Youths' White Power Views Stir Concern

Los Angeles Times/November 7, 1999
By Anna Gorman

It's a Thursday afternoon and a worried Ventura mother named Kari says she hasn't seen her teenage son in four days. He and his older brother drifted into the white power movement a few years ago, and she lost all control of them.

Kari's eyes fill with tears as she explains that she simply doesn't know what happened. She never taught them to be racists, she says. But she knows she wasn't home as much as she should have been. There wasn't as much guidance as there might have been, she says.

So her two sons became part of a movement that has drawn increasing concern and attention from teachers, judges and community leaders in Ventura County in recent years.

The numbers aren't great. No more than a few hundred kids at most. Some of them worse than others. About the time they start developing their white power views in their early teens, many are already in trouble for drugs or fighting or petty crime.

The drug use and crime are a problem, of course. But beyond that are even more troubling questions that nag at the experts: Where does all this hatred come from? What leads the kid next door to suddenly start spouting off about the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler?

Chris Weidenheimer, who heads Ventura County Juvenile Hall, says the white power youths she sees typically come from lower middle-income families with a single, uneducated parent.

"I don't think parents promote it," she said. "I think parents ignore it until it's out of control."

But Ventura Police Cpl. Mark Stadler says that isn't always the case. He says the racism espoused by teenage white supremacists is often a reflection of their parents' views.

If parents are too often turning a blind eye to the problem, Ventura County isn't. Increasingly, officials are dealing with the problem more seriously than at any time in previous years.

The Ventura Police Department and the county district attorney's office last year received a $1.5-million grant to combat white supremacist gangs. The Sheriff's Department also is stepping up its efforts to contain white power gangs countywide, working with the FBI on some cases.

At the same time, schools throughout the county are both educating and cracking down on young white supremacists. And private citizens are initiating a counterattack on the white power movement.

In 1995, Susan Abrams created Advocates for Equal Justice, a community group that helps residents who have faced violence or intolerance survive the experience.

"The sad thing is that our community can no longer sit back and say it's not happening here," Abrams said. "Kids pick up hate by the community not doing anything. We have to get more involvement--to say we do not want your groups in our cities."

There are about 200 white supremacist gang members and associates in Ventura County who belong to about half a dozen gangs, according to the Ventura Police Department. Police estimate about 100 more youths are white power advocates, but don't belong to gangs.

In 1999, there have been 41 hate crimes in the county, local law enforcement agencies report. That compares with 38 for all of 1998, according to the state attorney general's office.

"Are they suspects in major crimes? Yes. Are they being investigated as such? Yes," Cmdr. Dick Purnell of the Sheriff's Department said. "Do we view them as any more dangerous than other gang members? A gang member is a gang member, and they are all violent."

The typical white supremacist is a male between 13 and 23 years old. He may wear a bomber jacket and boots with red shoelaces. He very likely has a tattoo of his favorite Nazi-related image: a swastika, an iron cross or a lightning bolt. And he decorates his room with swastikas and pictures of Hitler.

Some get involved as early as the fifth or sixth grades, Stadler of the Ventura Police Department said. After listening to their parents' racist beliefs for years, they start middle school and meet older teens who hold the same beliefs, he said.

Before long, Stadler said, they are spouting racism at school and on the streets. They yell racial epithets and sometimes salute each other with "Heil Hitler" signs, and they taunt interracial couples and attack people of other races.

Probation Officer Tony Machuca, who supervises several white power teens, said he has confiscated drawings of swastikas, Confederate flags and cutout pictures of Hitler and Ku Klux Klan rallies.

"When you see racial slurs spray-painted on closet doors or Confederate flags on the walls, you know what kind of household you are walking into," he said. "Parents turn a blind eye to it, or they are truly ignorant."

Ed Dunbar, a clinical professor at UCLA, has studied white supremacist youths in Los Angeles and throughout the nation. He said most of the perpetrators of hate crimes have a history of problems in school, substance abuse and previous crimes.

"Some of the folks who join these groups have an extremely violent past," Dunbar said. "This isn't the only time they've committed crimes."

