3 charged in hate crimes

Homegrown supremacists committed arson at African-American church

Daily Southtown/March 19, 2002
By Rex Robinson and Allison Hantschel, contributor

Will County sheriff's police have accused three people - one sporting a swastika tattoo on the side of his head - of hate crimes after two arson fires at an African-American church near Joliet.

Three members of a home-grown white supremacist group were arrested last Friday and charged with arson and two counts of committing a hate crime in connection with two fires at Greater Bible Way Apostolic Church.

The trio, 19-year-old Mark Austin and two juveniles, live just three blocks away from the church.

"It is bizarre why they would do something like this in their own back yard to a place that's been there for 20 years," said Will County Deputy Chief Paul Kaupas. "This one's a mind-stopper."

The hate crime charges are the first in Will County since 1999.

In January, the church's garage was set on fire. Nazi symbols and hateful slogans touting "white power" were scrawled on a sign in front of the church.

In March, another fire destroyed the church's bus and van, but police found gas cans at the scene. Swastikas and other hate-filled epithets were scrawled on the church walls.

Monday, police said they were closing in on the culprits when Austin surrendered and gave up his accomplices, who are 17 and 16 years old. Sheriff's police are seeking other members of the supremacist gang.

Kaupas declined to say how many members are in the group. He said he does not believe the group is connected to any larger organization.

"We are in the process of identifying all members of this organization, and we are closely monitoring their activities," Kaupas said. "The Will County Sheriff's Department will not tolerate terrorism of any form, especially this type of terrorism, which preys on innocent people, who are targeted because of their skin color or religious beliefs."

Samuel Allen Sr., bishop at Greater Bible Way Apostolic Church, said both attacks took place at about 1 a.m. The garage was completely destroyed and will have to be rebuilt, Allen said, placing the damage at $30,000 to $40,000.

The incidents spurred shock, fear and anger within the church's 350-member congregation. Older churchgoers were frightened, the bishop said, but the church's young men seethed with anger.

"I hope the young people don't know who they are," he said.

Austin lives on Krakar Avenue near the church, according to police, and the two juveniles also arrested live nearby, too.

Allen founded the church in 1962 and moved it from Woodruff Road to its present home on Brown Avenue in 1977.

The bishop said he must be forgiving and not give in to emotions that seek revenge.

"I can't let hatred remain in my heart," he said. "It will destroy me as it will those young people. We're going to forgive them, but we hope that justice will be done."

Austin has a swastika tattoo on the side of his head, while one of the others arrested has various tattoos: "White Power," a swastika and a Germanic cross.

Police found literature espousing race hatred and other white supremacist material in Austin's home at 241 Krakar Ave.

Both Kaupas and Will County State's Attorney Jeff Tomczak said they will not tolerate hate crimes.

"When race becomes the reason for committing a crime, you are going to see swift and very stern reaction on the behalf of law enforcement," Tomczak said. "The nature of the hate crime here is clearly race-related."

One of the teens charged is 17, but was a juvenile at the time the crime took place. The other is still 16.

Austin is in the Will County jail, his bail set at $75,000. He faces an April 5 court date. The two others are being held in the River Valley Juvenile Detention Center.

Since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began tracking church arsons in 1995 through fall 2001, Illinois has recorded 27 incidents. Thirteen of those incidents were arsons of African-American congregations. One took place in south suburban Ford Heights.

In the same time period, 1,071 incidents of church arson were recorded nationwide. More than 31 percent of those were burnings of African-American churches, the ATF reported.

"Twenty-seven is a large number of church arsons. It's not just a problem in the South," said ATF spokesman Tom Ahern. "It's a problem nationwide."

Tomczak said the last hate crime incident he remembers in Will County happened in 1999, when the letters "KKK," a swastika and a racial slur were painted on the Grace United Methodist Church on Avalon Avenue, Our Savior Lutheran Church on Black Road, and a house on Joliet's West Side.

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