What brought you into the Skinhead movement?
T.J. Leyden: I was hanging out in the punk rock scene in the late '70s and early '80s, going to shows and slam dancing. In 1980, my parents got a divorce, and I started to hang out in the street. I was venting lot of my frustration and anger over the divorce. I went around attacking kids, punching them and beating them up. A group of older kids who were known as Skinheads saw this, and I got in with them. We didn't like people who weren't Skinheads, but it wasn't really about racism yet.
In 1981, four big-time racist bands came into the Skinhead movement: Skrewdriver, Skullhead, Brutal Attack and No Remorse. We started to listen to their music, and that broke the Skinhead movement into two factions, SHARPs [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice] and the neo-Nazi Skinheads. Since I lived in a very upper-middle class, white neighborhood, we decided to establish one of the first neo-Nazi Skinhead gangs in Southern California.
If we caught somebody black, Hispanic or Asian, we'd attack them, beat them for sure. But 90 percent of my victims were white because it was rare for somebody black, Hispanic, or Asian to be walking down my street.
Probably the worst beating was at a party. A young Skinhead girl came over and said this guy, a long-hair, tripped her. We walked over to him, myself and three younger Skinheads, and we attacked him. When we were finished, we had broken his jaw, his nose and four teeth. My friend was standing on his hand, and I kicked his thumb so hard that I broke the bone and ripped the webbing.
I was a neo-Nazi street soldier between 1981 and 1988, and in that period I was probably involved in 150 to 200 fights.
IR: Did your racism come partly from your parents?
TJL: My mom was nonracist and my dad was a stereotypical man. I mean, if somebody cut him off on the freeway, if they were black, he'd use the word "nigger". That was his generation. But the racism I really learned came from my grandfather, a staunch Irish Catholic. He would say, "You don't bring darkies home" and "Jews killed Christ."
IR: What are the circumstances that lead teenagers to join neo-Nazi gangs?
TJL: We were middle-class to rich, bored white kids. We had a lot of time on our hands so we decided to become gang members. When a kid doesn't have something else constructive to do, he's going to find something, whether it's football, baseball or hanging with neo-Nazi Skinheads. I tell people all the time, "Every kid wants a sense of belonging." And what easier group to fit in with than Skinheads? You're white, you're Nazi, you fit the criteria.
IR: When did you start to really learn the ideology of racism?
TJL: After I joined the Marine Corps in 1988. They teach a philosophy that if you do something, you do it all the way, not half-assed. So since I was a racist, I started reading everything I could read about Nazism, World War II, Adolf Hitler. Then I started reading about George Lincoln Rockwell [founder of the American Nazi Party]. Maybe because he was American and a commander in the military, for me he was a better role model than Hitler. William Pierce [leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance] was influential for me, and Tom Metzger [founder of White Aryan Resistance, or WAR].
Tom's more of a public speaker, able to pump people up. Pierce is better as a writer. Pierce would probably put you to sleep at a rally, whereas Tom bores the hell out of you when he writes.
IR: How did you get to know Metzger?
TJL: When I was in the Marines, I was writing to one of my friends in California, and he wrote back saying he was doing security for Tom Metzger. I said, "Wow!" Then, all of a sudden, Tom writes to me and sends me the WAR paper. So I start corresponding with him. I didn't actually get to meet him until I got out of the military [in 1990].
I was recruiting, organizing Marines to join the racist movement. I manipulated guys through little things, talking to them about Nazism on a small scale. Like the Marines never had tailored uniforms until after World War II, and then all of a sudden we were tailoring ourselves because we wanted to look sharp like the Nazis. We wanted to walk and have thunderous footsteps like the Nazis. I would take things in the Marine Corps and say the Nazis did this first.
Eventually, I was kicked out for alcohol-related incidents -- not for being a racist. If you look at my military packet you're not going to find anything about me being a racist. And I had two-inch high Nazi SS bolts tattooed on my neck! Once I got cut, I decided to be a [Skinhead] recruiter. I was going to get younger kids to be street soldiers.
IR: How did recruitment work?
TJL: We incited violence on high school campuses. We'd put out literature that got black kids to think the white kids were racist. Then the black kids would attack the white kids and the white kids would say, "I'm not going to get beat up by these black guys anymore." They'd start fighting back, and We'd go and fight with them. They'd say, "God, these guys are really cool. They came out, and they didn't have to."
That put my foot in the door. Then I could start talking to them, giving them comic books with racist overtones or CDs of racist music. And I would just keep talking to them, giving them literature, indoctrinating them over a period of time.
Later on, in 1993 and 1994, I started doing a lot less recruiting and a lot more military training, more gathering guns, doing surveillance on law enforcement officers, finding out which shifts the police department worked, if there were more SWAT team members in the morning or night. The aim was that if anything happened, I wanted to know when they were the most powerful and the most weak. I starting watching LAPD, DEA, ATF, SWAT videos.