Most of the youths are in Ventura and Ojai, though some live in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Simi Valley. Officials say white supremacists are traditionally from low-income areas, so the numbers are lower in the more affluent east county cities.

Mike McKendry, senior district attorney investigator, said white power gangs differ from other criminal street gangs because they aren't motivated by money or territory. Rather, they are driven by bigotry and racism, he said.

"Their whole motivation is the race, the white race," McKendry said.

White supremacists often form gangs as a response to growing minority populations that threaten the status quo, said UCLA's Dunbar. They want to preserve what they see as a disappearing way of life, and to protect themselves against black and Latino gangs.

"They often rally together around the feeling that they have gotten victimized," Dunbar said. "So they try to set upon victims that are weak."

Youths who join white power gangs often had a bad experience with one person of another color, and have generalized that to hate all other races, Dunbar added. They also usually have low self-esteem, and are looking for a sense of belonging and family.

Weidenheimer of Juvenile Hall said the teens' beliefs worry her. "It's the attitude more than the behavior that is scary to me, because they're kids," she said. "They hate just for hate's sake. What are they going to be doing when they're 22 or 23?"

Mike is a Ventura white power advocate who has reached that age. He has spent most of his recent years in prison on various drug and criminal charges. Currently, he is in prison again because of parole violations.

Prior to his most recent arrest, the 23-year-old spoke of his life and his white power views while watching two other white supremacist skinheads ride their skateboards at Mission Park in Ventura.

Mike's head is shaved. A tattoo of an iron cross with a swastika covers his chest and boasts the words "White Power." His stare is mean and he punctuates his sentences with clenched fists.

Today he speaks admiringly of Hitler and predicts an eventual race war in America. In his ideal world, America would be rid of all blacks, Asians, Mexicans.

"We were here first, and we are better," he said.

In many ways, Mike fits the profile of the typical white power believer.

He grew up in Ventura with his mother, who ran a day-care center, and his stepfather, an auto mechanic. Even in his early years, he says, he was a rowdy kid, always getting in fights and looking for trouble.

While still in grade school, he met a 16-year-old neighbor who smoked marijuana, drank beer and got into fights. So he did the same. And, like his older friend, he started talking about white power.

"He told me to walk around with my head up because I'm white," Mike recalled.

So he became a skinhead. In seventh grade, he was the only white supremacist at his school. After getting in several fights with black and Latino classmates, he was kicked out of school and was sent to another campus.

Soon he began using drugs regularly. In the ninth grade, Mike dropped out of school. And at 17, he joined a white supremacist gang.

"They believed in what I believed in," he said. "They were like my family. I felt like I was at home. I'd ride with them and I'd feel proud."

Ziola Jackson knows about hate crimes. On the Fourth of July three years ago, she discovered swastikas, racial epithets and profanities spray-painted all over her house.

"It was just a shock to come out on the Fourth of July and to see the swastikas and curse words on the doors," she said. "I said to myself, 'I didn't do anything to anyone.' "

Jackson said she wasn't scared and she wasn't angry. She just didn't understand why somebody would do something so hateful.

She and her husband, Kilmer Jackson--both African American--had lived in their Camarillo home since 1971. They knew everyone in the neighborhood. And they hadn't had any problems before.

Now, a few years later, Jackson feels disappointed.

"It was just one of those things that happens," Jackson said. "It was done by people who have hate in their hearts."

While the white power movement is drawing more attention from county officials now than in the past, it is hardly a new phenomenon in Ventura County.

In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was active in much of the west county. Local Klan members included ranchers, ministers and police officers from Fillmore, Santa Paula, Ojai and Ventura, according to county historian Judy Triem.

Klan members in Ventura County were less violent than their counterparts in the South, Triem said. But they still held initiation ceremonies and cross burnings, rallies and recruitment drives. And they spoke out against anyone who wasn't Protestant, white and born in America.

"It wasn't against blacks, because there weren't that many blacks in Ventura County," she said. "Here it was anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant."

And the Klan movement seemed to die out after just a few years, Triem said.

Decades later, modern day white power took hold. Between 1988 and 1989, white supremacists committed about 10 serious crimes, including two stabbings, an assault and a cross burning. And in 1990, there were about a dozen incidents of violence or vandalism directed at racial and religious minority groups.

