnson took plea deals and have agreed to testify against Gaines, as they did against Bearup, who was sentenced to death in early 2007.)
Hunt for Humans
Sean Gaines estimates he personally recruited around 40 young skinheads during the three years he was actively involved in the scene. And violence of some sort, he says, was a near daily occurrence.
Instead of lying low after the Mathes murder, Gaines immersed himself in the scene, getting into fights three to four times a week — but never with a weapon and never without provocation, he claims. Even a brute like Gaines had his limits.
"There were quite a few of us that wanted nothing to do with it. I mean if violence came to us, sure. Violence is that scene. But you got the handful that are really sick and twisted that like to go seek it," Gaines said.
But who am I to say
My sentence is not fair
Society did not deserve the heartaches
I caused when I was there
Phoenix skinheads called these excursions "hunting trips," predatory outings in which new initiates were taken to a predominantly minority neighborhood to attack a victim at random as a test of courage and devotion to the cause.
The story of one particular hunting trip in the fall of 2002 particularly troubles Gaines. He believes the victim, who received multiple blows to the body with steel-toed boots and several stab wounds to the torso, probably died.
Gaines was not there that night, but said he was told of the details by two people who were. Based on their account, Gaines alleges that the man who wielded the knife was Samuel Compton, an exceedingly violent skinhead who described what may have been the same incident in a 2003 letter to this reporter.
"This act of violence called 'Hunting' is done for several reasons," Compton wrote from his jail cell while awaiting trial for a different 2002 murder for which he was later convicted. "To allow a recruit in his whites [white shoelaces] to 'earn' his reds. Another reason may be retaliation or sheer boredom."
The fall 2002 hunting trip began, Gaines said, after a Mexican man stabbed Charles Wesley Lovin, a racist Phoenix skinhead known as "Nazi Dreamer" who Gaines claims financed his drug habit by mugging undocumented immigrants. "He'd find any old one walking down the street in the middle of the night and he was on it. He'd scream at his old lady to stop the car, and he'd jump out and do his deed," Gaines said. "Well, one night he got stabbed by one of them and ended up in the hospital with the knife still in his lung."
Dreamer's girlfriend got on the phone and issued a skinhead call to arms, Gaines said, and her skinhead "brothers" flocked to the hospital prepared for battle. None was more intent on avenging Dreamer than Compton, Gaines said, adding that Compton was "ranting and raving, wanting redemption and payback and [shouting,] 'Let's get seven for one of ours!'"
Gaines said the skins piled into a truck armed with bats, knives and brass knuckles. Their tactics were simple. They'd spot a potential victim walking down the street, stop the vehicle, bail out and attack. Gaines said that Compton and one of his skinhead initiates soon homed in on two Hispanic men in an area of Phoenix known as Sunnyslope.
"One individual was beaten with whatever inanimate objects they had and he ran off. Another was getting beaten and booted and stabbed between the neck and waist, numerous puncture wounds," Gaines said. He said they left the victim for dead, got back in the car and continued the hunt.
"The next attack didn't go as well. It was probably half an hour between the two. No more than the distance to drive, distance to spot your target and the surroundings, and come back and do the deed."
"Again, it was Compton and one of his [recruits] that did the stabbing. They found one individual, started to beat on him and got one thrust of the knife in. But he managed to run off."
Before they could find another victim, Dreamer called his girlfriend and begged her to come back to the hospital. According to Gaines, the remainder of the crew headed to the Phoenix home of Paul Skalniak, then a member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance organization and stay-at-home dad who still mentors young neo-Nazis in Arizona.
The attacks were cause for celebration and enough, Gaines said, to earn Compton a skinhead promotion — a pair of red shoelaces symbolic of spilling the blood of another race.
"They're all there, partying and celebrating their victorious night. Skalniak gets a phone call from Dreamer and gets told, 'Give Compton his reds,'" said Gaines. "Skalniak throws them in a big old stein of beer and hands it to Compton and Compton downs his beer and almost chokes on his reds."
