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Benjamin "August" Smith: Poised to Kill

by Jeff Elliott

Were these copycat murders following the mad lead of the "trenchcoat mafia?" Not at all
On the second of July, a disturbed young man named Ben Smith apparently mailed an odd and formal letter to his good friend, Matt Hale: "Although I have not been a member of the World Church of the Creator since April 1999, due to my past public support of that legal religious organization run by Matt Hale, I find it necessary to formerly [sic] break with the World Church of the Creator..." The 21 year-old Smith then left for his holiday weekend of drive-by shootings, targeting his .380 semiautomatic and .22 caliber handgun at Asians, Orthodox Jews, and blacks. A dozen people were injured and three killed -- including Smith, who pointed a gun under his chin during a chase by police.

It happened only about two months after the Columbine High School massacre in April. Coming so soon on the heels of another tale of mass- murdering youth, the American press seemed unable to decide how to present the story: Were these copycat murders following the mad lead of the "trenchcoat mafia?" Not at all; from what we know, Smith probably held deepest contempt for the two Colorado teenagers who slaughtered their classmates. Was this another case showing the easy availability of guns? Not really; federally- required background check stopped Smith from buying a weapon legally at a gun store. In the end, the media presented it mostly as a "madman on killing-spree" story, complete with maps tracing his path (as if that were significant). Many newspapers also played up the angle of the Internet being used to promote hate groups. A few of the larger papers ran background stories about that unusual friend of his, Matt Hale.

While the Columbine murders dominated the news for nearly two weeks, the drama of Ben Smith faded to the back pages of newspapers quickly. Part of the cause might be the backdrop; the Colorado tragedy happened at a single location -- a photogenic town packed with distraught families. (More than 250 employees from just the major network and cable news outlets swarmed over Littleton Colorado after the shootings.) By contrast, Smith's horrible acts were scattered across nine towns in two states -- a murder here, a Jewish child wounded there, a missed shot fired somewhere else. There was no Ground Zero for news anchor reports. Timing is another reason why the Smith killings may have quickly dropped from the radar; typically Fourth of July newspapers describe a happier kind of fireworks. And during any of the big holidays, few readers or viewers care much about the news.

But comparing the two events, it's likely what happened that July 4th weekend will end up being more significant. Columbine High School slayers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed for revenge; no one mourns them as marytrs, and no one is likely to see their mad act as inspiration. Ben Smith, however, killed for a cause that he felt was holy. And his beliefs are shared by hundreds (maybe thousands) of other members of his "church" -- which also appears to be one the fastest growing hate groups in recent American history.

The story of Benjamin Smith
Who was Benjamin Smith, and what drove him to murder strangers and commit suicide? His past was troubled, but not criminal. The oldest son of a physician father and mother who sold real estate, he was a child of privilege, who grew up in a tony North Shore Chicago subdivision and then went to a prestigious high school.

Ben Smith started college at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1996, and within a month was identified as young man window peeping at a women's dormitory, as well as inappropriately touching female students. When caught by police, he told them his name was "Erwin Rommel" -- Nazi Germany's famous field marshal. The reference was lost on the cops, who later issued an arrest warrant for student Rommel.

A year later, the 19 year-old was in more serious trouble at school. First he was arrested for having pot and a bong pipe in his dorm room, then he struck his long-term girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. They broke up shortly thereafter. During Christmas break, Smith faxed her a disclaimer to sign stating that he wasn't abusive.

According to documents reported by the Daily Illini newspaper, Smith was placed on probation and required to attend an ethics course, take counseling, and do community service. He left the University of Illinois before finishing any of it.

Through the end of 1997, Smith seemed to keep his views mostly to himself. He shared his dorm room with a black student, and ex-girlfriend told the Daily Illini that the two men were friends. But when Smith returned to school after winter break, he was a racist reborn.

As the spring 1998 semester began, hate literature began popping up in dorm cafeterias and laundry rooms. Anti-Semitic fliers were stuffed into copies of the student newspaper and posted on the display case for the Jewish Studies Program. "Why should we allow the Enemy to invade our soil without a fight?! Why shouldn't Whites come first?!" the blurbs said. A January 29 report lists Smith as a suspect, and one official told the Daily Illini that Smith admitted to distributing the fliers.

A few days later, his ex-girlfriend filed a police complaint about the abusive incident nearly five months before. She also obtained a court order requiring Smith to keep his distance -- the incident that prevented him from buying a gun before his rampage. Police arrested him after they finally put two und zwei together, realizing that Smith was window peeper Erwin Rommel. Smith dropped out of the university shortly before his scheduled hearing.

Smith enrolled as a sophomore at Indiana University/Bloomington, about an hour's drive away. But first he spent the spring at home, distributing his hate literature around his old neighborhood -- although his parents had sold their half-million dollar house and moved away. Smith was helped by chums from his old high school, which now had a noisy White Power clique.

1998 interview with Smith
In May 1998, the same hate literature that Smith was throwing around the elite Chicago suburb began appearing tucked under windshields wipers in collegiate Bloomington. Fliers and stickers littered the University. Pamphlets were wrapped in plastic to keep them dry, then tossed onto lawns and driveways next to the morning newspapers.