In 1991, a 17-year-old Ventura High School student revived a black student union, prompting other students to attempt to start a white student union. As racial tension on the campus increased, one white supremacist punched the student in the face and screamed a racial slur at him.

In 1995, local reggae musician Leonard Boles sat with a friend on the swings next to the Ventura Pier. Minutes later, he said, five teenagers came up to him and began talking about white power. As the 37-year-old Boles started to leave, he was stabbed by one of the teens.

Then in 1996, on James Wilson's 25th birthday, he went to a Ventura party with his pregnant girlfriend and three white friends. Soon after he entered the house, Wilson--who is black--was beaten by a crowd of men who pelted him with open beer bottles and hurled racial epithets in a riot-like episode. Part of Wilson's left ear was cut off.

After the incident, Wilson moved out of state with his daughter. "I never thought that I'd leave Ventura," he said during the 1997 trial. "But I don't want her brought up here."

Stadler, who tracks white power gangs for the Ventura Police Department, said gang activity died down about 1997, when several leaders went to prison. But recently there has been a resurgence of white supremacy, he said.

"It's more widespread now, it's a pretty open and blatant disrespect of authority," Stadler said.

Beginning in fall 1998, police said, there was another series of hate crimes that began with an attack near the Ventura Pier. A Latino couple and a black couple were on their way home from a homecoming date when they were assaulted by four white supremacists.

Singing, and then shouting racial epithets, the skinheads followed the two couples and threw a brick at them. When the students tried to drive away, their assailants kicked the car and beat it with a baseball bat, police said.

In February, another assault occurred in Ventura. Two young white men walked into a fast-food restaurant in midtown Ventura, yelling "white power" and "crazy white boys" at a black woman. They then grabbed her purse and pushed her. When another customer intervened, one youth pulled a knife and tried to stab him, police said.

Also within the past year, three gang members in Ventura beat a developmentally disabled man in his early 20s because he was gay, and two white supremacists taunted and attacked a young white man because he was with a black friend, authorities said.

And in a murder case that goes to trial in March, Ventura white supremacist Justin Merriman faces the death penalty if convicted of the rape and murder of 20-year-old Katrina Montgomery.

A Ventura High School graduate who was waiting tables and attending Santa Monica College, Montgomery disappeared in November 1992 after stopping at an Oxnard party. Her blood-stained truck was found in Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County, but her body was never found.

According to one witness who testified before the Ventura County Grand Jury last year, Merriman took Montgomery to his home, raped her and then fatally bludgeoned and stabbed her. He then allegedly forced two skinhead gang members to help him dispose of the body.

Along with 25 criminal counts, the grand jury indicted Merriman for allegedly trying to threaten witnesses.

Merriman's mother, Beverlee Sue Merriman, also faces trial on charges of conspiring with her son to intimidate grand jury witnesses. She is in jail in lieu of $2-million bail pending a January trial. And two colleagues, Jennifer Wepplo and Samantha Medina, are both serving time after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges.

"What we've seen from white supremacy groups is that they tend to be a lot more violent than other groups," Stadler said. "They are responsible for a lot more violent crimes. And the more extreme they are, the deeper the beliefs are, the more violent they are, and the more likely they are to lash out against a person of another race."

Rabbi Shimon Paskow of Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks said he and his congregation are very aware of the potential violence from local white supremacists. His temple, along with Temple Beth Torah in Ventura and Temple K'Hilat Ha'Aloneem in Meiners Oaks, have all been defaced by white power advocates in the past.

"Everywhere there are some people who can get violent and harm others," Rabbi Paskow said. "It is something to be concerned about. And particularly now, we need to be careful."

This year, after a spate of violent hate crimes in California and throughout the nation, local law enforcement and school officials realized that similar incidents could occur here. So they became increasingly vigilant of young white supremacists.

John Hatcher, president of the Ventura County chapter of the NAACP, said the county has dragged its heels for too long, so he is glad to see something now being done about young white supremacists.