According to Gaines, "The only thing [evidence] left standing from that night is DNA on Compton's clothes. A pair of white laces and a pair of blue jeans which he gave to Skalniak. He's got all of Compton's stuff boxed up, waiting for him to get out in 20 years."
It took a lot to do so
But I finally walked away
From a lifestyle that was never truly mine
I just got lost along the way
A Racist's Regrets
By early 2003, Gaines' reputation and standing among Arizona skinheads had reached its pinnacle. That spring, Gaines and Fiedler threw a series of white-power barbecues in a public park that each drew 80 to 100 racists. They appeared on the evening news together in March, promoting their events, and were interviewed in a local newspaper — oblivious to the fact that whispers about the authors of the February 2002 murder of Mark Mathes finally had reached the ears of law enforcement.
Gaines was arrested in May 2003 after he and Jessica Nelson were pulled over in a stolen car with a gun under the seat. He bonded out but was arrested for the final time on Sept. 11, 2003, in an early morning raid.
This time, the charge was murder.
"Once I knew I was going back to do time, I knew I only had one of two choices. It was either go [skinhead] all the way or go all the way in the other direction and as fast as I could," he said. "People hear my name or see me and their eyes get real big still. I could have made quite a standing for myself [in prison] if I had stayed in it, but it's not who I am, and the only way I could for sure get out of that scene was to ruin myself."
By consenting to the Intelligence Report interview Gaines is doing exactly that. Gaines spoke with the Report in the jailhouse chapel, an appropriate enough place for a confession. He was baptized there in June 2006. The water was freezing, he recalled, and he had to climb in and out of the tank fully chained.
"[Religion] helps, but not as much as them good, faithful Christians like to tell you: 'Just put your faith in the Lord and He'll see you through.' It doesn't give me the peace of mind that a lot of people say it does."
Although Gaines maintains his innocence in the Mathes murder, he is quick to point out that innocence in that crime does not make him an innocent man.
"I had an opportunity [to stop the murder]. I didn't no more tell [Johnson] to do it than I told him to stop. So I'm not guilty, but I'm not innocent. The middle's going to get me killed. We've got a good defense and an honest defense, but what's that going to get me? Arizona law says an accomplice is as good as dead."
The weight of the crimes he's been charged with, and some that he hasn't, is nearly suffocating. "I'm guilty of shit they haven't got me for, and I feel I deserve to do time for the shit they haven't got me for," he said.
"I've found an outlet that I didn't have before, a way to deal with my inner turmoil. Do I still have hate in me? Yes, but it's not misdirected anymore. It's not, 'He looked at my old lady in the pool hall so I'm gonna go punch him in the face and call him a dirty name and scream, 'White power!' What the hell was I thinking? What kind of outlet is that? That makes me a disgusting, disgraceful human being. I was sick."
Gaines' life now involves reading, pacing back and forth for exercise, and studying case law. But he says he's eager to do more, hopeful he can inflict as much damage on the white-power movement as possible and that somehow his future will involve righting the wrongs of his past. Last November, Gaines recruited accused murderers in nearby cells to help him draw get-well cards for sick children. They completed 100 brightly colored cards featuring Snoopy, Winnie the Pooh and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Late one night, after several hours of coloring, Phoenix's most notorious skinhead composed the final lines of his poem.
The sorrow in my heart
So true and deep and sincere
Though the opposition I pose to racists
Is something they should fear
"I've made this decision and I'm following through with that," said Gaines, who could face death in his trial for the murder of Mark Mathes, which had not yet been scheduled at press time. "I can go try and live like a hermit and I'm still going to be on these dudes' [hit] list. I'm still going to be the prey. I'm talking now, and given the chance I'm not going to talk — I'm going to scream. I'm going be a very strong opponent to these [racist] individuals. They are going to hate the day they introduced me to that lifestyle."