The white supremacist who allegedly went on a shooting spree against minorities over the weekend belonged to an overtly racist and anti-Semitic group that advocates a racial holy war.
It is also a group whose leader found some unlikely Jewish supporters earlier this year in his battle to gain a license to practice law.
Matthew Hale, an unabashed anti-Semite who heads the World Church of the Creator, has twice been denied a license by an Illinois state panel that evaluates the "character and fitness" of prospective attorneys because he espouses racial hatred.
But Alan Dershowitz, a prominent Jewish attorney, came to Hale’s defense after the initial denial, arguing he had a right to free speech and a right to practice law, no matter how objectionable his views.
The Anti-Defamation League, while calling Hale’s views "abhorrent," said that denying him a law license "sets a dangerous precedent."
"At another time, in another place," the ADL said in a statement last February, "we could envision a circumstance in which another Committee on Character and Fitness could follow this lead to reject a candidate because that candidate has expressed support for abortion, opposition to school prayer or other moral views contrary to the majority of his or her community."
The controversy gained Hale nationwide attention and launched him onto the talk show circuit.
Dershowitz offered to represent Hale, but Hale later declined, saying that Dershowitz’s association with his cause had already given him the publicity he sought and aided his widespread recruiting drive.
The World Church of the Creator, founded in 1973 in Florida, has experienced a resurgence in recent years under Hale’s leadership and is now what law enforcement and other officials call one of the fastest-growing hate groups in the country.
The group teaches that Jews and non-whites are subhuman "mud people" who threaten the survival of the "white race." It sees a "racial holy war" as inevitable in its quest to build "a whiter and brighter world."
The group’s Web site, which Hale runs, proclaims, among other things, that Hitler had the right idea, but should have promoted the supremacy of all whites, rather than just Germans.
Although the group claims not to condone violence, the July 2 shooting spree carried out by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a 21-year-old follower of Hale’s, was only the latest in a string of violent attacks associated with the group.
Smith’s rampage, which left two men dead and at least seven others — including six Jews — injured, ended late Sunday night when the alleged gunman took his own life.
Federal agents are still investigating the World Church of the Creator in connection with last month’s bombing attacks on three Sacramento synagogues.
World Church fliers were left at one of the three torched sites prior to the attacks, according to the ADL.
The group’s predecessor, the Church of the Creator, was also linked to the 1991 murder of a black sailor in Florida returning from the Persian Gulf War and to foiled plots to assassinate black and Jewish leaders and to bomb black and Jewish agencies, synagogues and churches.
In the last year, three members of the group have been accused of pistol- whipping and robbing a Jewish video store owner in Florida, purportedly to raise money for "the revolution."
Smith, meanwhile, had already come to the attention of students and administrators at both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which he attended from 1997 to 1998, and Indiana University at Bloomington, where he was currently enrolled.
At both schools, police say, he distributed hate literature, and at Indiana he formed a group he called the White Nationalist Party of Indiana University.
It was while he was a student there that he joined Hale’s World Church of the Creator, according to the Center for New Community, an organization that works to counter hate group activity.
The organization says that Smith became a "rising star" in the church and in January 1999 was named "Creator of the Year," its highest honor.
The June 1999 issue of The Struggle, the church’s newsletter, announced that Smith had relocated to central Illinois "to assist" Hale at "world headquarters," according to the Center for New Community.
Though now the group’s leader, the 27-year-old Hale was not its founder. It was the invention of Ben Klassen, a one-time Florida state legislator who formed the organization in 1973, according to the ADL.
Hale discovered the racist organization while he was attending Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., where he had already organized a campus group called the American White Supremacist Party.
Klassen committed suicide in 1993, leaving a leadership vacuum.
The group foundered until 1995, when Hale — who had been active in various white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations for close to a decade — took over and launched a new recruitment effort.
He now claims that the group has 7,000 members, although the ADL estimates the figure at closer to 2,000.
The Center for New Community says that Hale has taken the group "from the brink of extinction to prominence within the racist movement," increasing the number of chapters nationwide from eight in 1995 to 31 today.
Smith’s two-state rampage was carried out on the fourth anniversary of the group’s first meeting under Hale’s leadership, according to the Center for New Community.
It also occurred one day after Hale was denied a law license for the second time.
Hale said this week that Smith’s rampage might have come in response to that action and "to what he saw as an incredible injustice."
Hale, who works out of an office in his parents’ home in East Peoria, Ill, where an Israeli flag serves as a doormat and swastikas adorn the walls, insisted in an interview with the Associated Press this week that members of his church follow the law.
"I’ve always encouraged our members to be legal. I’ve certainly never encouraged violence," he said. "People have their own free will. They do what they please."
Blaming Smith’s shootings on the church, Hale added, is "the same as people accusing the Pope of being behind all those abortion clinic bombings."
Harlan Loeb, Midwest civil rights counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said Hale’s assertion that he bears no responsibility for the attacks defies common sense, "as if holding a match next to a gasoline tank has no connection to the ensuing fire."
"He has set in motion a process to which he’s inextricably wedded," Loeb said, adding that his connection deserves legal scrutiny.
On Monday, the ADL called on the Justice Department to launch an immediate full-scale investigation into the World Church of the Creator.
Asked if the ADL regretted issuing a statement earlier this year on the denial of Hale’s law license, Loeb said, "As an agency that is a strong supporter of the First Amendment, we stand by our commitment that viewpoint discrimination is murky territory."
But now that "we’ve made our statement on the free speech and free expression issue," he said, his group "will devote all of our energy to exposing Matt Hale for what he is."
(Pauline Dubkin Yearwood of the Chicago Jewish News contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.