"People in Ventura County would like to ignore that we have this kind of problem here," Hatcher said. "The county has kind of put blinders on the real issue."

In Ventura County's Juvenile Hall, between 5% and 7% of the inmates are white supremacists. Once or twice a month, an inmate will scrawl a swastika or "white power" on the wall, Weidenheimer said.

Officials often separate white power youths from other inmates to prevent fights.

"We are not going to put a kid with an 8-inch swastika on his chest in the shower with a kid who is black," Weidenheimer said.

Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who has supervised Juvenile Court for five years, requires young white supremacists to write a statement of their beliefs. Often Perren mandates a visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as a condition of probation.

"I have absolutely no patience for hatred based on race, color, sexual preference or gender," Perren said. "We're in the justice business. We don't tolerate injustice. And what greater injustice is there than being predatory based on race, religion, color or ethnicity of your victim?"

The Anti-Defamation League recently launched an anti-bias program at the Colston Youth Center in Ventura. The six-week program, "Eliminate the Hate," attempts to break down the inmates' stereotypes and racial prejudices, and advises parents on how to keep their kids out of white power gangs.

The league also runs programs in public schools, training teachers how to promote tolerance. During the "World of Difference" workshops, teachers learn activities that challenge student stereotypes and biases.

Of Ventura High School's 2,500 students, counselor Linda Holder said about two dozen are serious about their white supremacist beliefs. And another 50 to 100 are the "wannabes," she said.

Erik Wilson, 16, who is black, said his white power classmates at Ventura High call him racist names every day.

"But I don't really care," he said. "I don't pay attention to them." He said he doesn't think they are a threat.

But Isaac Mendez, 15, who is Latino, isn't as sure. "They're powerful because they all stick together," he said. "They think that other races are lesser, and that they're the best race."

Holder tries to educate students, but encourages administrators to transfer them if the kids don't change their beliefs and their behavior. "They're out there and we're ready to do something about it," she said.

At Nordhoff High School in Ojai, fewer than a dozen of the 1,250 students are hard-core white power advocates, according to Vice Principal Susana Arce.

When Arce finds a swastika on a notebook the first time, she tries to teach the student. The second time, she suspends the teen. "When they realize that we mean business, they either stop doing things or they screw up and are dismissed," Arce said.

Arce and others said white supremacists in Ventura County aren't as blatant about their beliefs as they once were. While they used to drive around waving Confederate flags, they now keep a lower profile.

"They are blending in with the rest of the people so you don't know who you are dealing with," Hatcher said. "But they're still spouting racism. And they are a threat."

Law enforcement agencies are also cracking down on white supremacists. Armed with a $1.5-million state grant, authorities have assigned two probation officers, a prosecutor and a team of Ventura police officers to target white supremacist crimes.

Police say the collaboration eliminates a lot of red tape, and enables law enforcement to track and prosecute white power youths more effectively. And Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Rafelson said the effort is making a difference in Ventura.

"We can determine who the most serious dangers to the community are and we can deal with them," Rafelson said. "It really matters when we take the leaders off the streets."

The Sheriff's Department has also been sending its crime suppression unit--created to handle crime hot spots--into areas where supremacists are a problem. With the help of the local FBI, the department is identifying white power gang members and investigating hate crimes.

When Kari first started to hear her sons Jeremy and Christopher spout racist beliefs four years ago, she tried to stop them. She talked to them about their opinions. She brought over her friends of other races. She even took them to the Museum of Tolerance. But that was all too late.

Jeremy was one of four attackers who assaulted the black and Latino couples near the Ventura Pier in 1998. He served six months for that hate crime, then stole a car while on probation, and is now serving a four-year sentence at the California Youth Authority, according to Rafelson. Christopher, meanwhile, is in and out of the house with his white power friends.

Kari still hopes her sons will grow out of their racism.

"Their values are all screwed up," she said. " On the outside, they want everybody to believe that they are racist. But deep down inside, I know that they are not."

Kari is more worried about their safety than their beliefs. She knows Jeremy's tattoos and attitude will get him into trouble at CYA.

"All I know is that I'm scared to death about my older son," Kari said. "And his brother is soon to follow if he doesn't get out of this.


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