Local police soon determined that "August" Smith -- a name he supposedly made up because "Benjamin" sounded Jewish -- was the culprit. "He hit the ground running when he arrived here with the distribution of literature," Damon Sims, associate dean of students at Indiana University told the Daily Illini. "He seemed to be here with a purpose that went far beyond his primary education."

Thus began a six month controversy in the university town. When police suggested that he keep his hate speech off campus, Smith shifted operations to downtown Bloomington. On July 4, 1998 -- exactly one year before his mad rampage ended in suicide -- Smith was particularly busy, spreading hundreds of the fliers around Bloomington on a single day.

In the campus newspaper and local alternative press, Smith was a frequent subject of discussion (You can read in the Monitor an August, 1998 interview with Smith that appeared in the Bloomington Independent.) Throughout the autumn, his rights to distribute hate literature were hotly debated. The controversy came to a head with the formation of an anti-hate group called Bloomington United, which organized a November protest rally drawing 500. At the event, Smith hovered on the sidelines waving a large sign: "No hate speech means no free speech."

That rally last November marked the high water of the roiling controversy of "August" Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, student at Indiana University. He finished his sophmore year in May raising no major new fuss. To outsiders, his future may have appeared unsettled; -- he didn't immediately enroll for the fall semester. But Smith apparently saw his future in the pamphlets and hate fliers that he now had been distributing for more than a year. Withdrawing about $19 thousand from savings accounts, the young man dropped out of school, falling into the world of Matt Hale and the World Church of the Creator.

Matt Hale and the World Church of the Creator
What is the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC)? Called "one of the fastest-growing hate groups in the 1990s" by the Anti-Defamation League, the group operates out of an East Peoria Illinois living room and bedroom. Matt Hale lives there with his dad, a retired cop.

Hale's dogma preaches that whites are an "elite" race with an "aristocratic position in nature's scheme of things." Everyone else is a "deadly enemy" who belongs to "the inferior mud races... the most dangerous of all is the Jewish race." While the church manual does not directly sanction violence, it instructs members to hate their enemies "namely Jews, niggers, and the mud races" and to "work hard to bring about a White world as soon as possible." A long section describes the "Security Legions" called the White Berets and White Rangers, whose main goal is to "revive the attitude of white militancy -- the will to fight for what is white and defend the one and only, true and revolutionary white racial religion." Hale also states that the group can "take the law into our own hands" if "the Jewish Occupied Governments of the world" try to block distribution of their hate literature or their promoting the "full practice of our religion."

At different times Hale has claimed that the church has about 7,000 members and 40,000 "adherents," although watchdog groups think that there are only a few hundred actual members. Whatever the true figure, it's clear that the organization has been growing rapidly, particularly in the last year. There are now chapters in at least 17 states, and the group is particularly strong in California and Florida. WCOTC Internet sites now appear to outnumber all other white supremacist hate groups combined.

When Hale assumed leadership in 1996, the group had all but faded away. Its founder had committed suicide three years before; the organization had been officially dissolved after it lost a $1 million suit that found the church partially liable for a racist murder by a "reverend."

Since Hale took command of the group the level of violence has escalated. A black father and his son leaving a 1997 theatre were badly beaten by WCOTC skinheads after they refused to accept hate literature shoved at them. (As the group members were awaiting trial, the WCOTC Southeast regional director was found attempting to intimidate a witness.)

Four church followers robbed and pistol whipped the owner of a Florida adult video store in 1998, choosing the video store because they believed all media outlets were controlled by Jews. According to prosecutors, they planned to send some of the loot to Hale.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and other watchdog groups have linked church members to other attacks, including the bombing of a NAACP office in Washington and planned attack on Portland synagogues and a black church in Los Angeles. Police found WCOTC literature at the home of Matthew and Tyler Williams, the brothers who are suspects in the slaying of a gay couple and the torching of Sacramento synagogues.

To understand the WCOTC success story requires a grasp of what it is not. Unlike Christian Identity hate groups, there's no expectation that followers believe in Jesus and memorize scripture -- in fact, the WCOTC manual calls itself "a far superior religion to Christianity." Unlike more established segregationist groups such as the Klan or National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP), there's no old guard to boss around newcomers. Nor does WCOTC have the whiff of failure and decay that surrounds hate groups with longer histories; it's interesting to note that the word, "aryan" -- used famously by the Nazis and almost all other white power groups -- does not appear even once in the church manual.

Hale has cleverly turned the tables on minorities by claiming that whites are the persecuted group, and that hate speech is their religious and civil right. Writing to the Indiana University newspaper in support of Smith last year, Hale made his case: "Why is it that there are those who there who would like to violate our freedoms under the Constitution by preventing our peaceful dissemination of our religious views? Shame on you, you hypocrites! You claim to believe in 'civil rights,' and yet yell, 'No free speech for racists...'"

