Despite his sister’s and ex-girlfriend’s dramatic testimony against him, Ross Hack, the alleged neo-Nazi mastermind behind the ambush murders of two anti-racist skinheads 16 years ago, was found not guilty today by a federal jury in Las Vegas.
Hack’s co-defendant, Leland Jones, was also acquitted after the two week trial that included testimony from an unlikely parade of white supremacists and meth addicts and at least one apparent Holocaust denier, who testified as a character witness for the defense.
The racially diverse jury deliberated for more than a day and a half before announcing its verdict around 9:30 a.m. local time.
The verdicts bring to a close a cold case revealing a hot war. For decades, racist and anti-racist skinheads have battled in the streets and music venues, often violently. Rarely, though, has the conflict resulted in murder, let alone a double murder as it did in a remote patch of sand and rocky dirt in the desert about 20 miles northwest of Las Vegas, sometime between the last minutes of July 3 and the first minutes of July 4, 1998.
That’s when the anti-racist activists, Lin “Spit” Newborn and Daniel Shersty, were ambushed and shot to death, prosecutors say, by six neo-Nazi skinheads, including two women who lured the victims to the desert with the promise of a night of partying.
Also testifying against Hack and Jones was John “Polar Bear” Butler, the only one of the skinhead conspirators to be tried and convicted of the slayings. Butler, like the two women, said the ambush was Hack’s idea and Hack and Jones had in fact fired the first shots.
But there was no physical evidence, no fingerprints or DNA or CSI television show science to tie the defendants to the 16-year-old crime scene.
The not-guilty verdict was a blow to the government, which has a conviction rate in federal court of more than 90%. The verdict was a moment of pure elation for “the entire Hack family,” Hack’s lawyer, William Kennedy, a federal public defender, told Hatewatch today. “This has been hanging over Ross’ head for 16 years,” Kennedy said. “He didn’t plan it. He didn’t participate in it. He wasn’t there. He didn’t do it. And he’s always been not guilty.”
Jones’ lawyer, James Hartsell, told Hatewatch that the jurors obviously took the case “very seriously in how long it took them to deliberate.”
“They didn’t rush to judgment,” Hartsell said. “They considered all the evidence and or lack of evidence before rendering a verdict.”
During the trial, Kennedy repeatedly attacked the veracity of the government’s star witnesses, branding them a trio of liars and meth addicts, willing to say anything to reduce their time behind bars. Butler, with an extensive criminal record and a longtime addiction to meth, was convicted in state court of the murders in 2000. Now 44, he is serving two life sentences.
Hack’s younger sister, Melissa, 39, and Hack’s ex-girlfriend, Mandie Abels, 36, were the women who lured Newborn and Shersty to their deaths. In plea agreements with the government, both women pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder and both testified against Hack and Jones in exchange for reduced prison terms.
The women said the phony date and the real ambush were both Hack’s idea. They also testified that they witnessed Hack and Jones open fire minutes after Newborn and Shersty arrived at the “party” along an isolated stretch of desert, lined with towering power line poles.
“Ross, why?” Melissa Hack shouted across the courtroom from the witness stand at her brother, gently rocking in his chair at the defense table. “Our lives are ruined. My mother’s life is ruined. The victims’ lives are ruined.
“Why?” she wailed. “Because of fucking hate. That’s why.”
Newborn, who was 24 and black, and Shersty, a white, 20-year-old U.S. Air Force airman, claimed allegiance to the loosely organized anti-racist movement called SHARP or Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, the bitter enemies of racist skinheads.
Charismatic and popular, Newborn worked in a local body piercing shop and was the initial target of the murder plot. Shersty was killed because he happened to be hanging out with Newborn when the two women walked into the shop and asked Newborn to party with them under the stars.
The sixth alleged skinhead killer that night, Daniel Hartung, was never charged in the case. A former member of the violent Hammerskin Nation, Hartung died in a car crash at age 36 in 2012, the same year the Hacks and Jones were arrested for the killing.
Also in 2012, Abels quietly pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and agreed to testify. Last May, Melissa Hack reached a similar deal with prosecutors.
Abels, Butler and Melissa Hack told essentially the same chilling and tragic story of race, hate and murder. It was, Abels said, “a vile deed.”
There was so much shooting, Butler testified, that he was temporarily blinded by the muzzle flashes as he chased after Newborn, fleeing for his life across the desert.
As part of his plea agreement, Butler has entered the Witness Protection Program and has been moved to a secret prison location. Abels has already started serving a 15-year sentence. Melissa Hack is expected to receive a 20-year term when she is sentenced later this month. Both women could have their terms reduced because of their cooperation.
Kennedy, the federal public defender, called a string of character witnesses to the stand who vouched for Ross Hack’s nonviolent past. One of them was a man named Tyler Vickery, who played guitar in a skinhead white-power band called Stronghold with Ross Hack, who played drums. Vickery also dated Hack’s girlfriend, Abels, after Hack travelled to Germany shortly after the murders in 1998. Abels had gone to Europe with Hack but returned after six weeks. Hack stayed for six years.
Vickery, a pair of sunglasses perched on his baldhead, told the court that he had never known Hack to be violent and that Abels was “generally untruthful.”
During cross-examination, prosecutor Sumner asked Vickery if he and Hack were white supremacists.
"I’d use white racialist,” he said.
Sumner asked, what’s the difference?
“White supremacist is a little of a buzzword,” he said, adding a couple of minutes later that “generally speaking” white people’s abilities are better than those of other races.
Then the prosecutor asked Vickery about a “white racialist” event he and Hack played in Florida called Hate Fest. There, the men posed for a photo with a group of friends, including Abels. In the background was an image of SS lightning bolts. Vickery explained that the bolts were the symbol of the Schutzstaffel of Nazi Germany, the personal bodyguard, he said, of Hitler.
Sumner asked him if they were the same soldiers involved in the atrocities against the Jews of Europe.
“I don’t know about any atrocities in Europe,” he said. “I’ve heard stories about atrocities. Whether that’s correct or not, I have my doubts.”
Apparently, the jurors also had doubts and sent Hack and Jones home.