Hate crime snaps law enforcement, town into action
Shirtless and sporting a swastika tattoo on his chest, Shaun L. Derifield held a 4-inch knife blade to the throat of 15-year-old Deona Williams.
Derifield and two other members of a white supremacist group, the Lake County Skinheads, had targeted four black high school students walking home from a Friday night football game in Fox Lake.
Derifield, now 23, cornered Williams in front of a parked car and put his face close to hers.
“Remember our faces,” he shouted, adding a racial epithet, according to a guilty plea he signed in August that provided a detailed description of the incident. “This is our town and you better get out before we kill you! We’re going to kill you and your whole [expletive] family if you don’t get out of town!”
The August 2002 incident prompted an FBI probe and became one of the roughly 100 racially motivated hate crimes the U.S. Justice Department prosecutes every year out of thousands of cases reported. It also galvanized a determined group of local officials, who believed their community’s reputation was at stake and refused to let the matter drop.
On Wednesday, one of the skinheads involved in the incident, Harley Hermes, now 21, is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Derifield’s sentencing is set for a week later.
A third participant, Michael J. Canlas, now 18, pleaded guilty to a state charge of felony mob action in February and spent 6 months in jail.
Police had nervously watched the Lake County Skinheads for years. The group actively recruited youths and seemed to grow more aggressive after a neo-Nazi friend of Derifield’s was gunned down in northern Lake County after a confrontation with state police, authorities said.
So when the girl was attacked walking home, Fox Lake Police Chief Edward Gerretsen said federal and local authorities sought to “send a clear-cut message: We’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior.”
Police and Lake County prosecutors welcomed the help because federal penalties are stiffer than those provided under state law.
As laid out by detailed guilty plea agreements by Derifield and Hermes, the trouble started Aug. 30, 2002, after a Grant Community High School football game.
Williams; her twin 16-year-old brothers, Tywon and Juwon; and a 16-year-old female friend were walking a few blocks home from the Bulldogs’ stadium.
Heading past single-story homes on Lippincott Road, they were approached by a man on a bicycle wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, the teens told police.
The rider, Hermes, swerved toward Tywon Williams, shouting racial epithets and a warning to watch out, then pedaled on to the house where Derifield lived.
Hermes had spent most of the night there with Derifield and Canlas, wrestling, drinking, tossing knives and working on all-terrain vehicles, according to authorities and written guilty pleas of Hermes and Derifield.
Spurred by Hermes’ claim that one of the black youths was trying to cause trouble, Hermes and the other two sprinted after the group. Canlas and Derifield clutched knives, according to plea agreements.
“If I catch you, I’m going to kill you all!” Canlas and Derifield later admitted shouting.
Panicked, the teens scattered. Juwon Williams and their 16-year-old friend ran to her home a few doors away and made it inside. Tywon Williams fled down the street. But Deona Williams trailed behind and was cornered.
The three attackers “had their faces right up to [Deona Williams’] face and were screaming at her” while Derifield put his knife to her throat, according to their plea agreements.
Hermes grew worried the police would come.
“C’mon, Shaun,” he said, according to the records. “It’s not worth it. Let’s go!”
The attackers bolted, leaving Deona Williams to run to the 16-year-old’s house, where the girl’s mother called police.
For years Fox Lake police had been responding to reports of trouble with skinheads, typically resulting in minor charges such as disorderly conduct or alcohol violations.
But since June 2001, when authorities gunned down Lake Villa white supremacist Eric D. Hanson, there seemed to have been an upturn in racial epithets, taunts and other skinhead activity, Gerretsen said.
Before his death, Hanson fired shots at two Illinois State Police investigators before fleeing into an Eagle grocery in Lindenhurst, 10 miles east of Fox Lake, where he barricaded himself in a meat locker. He was killed after he emerged shooting, a pistol in each hand.
“He was kind of like a martyr to them,” Gerretsen said.
So when police were called to Lippincott Road, investigators quickly zeroed in on known skinheads around town. Police spotted Hermes ducking into a friend’s apartment several blocks from where the attack occurred.
They found him hiding in a closet.
Hermes was arrested that same night on an outstanding theft warrant. Derifield and Canlas were picked up several days later.
Several witnesses saw the attack, and with their shaved heads, the suspects were not hard to identify, authorities said.
Eager to see the men prosecuted, Fox Lake Mayor Nancy Koske said the village could ill afford a reputation as a refuge for skinheads.
“These are hate crimes, for God’s sake,” she said in an interview. “It’s something we don’t want in Fox Lake.”
Facing up to 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000, Derifield and Hermes pleaded guilty in August and September to federal civil rights and fair housing violations.
Because of their pleas, Hermes now faces up to 20 months in prison. Derifield could get up to 3 years behind bars.
Lawyers for Hermes and Canlas declined to comment. Derifield’s Skokie-based lawyer, Herb Abrams, said his client plans to express “great remorse” at his sentencing.
But the incident continues to haunt the victims, leaving an emotional residue of fear and mistrust.
Jimmy Gilmore, the father of Deona Williams and her two brothers, said he still struggles to understand the unprovoked assault.
“I just want to look at them,” he said in a quiet, deep voice, still wearing his blue uniform after returning from Abbott Laboratories where he works in building maintenance. “I just want to ask them: Was it worth it?”
Gilmore said he and his children, who have struggled in school since the attack, would like to move to a place where they feel welcome. Not Phyllis Williams, the children’s mother. She does not want the skinheads to win.
Pushing aside white curtains in her immaculate living room, she showed off the shimmering view of the lake.
“Look at it,” she said. “It’s beautiful. This is my house. This is where I want to live.”