Probe unearths Klan influence

A lengthy investigation of thefts uncovers ties to a white supremacist group

The Saginaw News/March 5, 2000
By Fred Kelly

A four-year police investigation into a series of property crimes in western Saginaw County has uncovered ties between some mid-Michigan residents and the Ku Klux Klan.

The white supremacist group staged rallies in Saginaw in 1996 and 1997. The leader of the Arkansas-based organization leader said local supporters financed the events, which divided the community and spawned violence. At about the same time, detectives were investi gating allegations of a complex fraud scheme. While searching homes for evidence, they began finding Ku Klux Klan material.

Court records describe some of the items officers came across.

In the home of a then-St. Charles police officer they found a photograph of the officer in KKK garb, a Klan certificate of recognition, a gold membership coin, a Nazi flag, a Confederate license plate, racist literature and an invitation to a Klan picnic.

Another search turned up a Ku Klux Klan sweatshirt and membership papers for several residents of Saginaw Township and Hemlock. Investigators also found a "packet of state organization fund/pledge book (with) mailing address of KKK," court records state.

KKK-Back Page

The detectives found no evidence that any thefts or fraudulent activities were designed to raise money for the Klan, said Sheriff Charles L. Brown, saying that wasn't the focus of the probe.

Investigators gathered information on KKK materials because "we were concerned that they were violating someone's civil rights," Brown said. "Whenever you see those things, they are red flags."

Authorities haven't filed any civil rights charges.

While the investigation started out looking for proof of the fraud scheme, authorities have wrapped up the case by charging two men with felony theft counts in Bay County. One of them has pleaded guilty to charges that include larceny and conspiracy and a third man has pleaded guilty to concealing stolen property in Saginaw County.

A civil lawsuit accuses two of them of defrauding $10,000 from a rental vehicle company and its insurer. The case is pending in Saginaw County Circuit Court.

Former St. Charles Police Officer Mark Krawczak, who left the department in 1998, isn't charged in any of the cases. Krawczak acknowledges that he was in the Arkansas-based Klan, and that he saw local activists recruiting new members and raising money in western Saginaw County.

Krawczak, 30, worked as an officer for four years. He resigned for "health reasons." When officials wouldn't reinstate him, opponents accused his father, St. Charles Village President Thomas A. Krawczak, of meddling. Voters recalled him from office in 1998. The younger Krawczak told The Saginaw News he has changed since moving to Thomas Township from St. Charles, and has received counseling from Catholic priests.

"In St. Charles I was under some bad influences. There is a lot of racism in the community," he said.

He said he was a fringe member of the Klan and had racist material because he was curious about it and he considered it a Christian organization. He contended he never targeted racial minorities while working as a police officer, reports say.

Krawczak claims the three men charged in the property crimes recruited him. They collected cash donations from residences, businesses and bars in Hemlock, Merrill and St. Charles.

"People would give them fifties and twenties," said Krawczak. "They would call it a Christian cause."

In an investigative report, police quote Krawczak as identifying Trevor Fiting of Saginaw Township and two Hemlock residents, Kenneth Lapierre and Matthew Hendershot, as the Ku Klux Klan members who recruited him. Hendershot, who owned the former Hender Sales used car dealership in Hemlock, denied involvement in any white supremacist group. "Krawczak was a member while he was a police officer," said Hendershot, declining further comment.

The telephone directory lists no number for Lapierre, and his attorney, William A. Brisbois, didn't return calls. The News could not reach Fiting, who did not respond to telephone calls or a letter left at his home. His lawyer, Joseph S. Scorsone, didn't return calls.

A search warrant describes KKK items - a white sweatshirt bearing a Klan symbol, other emblems and membership documents - police seized from Hendershot's home. The document list Hendershot, Fiting and Lapierre as Klan members, court records state.

In a Sheriff's Department investigative report, detectives wrote that Lapierre depicted Krawczak as a recruiter and ringleader. The report quotes Lapierre to the effect that when Krawczak was a police officer he "held a position way up in the Ku Klux Klan" and that he wore disguises when he attended rallies, including local ones.

Lapierre described himself to police as a Klan member and said that Krawczak paid his $25 membership fee.

Krawczak told The News he had no leadership or recruiting role. Thomas Robb, national director of the Harrison, Ark.-based Klan faction that staged rallies in Saginaw, Midland and Caro, said he's familiar with Krawczak's name, but not the names of the other three men. He declined to elaborate.

