Utah intent on keeping supremacists out

Deseret Morning News, Utah/April 30, 2007
By Geoffrey Fattah

State praised for its work in keeping groups from growing

The hate crimes jury conviction this month of three members of a white-supremacist group bent on starting a "race war" in the Salt Lake City area is just the latest effort by federal and state law enforcement to keep hate groups from establishing roots in Utah, white supremacist watchdogs say.

Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white-supremacist groups, credits the cooperation between Utah's federal and state officers in preventing hate groups from gaining a foothold in Utah.

"In the '90s Utah had a very active skinhead scene," Potok said. "I think that's less true now and prosecutors have done a lot to clean things up."

After a four-day trial, a jury found Shaun Walker, Travis Massey and Eric Egbert guilty of hate crimes and civil rights violations in the beating of two minority men in 2002 and 2003 outside two Salt Lake bars. Prosecutors alleged the three men, all members of the white-supremacist group the National Alliance, conspired to assault nonwhite citizens as a way to spread terror among minorities in the Salt Lake area and as a means to recruit other racists to their cause.

Federal officials say violence is often a tenet of hate groups as a way to gain status.

Walker, the former national chairman of the National Alliance; Massey, the local Utah leader of the group; and Egbert now face up to 20 years in federal prison when sentenced in July.

In recent years, white-supremacist groups have been the target of Utah law enforcement. In 2005 about a dozen members of a violent Aryan prison gang known as the Soldiers of Aryan Culture were charged under federal racketeering laws as a way to break up a gang that had plagued Utah's penal system with assaults and drug smuggling.

Officials said they had hoped to "pull it up by its roots and get it out of Utah."

The dismantling of SAC started with the indictment of the top three leaders, which included brothers Steve and Tracy Swena and Mark Isaac Snarr. Snarr was sentenced to serve more than 15 years, Tracy Swena received 20 years, and Steve Swena was ordered to serve 12 years.

A lesser member, Lance Vanderstappen, made headlines after he smuggled a shiv into a federal courthouse holding cell during his sentencing and repeatedly stabbed a Hispanic inmate based on the man's race. Vanderstappen received five years for the racketeering charge and 20 years for the stabbing.

SAC members were then purposefully scattered among various federal prisons across the country.

Another man, Joe Rakes, was sentenced to more than five years for helping to send a threatening letter to a federal prosecutor, who happened to be African-American, threatening her for the prosecution of SAC members.

But outside prison walls, hate group members were still working to establish themselves in Utah. For a while, the National Alliance was linked to racist fliers left at homes in the Salt Lake Valley and were criticized for a billboard espousing European race pride put up near Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City.

In March 2005, a black man was hospitalized after being beaten and assaulted with a beer bottle by three men while riding his bicycle to his night job in Salt Lake City. Three men, including a member of the National Alliance, were arrested and charged in federal court for the assault. Prosecutors claimed the beating was used as an initiation into another white-supremacist group.

"You don't want to think that it happens here," said U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman. "You feel like you're on top of the wall and that you're watching out for this area and that's one enemy that you don't want to get in."

Tolman said Utah has had a history of tolerance and acceptance of people from various ethnic backgrounds and that is something they don't want to lose.

Tim Fuhrman, special agent-in-charge for the Salt Lake City office of the FBI, said such incidents can't be tolerated; otherwise such groups will assume Utah is fertile ground.

"If you don't prosecute, if you ignore them, like anything else people think they can get away with it," Fuhrman said.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force also works with local law enforcement in investigating hate-related crimes. Fuhrman credits local law enforcement's willingness to work on such cases, adding that without local law enforcement help, going after hate groups is difficult.

It's also a matter of finding witnesses courageous enough to take the witness stand. "You clearly have intimidated victims and the courage of victims to come forward and testify is remarkable," Fuhrman said. "What they have to do is relive the incident again."

Potok said such prosecutions do put a dent in white-supremacist groups.

At its pinnacle in 2002, the West Virginia-based National Alliance boasted more than 1,400 members with 17 full-time paid staff members and earned over $1 million from selling its publications and hate music from its Resistance Records label.

Due to internal fractures, along with the death of its founder in 2002, membership began to drop, Potok said. When the group's new national chairman, Shaun Walker, was arrested, the National Alliance's foundation further started to crumble.

Potok said the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates the National Alliance now has fewer than 150 members and is struggling.

News of Walker's conviction has only served to perhaps see the demise of the group. "The National Alliance was on the ropes already; this may be in effect the death knell," Potok said.

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