A Year After Rampage, Monitors Keeping An Eye On Hate Group

Philadelphia Inquirer/July 4, 2000
By Raad Cawthon

Chicago -- Two organizations monitoring the World Church of the Creator agree that the white supremacist group should be watched but disagree on how much it has grown in the year since it garnered national attention after a murderous, three-day rampage by one of its members.

The Center for the New Community, a Chicago-area organization advising on how hate groups can be fought, issued a 22-page report last week contending that the group "has seen an 85 percent growth" in chapters over the last year, with its largest increase coming in prisons and among women.

But a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., who has monitored the group and its leader, Matthew Hale, said the World Church, based in East Peoria, Ill., had probably not grown much beyond the 200 members it had before 21-year-old Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's crimes last July Fourth weekend left two dead and nine wounded.

Both centers agree that Smith's violence, which included the random slayings of Ricky Byrdsong, a black former Northwestern basketball coach, and Won Soon Yoon, a Korea-born graduate student at Indiana University, and which ended when Smith killed himself, gave the organization and Hale, 28, the kind of national notoriety such fringe groups crave.

"Matt Hale was on everything from the cover of Newsweek to the Today show," said Mark Potok, editor of the law center's Intelligence Report, a periodical tracking hate groups. "Have they grown as a consequence? Probably. Almost inevitably when something happens to bring them national attention, groups like this get new members."

But while Potok accepts that Hale's group may have increased its "contact points" across the country, he cautions that can mean as little as "a member or possible member receiving one of the group's publications."

"The World Church of the Creator is not an exploding, grassroots hate organization," he said.

Devin Burghart, author of the Chicago center's report, said there was little way to extrapolate "contact points" into solid membership numbers. But Burghart said he was particularly concerned that Hale's recruits were "a new breed of young white supremacists" who were violence prone and "willing to kill or die for a warped notion of racial purity."

The World Church of the Creator claims 76 chapters in 25 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and five other countries, up from 41 chapters a year ago, Burghart's report says. He also said the group was growing in U.S. prisons by promoting a publication aimed at prisoners.

But Potok said groups such as Hale's were notorious for exaggerating their membership and influence.

"At the time of the Ben Smith rampage, Hale gave different numbers when asked about his group's membership," Potok said. "He claimed everything from 7,000 to 30,000 members."

The best indication of its membership comes from a receipt obtained by the law center when the World Church mailed its newspaper to 203 people in mid-1999, before the Smith murders. Since that time, Potok said, indications are that the membership has not grown substantially.

"Fundamentally, it is a group that revolves around Matt Hale, some of his buddies and former girlfriends," he said. "It's basically a cult of the individual."

When first questioned by police after the murders, Hale denied Smith was his follower, even though Smith's rampage was apparently sparked by the Illinois bar's denying Hale a law license because of his racist beliefs. Hale now calls Smith the organization's first "First Amendment martyr" and is calling for a "July Fourth Ben Smith literature blitz."

Burghart's report warns that Hale has become increasingly "strident in his calls for violence against persons of color and Jews." But Potok said Hale's church, while dangerous, exaggerated its size and power.

"This group has a history of violence to the individual, just as the Ben Smith rampage showed," he said. "But America is not about to be taken over by Matt Hale and his fascist friends."

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