Robb boasted that his Knights of the Ku Klux Klan group is enjoying great popularity in mid-Michigan and throughout the state. Recruitment is loosely organized, Robb said, with members often lobbying friends and acquaintances in church, at club meetings and during other social events.

"All over the country there is a sense of hopelessness among white people," he said. "They feel betrayed by their leaders."

Robb would not say who paid to bring the group to mid-Michigan. The rallies cost taxpayers more than $200,000 in Saginaw alone for police and security devices to keep KKK opponents and supporters apart. Black and white community leaders have accused each other of creating divisiveness that attracted the group.

Anti-Klan activists beat a man at the 1996 rally in Saginaw. In 1997, police used pepper spray to disperse 50 protesters who tore down a plastic fence; some spectators hurled bricks and rocks. In Caro, skinheads squared off against Klan foes.

Krawczak maintains that many residents in the small towns on the west side of Saginaw County are sympathetic to white supremacists. He claimed that Hendershot and others were in contact with other hate group members in St. Charles, Merrill and Midland County. An informal group in Merrill calling itself "The Gold Ropers" espouses racial hatred, Krawczak claimed.

He said he has never heard of any member of a hate group in Saginaw County perpetrating cross burnings, violence or other illegal activities. Police say they haven't linked the Arkansas Klan faction to violence against minorities in Saginaw County.

Brown said he and other Sheriff's Department officials are concerned about the presence of hate groups, but that police are powerless to act unless a crime is committed.

"I don't agree with it, but I can't undo what's in the Constitution," he said. "We're caught in the middle."

Under federal orders, the Michigan Department of State Police began tracking hate crimes in 1995.

Authorities reported five such offenses in Saginaw County in 1998, the latest year for which figures are available. The crimes involved actions ranging from non-aggravated assault and intimidation to malicious destruction of property, police records say.

Hate-crime statistics aren't a precise measure. Individual officers must determine if hatred motivated an act, said Amy Higgins, a State Police crime analyst in Lansing.

Authorities are aware of hate groups in Saginaw County, but have not linked them to any recent crimes, said Walter Reynolds, supervisor of the FBI office in Saginaw.

"We aren't deaf, dumb and blind," Reynolds said. "You can get on the Internet and see them freely advertising."

Meanwhile, the property crime allegations against Fiting, Lapierre and Hendershot have moved through the courts. Hendershot, 26, pleaded guilty to three counts of larceny over $100 and conspiracy. Chief Circuit Judge Leopold P. Borrello last week sentenced Hendershot to three years of probation and ordered him to pay $5,000 in fines and costs.

Hendershot and Fiting, 24, also face charges in Bay County of larceny of more than $100 and conspiracy. Prosecutors allege they stole a hot tub from The Bellows, a Bay City business. No trial date is set.

Lapierre, 24, pleaded guilty Thursday before District Judge Christopher S. Boyd to receiving and concealing stolen property worth less than $100. Court officials have not set a sentencing date.

Hendershot, Fiting and their friend, Michael J. Czymbor, face a Tuesday, May 16, hearing in a lawsuit filed by U-Haul Co. of Michigan in Saginaw County Circuit Court.

The case stems from a suit Czymbor filed in 1997 claiming a worker at a store in Vestaburg did not properly secure a trailer that came loose from a pickup truck and went over a cliff destroying thousands of dollars of his printing equipment two years earlier.

Czymbor, 30, of Thomas Township is a real estate agent and the former owner of the Printing Edge in Saginaw Township. of the Printing Edge in Saginaw Township.

The Wyoming, Mich.-based U-Haul outlet filed a countersuit alleging that Czymbor, Fiting and Hendershot loaded a trailer with expensive printing equipment and intentionally pushed it over a cliff in Colorado.

It was not immediately clear how much money either side is seeking. Czymbor's attorney, John C. Bovill III of Saginaw, and U-Haul attorney Laura Phillips of Southfield both declined comment.

U-Haul Lawyers claim the suspects took a picture showing the truck hanging over the the cliff. Czymbor told police that Hendershot and Fiting were driving his equipment to Colorado, where he hoped to open a business, police reports say. Hendershot and Fiting have said they were driving the truck when they heard a noise and turned to see the trailer tumbling down the cliff, the lawsuit states.

Fiting is the son of a prominent labor leader. Dennis Fiting, president of United Auto Workers Amalgamated Local 455, isn't linked to any of the allegations against his son.

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