We didn't have enough soldiers to overthrow the U.S. government. The only way we could attack was the terrorist way -- IRA-, PLO-style. Our big thing was blowing up ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN. Blow up one of those, and you get worldwide coverage.
During the L.A. riots there were 40 Skinheads who were ready to go down to Florence and Normandie and start wasting black people. What stopped them, believe it or not, was Tom Metzger. He said we didn't have enough soldiers to do something of that nature. I think Tom Metzger lost face with a lot of Skinheads because of that. They said later, "Who cares if we didn't have enough? We should have done it and hoped that it was a spark."
IR: A spark to start a race war?
TJL: Yeah, and a whites-only North America above the Mexican border.
IR: Who were you focusing on recruiting?
TJL: I was trying to take people from a wide background, not just people in the racist movement -- people who were angry about taxes, about the government. They would say, "I don't have a problem with blacks, my problems are with the government." You could find them anywhere, at a bar, a guy sitting there drinking who was pissed off at the government for what it had done to him. We had a place out in the desert where everybody went to shoot where you could find people. I would talk to these guys at bars, gun clubs, pretty much anywhere.
IR: How important are racist rock music and the Internet for recruitment?
TJL: If I filled a room with 1,000 neo-Nazi Skinheads and asked them, "What's the single most important thing that influenced you to join the neo-Nazi Skinhead movement?" probably 900 of them would say the music.
The Internet is also extremely important. Before, the kid you were going to get, eight out of 10 times, was going to be a street soldier, a kid ditching school, basically a thug. But now with the Net, you're getting the bright kid, the 11- or 12-year-old who knows how to surf [on the World Wide Web]. I'd say there are probably as many racist recruiters on the Net as there are on the street now.
What they're trying to do now is get more affluent kids. They've been trying on college campuses, and a lot of times it hasn't worked. So now they're saying, "Let's get the bright kid when he's 12, and by the time he's 18 or 19 and going into college, we've already indoctrinated him."
IR: What finally brought you to leave the racist movement?
TJL: It was an incident with my son that woke me up more than anything. We were watching a Caribbean-style show. My 3-year-old walked over to the TV, turned it off and said, "Daddy, we don't watch shows with niggers." My first impression was, "Wow, this kid's pretty cool." Then I started seeing something different. I started seeing my son acting like someone 10 times tougher than I was, 10 times more loyal, and I thought he'd end up actually doing something and going to prison. Or he was going to get hurt or killed.
I started looking at the hypocrisy. A white guy, even if he does crystal meth and sells crack to kids, if he's a Nazi he's okay. And yet this black gentleman here, who's got a Ph.D. and is helping out white kids, he's still a "scummy nigger."
In 1996, when I was at the Aryan Nations Congress [in Hayden Lake, Idaho], I started listening to everybody and I felt like, "God, this is pathetic." I asked the guy sitting next to me, "If we wake up tomorrow and the race war is over and we've won, what are we going to do next?" And he said, "Oh, come on, T.J., you know we're going to start with hair color next, dude."
I laughed at it, but when I drove home, 800 miles, that question and answer kept popping into my head. I thought that kid was so right. Next it'll be you have black hair so you can't be white, or you have brown eyes so somebody in your past must have been black, or you wear glasses so you have a genetic defect.
A little over two years after my son said the thing about the "niggers" on TV, I left the racist movement.
IR: How would you characterize the Skinhead movement now?
TJL: Tom Metzger always says that for every kid that leaves, 100 more join. He knows that's a crock, the movement isn't growing that fast.
But these guys are becoming more adamant about terrorism. It's not a joke anymore, not when they're starting to do surveillance on families, police officers, politicians. They want to know where these guy's wives work, where their kids go to school. they're learning from the IRA and the PLO.
In the 1980s, everybody in the right wing thought The Order [a terrorist organization responsible for the murder of a Denver talk show host and the robbery of almost $4 million] was nuts. Now, you won't find one racist group out there that will oppose the [Order's 1984] declaration of war against the U.S. government.
Tom Metzger, on his hotline, says everybody should be sending Timothy McVeigh Christmas cards, birthday cards, money, saying how great he is. I believe the Murrah Building [in Oklahoma City] was picked because it was a very easy federal target and it had a day care center. They wanted to send a message: "Hey, look, we're going to start killing children in this war. So I hope you're ready to die for what you believe in, because we're ready to kill your children for what we believe in."
With the [white power] music scene on the rise, you're going to get a rise in Skinheads, both anti-racist and racist. Probably 65 percent of the movement is non-racist, but even if they're not racist, they're usually into a subculture of violence. I think that you're going to see a big increase in hate crimes again.
IR: What is the relationship between neo-Nazi Skinheads and the antigovernment Patriot movement?
