Hale’s ‘church’ still going, three years after Smith’s shooting spree
Hoosier Times, Aug. 18, 2002
By Michael Koryta
Benjamin Smith, a 21-year-old former Indiana University student and white supremacist who had been involved with the “church” while in Bloomington, started a 1,100-mile trail of race-based bloodshed by injuring six Orthodox Jews with gunshots in northern Chicago suburbs and then firing a shot that killed former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, a black man.
His trail wound through downstate Illinois before he drove to Bloomington and fired from a parked car to kill Won-Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old South Korean graduate student at IU and Bloomington resident, as he was about to enter a church. Later, about to be apprehended, Smith fatally shot himself near Urbana, Ill.
In the more than 36 months that have passed since the attacks, the Bloomington community has repeatedly banded together against hate. Rallies and memorial services have been conducted, speeches given.
But, the World Church of the Creator remains. And according to its leader, Matt Hale, it has grown.
“Our numbers have gone up since the Ben Smith incident,” Hale said.
“I would say we’ve gone up by a good four- or five-fold.”
Hale refuses to give a precise membership number, saying his detractors want it too badly. The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors extremist groups such as the WCOTC, estimates its membership at around 50,000, which Hale acknowledges is fairly close.
“Unfortunately, we have almost no activity in Bloomington now,” Hale said, indicating no immediate plans to actively pursue members in Bloomington.
Hale, who operates out of the Peoria, Ill., area, is called the “Pontifex Maximus” by church members, a term meaning head of the church in ancient Roman society. He denies that growth after the Smith rampage means his members have been attracted by violence.
“We always say that our movement must be a peaceful one,” he said.
The words seem empty alongside the organization’s history. The Smith incident made the headlines, but it was not alone in criminal activities charged to members of the WCOTC — many of them since July 1999.
In Indiana alone, the WCOTC has been linked to one alleged murder and one attempted killing in the past year.
In May, Trevor David Thompson, a 21-year-old member of the WCOTC from California, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to the attempted murder of 13-year-old Ashley McNeil in Indianapolis in June of 2001.
Hale — who spoke just two weeks ago at a “White Pride Fest” near South Bend — made national news earlier this year when his group held a rally in York, Pa. The group was met by opposing demonstrators, and the confrontation turned violent. Police arrested 25 people.
Against that backdrop, Hale claims, “We’re not here to harm people of the other races. We’re simply here to safeguard our own race. Our goals have always been nonviolent; even the founder of our church, Ben Klassen, said we must be nonviolent.”
He speaks of the man whose book, The White Man’s Bible, is the so-called holy book of the WCOTC. In it, Klassen writes:
“We of the Church Of The Creator are not hypocrites. We openly state that some people need killing, that killing has always been with us and will always be with us. … Killing our enemies, too, is under certain circumstances a necessary measure for the survival of our own race. Therefore we condone it, and it, too, is no sin in our religion.”
Hale, who turned 31 in July, earned a law degree from the University of Southern Illinois, and has passed the bar. His attempt to obtain a law license was denied by the Illinois Committee on Character and Fitness, which claimed that Hale’s activism was an “absolute contradiction” to the conduct they expect of lawyers.
Hale was also denied a license in Montana, and he has appealed both decisions. He said he thinks he will get a license soon, and with it respect and legitimacy for his movement.
“I think my becoming licensed will silence my detractors somewhat, those people who always say we are illegal or violent, but never have any real evidence,” he said. “We operate within the bounds of the law.”
Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan disputes that claim. Ryan filed suit shortly after the Smith killings, contending that the WCOTC was a charitable group, not a church, and therefore subject to the Illinois Solicitation Act requiring that such groups disclose such financial information as contributors’ names and amounts.
Hale countered by arguing that the law was unconstitutionally vague, and he won in a circuit court. Ryan appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court and there the decision was unanimously overturned. That sent it back to a lower court. If Hale ultimately loses, the state will freeze the organization’s assets, enjoin it from raising funds in Illinois, and impose a $1,000 fine.
Meanwhile, Hale’s “church” continues to refuse to disclose its financial records.
Hale’s organization believes in no God, no savior, and no after-life. The term “creator,” Hale explained, refers to the white race.
Even as he fights legal battles, Hale is seeking personal power and publicity on another front. In November, he said he intends to file his candidacy for city commissioner of his hometown of East Peoria, Ill. He ran for the position in 1995 and lost.
“The campaign is going very well,” he said. “When I last ran in 1995, I received 14 percent of the vote. This year I hope to top at least 20 percent, and if I get 25 percent, then I am in there.”
Paula Helm, the elections administrator for Tazewell County where Hale will run, disagrees with that hypothesis.
“There are four spots for commissioner,” Helm said. “Hale will run in a primary that narrows it down to eight candidates. When those eight run in the final election, four will win spots. I have no idea where he is getting the 25 percent figure. Getting 25 percent of the votes won’t guarantee a thing.”
Not surprisingly, racial issues are among his foremost campaign concerns.
“The Jew is through in 2002,” Hale announced in a speech given in January.
William Pierce — author of The Turner Diaries and leader of the National Alliance, the largest neo-Nazi group in the country — died from cancer in July. With Pierce gone, Hale has become the most prominent figure in American white supremacy.
Hale said he is considering an eventual run for the presidency. At 31, his earliest try would be 2008.
A man who gathered only 14 percent of the votes for city commissioner of his hometown wouldn’t figure to make much of an impact in a presidential election, but Hale is undeterred.
“Many organizations began small,” he said. “The Catholic Church and the Republican Party had small beginnings. The Muslims were a very small group, and are now spreading rapidly across the globe.”
Despite Hale’s claims of great growth in his organization, there are signs the group is waning. Many of his rallies and speeches, including the appearance near South Bend, have drawn small crowds. The WCOTC Web site’s list of contacts and chapters has shrunk by more than a third in recent years.
However, it took only one member, Ben Smith, to cause a great deal of havoc. Smith was the WCOTC’s “Creator of the Year” in 1998 for his distribution of hate literature in Bloomington, prior to the shootings. But Hale insists:
“We want our members to be strident without crossing the line. And it can be done. I do it all the time. I’m a radical. But I don’t take out a gun and start shooting people. It just doesn’t accomplish anything.”
The WCOTC’s brief and bloody history suggests that not all of Hale’s followers have listened, or agreed.