LAS VEGAS – A former “skinhead girl” now nearing middle-age, wearing sensible shoes and jailhouse shackles was the star witness in a federal courtroom here Wednesday, the first day of testimony in a racially charged double murder trial 16 years in the making.
Mandie Abels, who has the words “skinhead girl” tattooed across her back, was escorted by U. S. Marshals into courtroom 7C from a prison cell where she is serving a 15-year sentence for her role in what she called “a vile deed”—leading two anti-racist skinheads to their deaths in the desert just outside of Las Vegas.
In the early morning hours of July 4, 1998 Lin Newborn, 24, and Daniel Shersty, 21 were ambushed and shot to death, prosecutors say, by four white supremacists. “They despised what the victims stood for,” federal prosecutor Patricia Sumner told the jury during opening arguments Wednesday.
The killings were a shocking escalation in the violent—but until then rarely deadly—nationwide conflict between racist skinheads and their anti-racist rivals. Newborn, who was black and worked at a popular Las Vegas body piercing shop, and Shersty, who was a white U.S Air Force airman stationed at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base, were leaders of a fledging group called Las Vegas Unity Skins.
After the killings and the funerals, the group dwindled away.
“I moved back to Illinois,” a former Unity Skins member told the court. “I didn’t feel comfortable here anymore. Two of my friends had been murdered. It finally sunk in that nobody is bullet proof.”
One of the alleged gunmen now on trial is Ross Hack, Abels’ former live-in boyfriend and “a proud neo-Nazi skinhead,” the prosecutor said.
From the witness stand, Abels, 36, pointed across the courtroom and identified Hack as the mastermind of the ambush. Shortly after the murders, she testified, she and Hank fled to Germany, “because we didn’t want to get caught and go to prison.”
She returned to the United States six weeks later, though Hack stayed in Europe for several years before returning. Hack had traveled to Europe on an illegally obtained passport and, in 2009, started serving a three-year prison sentence for lying on his passport application. He was about to be released when he was arrested in 2012 along with his younger sister, Melissa, and Leland Jones for the murders of Newborn and Shersty.
Abels said Jones, who sat with Hack at the defense table, had also opened fired on the two unarmed anti-racists.
“Everybody was shooting,” she said.
She testified that Ross Hack asked her and his sister Melissa to go to the body piercing shop where Newborn worked and lure him to the desert with the promise of a night of partying under the stars. Abels said Hack referred to Newborn as “that nigger.”
Newborn, who everyone called “Spit”, was supposed to be the only one to die that night. He stood out in the Vegas skinhead scene. Not just because he was a black man in the largely white subculture. He was also charismatic and popular, a leader, who played in a skinhead band. Ross Hack played drums in a white power band.
Shersty was not on the original hit list, Abels said. He just happened to be at the shop when the two young women walked in. Newborn asked if his buddy could come along.
Abels said when she told Hack that Shersty was coming, he coldly replied, “He’s just going to have to get dealt with.”
On the way out to the desert Newborn and Shersty in one car, Abels and Melissa Hack in another, the convoy stopped at a grocery store for two six packs of beer.
“What the defendants had planned,” Sumner the prosecutor said, “was not a party but an ambush.”
Melissa Hack pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the murders last spring and is also expected to testify against her brother and Jones.
Until Wednesday, only one of the four suspected desert gunmen, John “Polar Bear” Butler, had ever been tried for the murders. Butler, who was Melissa Hack’s boyfriend at the time, was convicted in state court in 2000 and is now serving two life sentences. He too is expected to testify for the prosecution of Ross Hack and Leland Jones. The presiding judge, Philip Pro, said the trial could last four to six weeks.
Prosecutors say the fourth shooter that night was Daniel Hartung, a member of the Hammerskins, a racist and violent skinhead group. But Hartung was never changed in the case. He died in a car crash in 2012, the same year Hack, Jones and Melissa Hack were arrested and charged in federal court 14 years after the killings.
After Butler’s conviction the other suspects “fell off the radar” of local authorities, prosecutor Sumner said. Then a few years ago, federal officials began reexamining the case, leading to the arrests in 2012 and ultimately to murder trial on Wednesday.
Newborn and Shersty were killed on federally owned land.
The ambush, Sumner said, had been hatched out during a series of meetings at Hack’s house. The plan was for Hack and Jones to be waiting for the women and the Newborn and Shersty. Hack and Jones were supposed to be introduced by the women as their cousins. Each man had a pistol. Hartung, armed with a rifle, and Butler, carrying a shotgun, hid in the bushes.
As soon as the introductions were made the killing was to start.
That, the prosecutor said, is exactly what happened.
Jones allegedly shot Shersty, who fell to the ground, leaning against his car, pleading for his life before Hartung allegedly bashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle.
Ross Hack shot Newborn in the back of the head, but the bullet, the prosecutor said, did not penetrate his skull and he started fleeing, “desperately running for his life across the desert.”
Butler chased after him. The shotgun roaring through the darkness as Melissa Hack shouted, “Shoot the nigger. Shoot the nigger.”
Abels said the next day she and Ross Hack returned to the murder scene to retrieve shell casings and any other evidence. It was just getting light, she said, when they came upon Shersty’s body where he fell.
As Hack searched for shells, Abels said she sat in the car, “freaking out” at the sight of the bloody body beginning to swell.
She screamed for Hack to get back in the car and the couple quickly drove away.
That same morning, Hack ordered his sister and Butler out to the desert to finish cleaning up the murder scene. They were spotted by three men riding ATVs and hurried away. The men also discovered Shersty’s body and called police.
Newborn’s body was discovered two days later about 150 yards across the sand and dirt where his desperate run for life ended with a shotgun blast.
Butler was arrested two weeks later, carrying one of the pistols used in what Sumner called “this ambush, this slaughter.”
Ross Hack’s lawyer, Michael Kennedy, told the jury in his opening remarks that the government made deals with Abels, Butler and Melissa Hack—a trio of drug abusing liars, who would say anything to reduce their prison sentences, he said. Kennedy said that Butler was a meth addict, a meth dealer and a meth enforcer, who, prior to the murders, had been a police informant for more than two years.
“He traded lives and information for his freedom every time he got into a jam,” Kennedy said.
The lawyer said it was Butler and “his meth head accomplices”—Abels, Melissa Hack and Hartung—who actually committed the murders and that Ross Hack and Jones had nothing to do with it.
The government, Kennedy said, has moved Butler into witness protection and has also moved his wife, whom he married since his double murder conviction, to a location closer to him. Kennedy said Butler was desperate to get out of state prison and into federal custody because the Aryan Warriors prison gang had issued a hit on him.
“Obviously, he’s doing this to get his freedom,” Kennedy said, adding that Abels and Melissa Hack are also testifying to save themselves.
Abels has been in prison since May 14, 2012, shortly after reaching a quiet plea agreement with the federal government, which allowed her to plead guilty to conspiracy to murder and only receive a 15 year sentence.
On cross examination, Abels admitted to Kennedy that she had repeatedly lied to authorities over the years about the murders, always saying that neither she nor Hack had anything to do with what happened in the desert.
Kennedy asked her if she was trying to testify her way to less time in prison.
No, she said, adding, “The truth is going to get me less time, or the possibility. It’s not guaranteed. The truth needed to come out.”