White hate group strongly suspected in synagogue fires

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As investigators hone in on an "abundance of evidence" culled from the scenes of last Friday's arson attack on three Sacramento-area synagogues, signs point increasingly to a white supremacist group.

Federal agents are tracking a number of hate groups with chapters in the area. High on the list is an Illinois-based organization called the World Church of the Creator, which has five active units operating out of Sacramento.

World Church fliers were left at two of the three torched sites, according to FBI officials. During Yom HaShoah services in April 1998, similar fliers were left at one of the burned synagogues, Reform Congregation Beth Shalom in nearby Carmichael.

At 3:24 a.m. Friday, flames tore through the library of Sacramento's Congregation B'nai Israel, destroying 5,000 books and 300 videos on Jewish culture and history. Minutes later, arsonists struck Beth Shalom and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, although damage was not as extensive. Combined damages may top $1 million.

FBI officials refused to comment on the role of the white supremacist group in this investigation or on possible connections to other reported hate crimes in Sacramento. But agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said they have not ruled out the World Church or two other groups, the Posse Comitatus and the National Alliance, which the Anti-Defamation League has tagged "the most dangerous hate group in the U.S. today."

However, according to Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific region, the World Church is "directly linked. They left their fliers there."

While ADL officials stopped short of accusing World Church members of perpetrating the predawn arsons, they point out that the literature recovered from the crime scene blames the "International Jewsmedia" for the war in Kosovo — a current theme among white supremacist groups.

Although he denied responsibility for the attacks, World Church leader Matt Hale told a Sacramento Bee reporter, "We can't condemn it.

"We believe the Jews have perpetrated far more atrocities on non-Jews than the other way around," said the national leader, who is based in Illinois. "Our response is they should look in the mirror to see who is responsible."

Hale insisted that his organization does not "persuade people by burning buildings. It's counterproductive," he told the Sacramento Bee.

But Bernstein said the group "has been tied to some very serious incidents." The ADL's Internet Monitoring Unit has been tracking the group for several months.

Those incidents include the murder of an African-American serviceman in 1991 and the vicious beating of a father and his son by 11 skinheads in Miami last year.

A World Church flier found Friday at the Kenesset Israel Torah Center claims, "We are Slavs, we will never allow the International Jew World Order to take our Land [sic]. The fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the International Jewsmedia to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages."

In an April 1999 issue of the World Church's monthly newsletter, Hale decried the NATO bombing of Kosovo as part of a Jewish campaign for world domination.

The World Church has active members in Auburn, Bakersfield, Carmichael, Citrus Heights, Hayward, Napa and Sacramento, including the Frontier Women, a Sacramento-based auxiliary unit, according to an extensive ADL investigative report.

Although Hale, 27, has said, "We neither condone violence or unlawful activities, promote or incite them," the group's own Web site describes World Church as an organization of "skinheads," whose "battle cry" is "Rahowa," an acronym for racial holy war.

Members of the same group left anti-Semitic fliers on cars at U.C. Davis and area high schools in April 1998, and "about 30 skinheads in this area have been linked with some very violent acts," Bernstein said.

The World Church actually rejects Christianity; the World Church's founder, Ben Klassen, has said Christianity was "concocted" by Jews "for the very purpose of mongreling and destroying the White Race."

FBI Special Agent Nick Rossi cautioned against making too swift an assumption of guilt: "Even though they may eventually be proven to be connected to the individuals responsible for the fires, [the fliers] may contain misstatements about the group or its motives."

As part of the investigation into the arson, agents also are tracking individuals who are known to have visited numerous area synagogues in recent weeks.

"We had a [recent] visit," said Kenesset Israel's president, Steve Haberfeld. "A dark-haired guy, ruddy complexion. None of us were sure what to make of it."

Two men, one in his 50s and the other around 20, also paid a call on a nearby Orthodox synagogue.

"They were asking funny questions like, 'Where are the services? When is this, where is that?'" said Rabbi Yosef Langer, leader of Chabad of S.F., discussing two mysterious visitors who showed up at a Sacramento Orthodox congregation when he was coincidentally there for Shavuot. They also asked, "So, where's the Jewish flag?"

According to FBI statistics, 78 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes are directed at Jews or Jewish institutions — 1,087 nationally in 1998. That year, 8,049 hate crimes were reported by 11,000 agencies in 48 states.

Tracy Hite, special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said investigators have amassed an "abundance of evidence," and over the next several days will begin conducting sophisticated tests to measure, compare and contrast what would appear to the layman to be mere ash from each three sites.

"That's the beauty of fire scenes," she said. "We can tell lots of things by sifting through the debris."

Kenesset Israel's Haberfeld, who is a former overseas director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said, "I was told they have more than enough stuff to pick up the people responsible for this."

More than 100 agents from six agencies are working on the case, including the FBI, the ATF bureau and Sacramento's police, sheriff's and fire departments as well as the American River Fire District.

Damage to the Reform B'nai Israel has been estimated at $800,000. The Reform Beth Shalom, where perpetrators broke in and set fire to the bimah, suffered $100,000 in damages. It appears the attackers tried to burn the temple down, but a sprinkler system halted the blaze from spreading. Damage to the smaller Orthodox Kenesset Israel has been set at $30,000.

Police statistics indicate the region has long been troubled by hate crime. A report on anti-gay and lesbian violence revealed a higher rate of violent attacks here than the statewide average. And a Baptist church was also hit by arsonists more than a year ago.

Last year, an arson fire gutted two classrooms and damaged others in the area's only Jewish day school. At that time, fire safety officials said there was no evidence that pointed to a hate crime.

"There have been a number of incidents that have occurred up here against the Jewish community," said the ADL's Bernstein. "We want to get to the motive. That becomes very important later, at trial, and at sentencing."

Meanwhile, government and community organizations have circled their wagons around the synagogues. Gov. Gray Davis announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. And Andrew Cuomo, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, announced the availability of $6.8 million in guaranteed loans — the result of President Clinton's Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996.

Sacramento Mayor Joseph Serna Jr. and Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) had announced intentions to create a local museum of tolerance, an idea developed before the fire by Rabbi Brad Bloom of B'nai Israel and modeled after Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance.

Supporters say the museum could play a pivotal role in Northern California as an educational institution. It is already garnering donations, and Bloom said he is looking to the Bay Area and to its federation leaders to turn that vision into a reality.

Vice Mayor Jimmy Yee, himself the victim of a fire bombing attack in 1993 that also targeted B'nai Israel, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the Sacramento office of the NAACP, is helping to spearhead an organization, United We Stand. It includes a full roster of Sacramento city and county public officials, the Sacramento JACL, the Sacramento Buddhist Church and the Asian Peace Officers Association.

"This is not just a Jewish issue anymore," Bernstein said. "To strike one of us is to strike all of us."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.