Key to Hale's plan is building an army of followers that will proselytize the faith. The longest section in the WCOTC manual urges members to distribute leaflets and pamphlets everywhere, wanted or no. Call up radio talk shows; post signs on telephone poles; disrupt minority group meetings by disputing the Holocaust or black history events. Some of Hale's helpful hints skirt threats of extortion: "Call up businesses and ask them to support The White Race and The World Church of the Creator. Now, if these people are rude or hostile, tell them the Church will be calling for an economic boycott of their business and that the Church may very well picket in front of their business..."

Hale has also manuevered the WCOTC into the mainstream of the skinhead subculture -- when one of their official web sites was taken down after Smith's murders, visitors were redirected to the home pages for Resistance Records, long the center for skinhead "white power" rock. One popular band is even named Rahowa, after the WCOTC battle cry for "RAcial HOly WAr."

Hale's genius is that he's fashioned the WCOTC into the glue that holds together a farflung community of misfits. And Benjamin "August" Smith was a rising star in Hale's ambitious empire.

Hale distances himself from Smith's crimes
When Matt Hale claimed the title of WCOTC "Pontifex Maximus" in 1996 -- the title being Latin for "supreme leader of the church" -- he was a 27 year-old who already had some media attention for his college group, the American White Supremacist Party. Although he concedes that there were only about eight members in the group, his sanctioned biography boasts that he was interviewed by nationwide media and portions of his speeches were broadcast on CNN.

In the days after Smith's rampage, Hale demonstrated his media skills, juggling interviews with dozens of broadcast and print journalists. He described Smith as a "martyr for free speech" and told Reuters that Smith's violence was because he felt "oppressed" by those who sought to protest his hate speech. "Benjamin Smith was a person who was persecuted for his views, just as I have been," Hale told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "People have their own free will, they do what they please," Hale told the Orange County Register. "I've always encouraged our members to be legal. I've certainly never encouraged violence."

But how well did Hale know Smith? He waffled; first he told news organizations that Smith was a newer member who he didn't really know. Later, he admitted that he knew Smith "pretty well." First he was certain that Smith was no longer a member, but couldn't be sure if he had resigned in April or May. But in their June newsletter, it was noted that Smith "has relocated to central Illinois to assist PM Hale at World Headquarters." Only later did Hale announce that he found that strange resignation letter that absolves Hale and the church of responsibility.

But Hale had clearly followed Smith's doings for some time. Besides writing the December letter to the Indiana student newspaper quoted above, Hale had named Smith "Creator of the Year" for the controversy in Bloomington and for distributing over 5,000 copies of a WCOTC pamphlet in a single month. Hale encouraged others "to view Brother Smith's activism as an example to follow," according to a report produced by a watchdog group.

The two men were also closely involved with Hale's efforts to become a lawyer. Hale had passed his law school exams, but the Illinois State Bar Association called an unusual ethics hearing because of his racist views. On April 11, Smith testified before the Bar that Mr. Pontifex Maximus had the ethics worthy of a lawyer. On July 2 -- the same day that Smith started his drive-by murdering spree -- the State Bar Association denied Hale a license to practice law for grounds of "gross deficiency in moral character."

Hale told reporters that the decision likely triggered Smith's homicidal mania. "Our church has always promoted non-violence, legal means," Hale said. "What I really suspect is that maybe the denial of my law license is what angered him so much that he may have acted this way." Hale also insists that he had no clue something was amiss when Smith asked him to store personal belongings shortly before the shootings, while also presenting Hale with his treasured collection of Nazi memorabilia.

Was Hale or his church responsible?
In coming weeks and months, the involvement of Matt Hale ant the World Church of the Creator will be closely examined.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told the Indianapolis Star, "Matt Hale is not a killer. He is a man who constructs killers. He is a man who creates the moral and ideological backing for murderers like Benjamin Nathaniel Smith. For him to act like he has no moral responsibility for this is ludicrous. "

Hale also faces serious legal problems. The parents of two Orthodox Jewish teenagers that Smith tried to kill have sued Hale for "intentionally and recklessly" encouraging violence against minorities. One of the kids will have the bullet remain in his leg because surgeons fear removal could sever an artery. Illinois is investigating the church for evading taxes on selling hate books, and the state Attorney General is looking at WCOTC claims to be a charitable organization. Attorney General Janet Reno has said her office would investigate WCOTC involvement in the killings.

But Hale also understands that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Ben Smith's murder rampage began just as Hale was already drawing nationwide media attention for being denied admission to the Bar. Hale basked in the spotlight, using it as free nationwide pulpit to promote his cult. In every broadcast interview, he rushes to plug his web pages, which now are drawing thousands of curious visitors each day, if the counters are believable. Some cities have also reported a sharp increase in WCOTC leafleting since the shootings. In his new hotline telephone message, Hale urges followers to distribute 100,000 pamphlets and leaflets in the next year -- double their record for the past two years combined.

"He's very media savvy," Devin Burghart of the watchdog Center for New Community told the LA Times. "He knows controversy sells, and he looks for it at every opportunity. When he finds it, he jumps into the fray with great gusto."

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Albion Monitor July 26, 1999 (

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