A Chicago jurist whose husband and mother were slain had endured two years of taunting.
CHICAGO — The war of words against U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow lasted two years, a baffling, ominous campaign. It ended in the conviction of Matthew Hale, a white supremacist who had fixated on Lefkow for having thwarted the movement he called his “church.” Now investigators are trying to learn whether Hale’s intimidating words led to murder.
A federal jury last year found Hale, 33, guilty of trying to arrange Lefkow’s murder. After two years of taunts — with the judge’s personal information and family photographs posted on racist websites — it seemed Lefkow could finally relax. Hale was isolated in jail, awaiting sentencing. His communication to the outside world was curtailed and his extremist followers were left without a leader.
But in the days since the judge discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of her husband, Michael F. Lefkow, 64, and her mother, Donna Humphrey, 89, inside the Lefkows’ north side Chicago home, Hale’s racially obsessed movement again has drawn intense scrutiny.
Investigators have questioned Hale about the war of nerves he once waged and about lingering resentment of Lefkow; authorities have pressed his supporters about their communications with the jailed extremist and the possibility of involvement by leaderless “lone wolf” killers.
“They’re looking for coded messages,” said Kathleen Robertazzo, a Hale intimate who said she was questioned twice this week by FBI agents, who also copied her computer hard drive.
“They said they’re looking for any communications between me and any of the members to see if there were plans to do anything,” Robertazzo said Friday.
The freelance court reporter said the agents had seized dozens of letters Hale had sent to her from his tightly monitored cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago.
Hale is not allowed contact with other prisoners and is barred from any visitors except for his family. As a result, federal investigators are pursuing the notion that the judge’s relatives could have been targeted by white supremacists acting without guidance.
On Thursday, a posting on the Aryan-Nations.org website from someone called Darklogos referred to that possibility bluntly: “I for one hope this was the work of some ‘lone wolf’ targeting those who aid or support or have connections with someone involved in acting against our race, or someone who has acted against those — like Matt Hale — who have stood up for our race.”
Police also are searching for two men whom they have described as “material witnesses.” They were spotted near the Lefkow home hours before the bodies were found Monday evening.
FBI and Chicago law enforcement officials have declined to speak publicly about any theories. “Obviously, Matt Hale and his prior conviction is an avenue we have to explore,” FBI Special Agent Robert D. Grant said Friday as he announced a $50,000 reward for information in the case.
“We’re not going to become myopic,” he added.
But if Hale and his coterie of extremists have become the most obvious targets for questioning in the federal manhunt, the depth of their enmity toward Lefkow remains inscrutable.
“It’s just so hard to understand,” said Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, a colleague of Lefkow’s on the federal bench in the Northern District of Illinois.
Hate-group experts who have tracked Hale’s movement for a decade say that the growth of his World Church of the Creator was a textbook example of a magnetic, racially obsessed activist who surrounded himself with adoring followers and used controversy to gain notoriety in extremist circles.
“On one level, he was pretty smart about it. He did what most of these extremist leaders do: Stir up controversy and bring in people who were dependent on him,” said Devin Burghart, a researcher with the Chicago-based Center for New Community who has monitored Hale and his faction for five years.
But Burghart and others say that Hale’s demonization of Lefkow was a perplexing act of self-destruction.
“When you go after a federal judge, you’re just asking for trouble,” Burghart said.
The collision course was set when Hale took over the reins of the World Church of the Creator, a supremacist sect started in the early 1970s by Ben Klassen. The former Florida state legislator had forecast a “racial holy war” that would leave Aryans victorious over Jews, blacks and other inferior “mud people.”
Hale, the intense son of an East Peoria, Ill., police officer, in 1996 was chosen “Pontifex Maximus” of the racially obsessed religion — replete with a “White Man’s Bible” and Aryan marriage and communion ceremonies.
An accomplished classical violinist and a graduate of Southern Illinois University law school, Hale revived the faction.
Days after Hale was notified in 1999 that the Illinois State Bar would not accept him, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith — a Hale disciple — went on a shooting rampage through Chicago’s North Shore, aiming at minorities with a .22-caliber pistol. He killed two people and wounded nine.
Membership in Hale’s movement surged in the months afterward, to as many as 88 chapters across the country. Hale claimed 30,000 followers, although hate-group experts said those numbers were inflated.
The group also made inroads with neo-Nazi factions in state prisons by distributing white supremacist tracts under the guise of spiritual materials, Burghart said.
In 2002, a conflict with an Oregon religious group also known as the World Church of the Creator threw Hale’s organization into turmoil. When the Oregon church sued for copyright infringement, the case went before Lefkow.
The judge ruled in Hale’s favor. But when she was overruled by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, she ordered Hale’s group to change the name it used on the books it sold at rallies and over the Internet. Hale’s followers did not comply, and Lefkow responded by threatening to fine the organization $1,000 a day.
Lefkow had become the enemy. According to testimony in Hale’s murder solicitation trial, he told aides that Lefkow’s order placed their church “in a state of war.” He vowed to “teach this judge a lesson.”
Talking to one aide of “intimidation,” Hale began planning demonstrations in front of Lefkow’s home and at the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago. And he pressed followers to obtain personal information — including pictures of her husband and four daughters — that ended up posted on several extremist websites.
“It was a terribly unjust thing for a really wonderful family,” Pallmeyer said. But Lefkow never complained to colleagues. “She endured it with dignity,” Pallmeyer said.
In January 2003, Hale was arrested by FBI agents and charged with trying to arrange Lefkow’s murder. Hale’s security chief had been working with the FBI. In taped conversations, the informant asked the Pontifex Maximus if they were going to “exterminate the rat.”
Hale replied: “Well, whatever you want to do, basically.”
Throughout the trial and after Hale’s conviction, friends said, the Lefkows — who had lived on the same quiet residential street for 20 years — clung to familiar routines.
They took evening strolls to stores and restaurants on Clark Street. Michael Lefkow, a veteran employment rights lawyer, wore his trademark fedora. At dinner parties, the Lefkows made light of the surveillance cameras installed outside their home before sitting down and saying grace.
Privately, Michael Lefkow worried. At his law office one day, he asked lawyer Paul Bradley if he could start locking a hallway door that had always been open to the public.
“I told him, ‘Only if I can wear a T-shirt that said: Not Lefkow,’ ” Bradley recalled. “We both laughed about it, but I could tell he was concerned.”
Several of Lefkow’s fellow judges said they were frightened.
“Through the entire Matthew Hale trial, we were concerned,” said U.S. District Judge Wayne R. Andersen, who since the killings has urged the Justice Department to reassess the security arrangements it provides to judges and their families.
After the Lefkows found their life easing again, the precautions taken by U.S. marshals to protect them were scaled back. The cameras were removed. A security detail that had patrolled nearby pulled out.
The war of nerves, it seemed, was over.
“You could tell they were relieved,” a family friend said. “Hale was behind bars, and his group was falling apart. We all thought it was finally over and done with. Now we don’t know what to think.”