White separatist groups targeted in arson probe

'We're interviewing everybody,' says sheriff of investigation of burnings of 3 Sacramento synagogues

Contra Costa Times/June 24, 1999
By Gary Delsohn And Sam Stanton

Sacramento -- The investigation of Friday's arsons has turned toward two of the most active white separatist groups in the Sacramento area, sources said Wednesday.

Federal and local investigators are looking at followers of the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator and whether their anti-Semitic messages may have spurred the arson attacks against three of Sacramento's seven synagogues.

Investigators stressed that they are looking at all possible suspects in the case and that some individuals were talked to simply because they have links to the groups.

"We're interviewing everybody, and we're not just stopping at these groups," Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas said. "We're checking into every lead that we get, we're checking out old cases that have hate as the element of the case."

FBI spokesman Nick Rossi said it would be "speculative" to comment on groups or individuals whose names have come up during the course of the investigation.

Sources have said the arsonist or arsonists were sloppy, leaving behind much physical evidence, including a Kinko's copy shop bag that may have carried hate literature.

Officials added that so far there is no evidence of any wide-ranging conspiracy in the attacks, which caused more than $1 million in damages, and that local hate group members are an obvious focus.

"You've got to at least look at them as a possibility, and my guess is it's going to be someone of their ilk and intelligence," Sheriff's Lt. John McGinness said. "I don't think it's that sophisticated a person or persons involved in this.

"My guess is all they know about Jews is they don't like them, and they don't know why. This could be some rube with a sixth-grade education."

McGinness added, however, that officials "are not closing our eyes or earsto other possibilities as well" in the arsons at Congregation B'nai Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center. Agents also are investigating an April 13 incident at a Holocaust Remembrance Day service at Beth Shalom, where World Church of the Creator fliers were distributed.

The agents have shown witnesses a videotape in which two long-haired men with tattoos covering their arms sat through much of the service before the fliers were found outside.

"They were obviously out of place," Rabbi Joseph Melamed said. "They came after the service started and left before it was over, as if they didn't want to run into anyone or be encountered. In my way of looking at it, there is a connection, but I cannot prove it.

"The hate language is one and the same," he said. "It's almost as if someone who composed the first composed the others."

But unlike the first fliers, he said, the most recent ones did not bear the name or logo of the World Church of the Creator.

Both groups being investigated are local branches of two of the largest white-separatist organizations in the country.

"We have a number of people in the Sacramento area, but they don't get involved in the burning of synagogues," William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance, said from his headquarters in Hillsboro, W.Va. "That's strictly against our policy. We've announced this sort of thing many times, so it's hard for me to imagine that anybody associated with us would have been involved."

Matt Hale, head of the World Church of the Creator, based in East Peoria, Ill., also denied involvement by his group, but offered little solace to Sacramento-area victims of the arsons.

"Certainly there is nothing immoral about torching the den of the serpent," Hale said.

Both organizations have local followings, particularly in the suburban areas of Carmichael, Auburn, Citrus Heights and communities farther north.

Investigators on Wednesday were trying to contact members of the Church of the Creator who were identified during a 1997 knife attack on a man at a Citrus Heights cafe.

The focus on Church of the Creator and National Alliance followers stems from anti-Semitic leaflets denouncing the bombing of Yugoslavia that were found at the burning synagogues.

Investigators are not focused solely on the leaflets as evidence, however, because of the possibility that they may have been left intentionally to implicate a group that was not involved.

In the case of the National Alliance, for instance, the language appears to echo that group's stance, one investigator said. But references in the leaflets to Jews being responsible for the death of Jesus Christ do not reflect the alliance message because Pierce, a major figure among right-wing groups, does not consider himself a Christian.

There also is the possibility of individuals setting the fires who are not members of any group but who simply were infected with the message of such groups and decided to act on their own.

Six days before the fires, Pierce called in his regular radio broadcast for "a deliberate, clear-headed decision now on the part of every American patriot" to take action "aimed at destroying America's domestic enemies."

Pierce said Wednesday that his message was not a call for violence. "No, no, of course not," he said. "I've specifically warned people against that sort of foolishness on a number of occasions."

He said that "a lot of these attacks historically have turned out to be Jews trying to attract sympathy for themselves."

Such views are common among white supremacist groups and echo the belief that the Oklahoma City bombing was the work of the federal government.

Experts on such groups now are studying whether there were any anniversaries that could have triggered the arsons, and Friday was the 15th anniversary of the killing of Alan Berg, a Denver radio talk show host who was Jewish. His slaying was blamed on members of the violent anti-government group, The Order. There are believed to be at least 50 to 60 members of such white supremacist groups in the Sacramento area, with the Church of the Creator and National Alliance the largest and most active.

The World Church of the Creator, which has a base in Auburn, has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as "one of the most violent organizations on the radical right" during the early 1990s. The National Alliance, which maintains a Carmichael telephone line, has been described by the ADL as "the single most dangerous organized hate group in the United States."

Both have been particularly active locally, with leafleting by the Church of the Creator reported from Sacramento to Reno to Yolo County in recent years.

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