TJL: The militia and Patriot movements are the biggest recruitment ground for neo-Nazis. What the Patriots do is say, "The New World Order is coming." So now a kid is told by his father, "The NWO is coming, son, they're going to take away guns and free speech." The kid says, "Dad, where is the NWO coming from?" And the dad has no clue. But the neo-Nazi Skinhead walks over and says, "The NWO is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an infamous anti-Semitic tract that purports to show a global Jewish conspiracy]. Just take out the word 'NWO' and put in 'Jew'."
IR: What has been the personal cost of your involvement in the movement?
TJL: A little bit of my dignity. I look at myself as two people, who I am now and who I was then. I see the destruction I did to people by bringing them into the movement, the families I hurt. I ruined a lot of lives. that's the biggest thing I have to pay back. I don't forgive myself. Only my victims can forgive me.
Instrument of the
Recent history has shown that many of those believers are willing to undertake extreme violence. Although Identity was behind crimes committed by the far right in the 1980s and before, the pace and severity of the terror has grown in recent years.
"They see themselves as instruments of the final justice," says Joel Dyer, author of the 1997 study of the radical right, Harvest of Rage. "In terms of domestic terrorism, that means that Identity believers are given to killing random people."
Christian Identity has no central authority or ecclesiastical structure. It is practiced in small congregations dotted around the country, and promulgated by mail-order ministries and in speeches given from a variety of rostrums. Historically, its central theses have been that Jews descend from the sexual union of Eve and the Serpent, whites are the progeny of Adam and Eve, and non-whites are soulless "mud people."
That may be changing.
Last year, a long-simmering dispute between "hard" and "soft" Identity wings of the movement came to a head. The hard Identity followers are sticking fast with the "seedline" conception of Jews as the "spawn of Satan." But the increasingly important soft faction, as represented in the premier Identity tabloid The Jubilee, has preached that while Jews are "cursed hybrids," they are not literally Satanic. Instead, they are people who defied commandments against racial mixing and so are hated by God.
The dispute has become so rancorous that hard-liners, infuriated by The Jubilees softer position, have started contemptuously calling the paper "Jewbilee."
While this softening trend may seem encouraging, it is actually helping Identitys spread. "The idea is to increase Identitys stature," says Michael Barkun, author of Religion and the Racist Right, the definitive 1994 study of the Christian Identity religion. "Since the theology is so far outside the mainstream, they have only a few options: to be isolated like Richard Butler [an Identity hard-liner who runs an armed Idaho compound], or to move the theology closer to the mainstream."
Such a strategy may help Identity pull relative moderates, even nonracists, into a theology whose views are far more extremist than many new recruits realize.
A case in point is the rapidly growing, extreme antigovernment "Patriot" movement. As people join the movement, many of them nonracist, they are introduced to a potpourri of alleged conspiracies involving the government and various international agencies. Soon, many of them find themselves asking who is behind these nefarious plots.
Christian Identity offers them the answer -- the "cursed" Jew. And because the vast majority of Americans are church-going Christians, many newcomers to the Patriot movement find that the explanations offered by Identity -- based on tortured readings of the Bible -- seem to make sense. So while they may start their ideological journey as nonracists, many recruits end up adopting racist Identity beliefs.
"Once people are in the middle of it, theyll hear the old philosophies, the old teachings," Dyer says. "The real threat of violence in the United States still stems from Identity teachings. Identity says the war has already started. And you insert those kinds of beliefs into the Patriot movement and you make it 100 times more violent."
The carnage takes
In the last six years, Identity has reached farther than ever before.
The faith got a major boost in 1992, when 160 "Christian men" met in Estes Park, Colo., to chart the future of the extreme right. It was here that the strategy of "leaderless resistance" -- actions undertaken by hard-to-infiltrate cells answering to no one -- was popularized. Here, too, began a new toning down of racist language, with the aim of recruiting into a "patriotic" movement targeting the federal government.
And it was here that a new coalition, bringing Klansmen, neo-Nazis and extreme fundamentalists into a movement built on Christian Identity, was born.
"For the first time in the 22 years that I have been in the movement, we are all marching to the beat of the same drum," Louis Beam, a former Klansman and Identity diehard then representing the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, told the group.
Now, the carnage seems to be accelerating.
Last December, Chevie Kehoe of Colville, Wash., and Daniel Lewis Lee of Yukon, Okla., were charged with murder, racketeering and conspiracy in a federal indictment, and Faron Lovelace of Sandpoint, Idaho, was charged with racketeering. The men allegedly planned a revolution to create the whites-only Aryan Peoples Republic, which they intended to boost by engaging in polygamy.
All three could face the death penalty.
Kehoe and his brother and father are long-time Christian Identity adherents. In 1992, Kehoe warned a reporter of some "rude awakenings" in store. "There are more of us Identity out there than you realize," he said. "We are in the schools, government, law enforcement, health and everywhere. … We are not afraid to die." When Kehoes brother, Cheyne, turned himself in on charges related to a police shootout, he was accompanied by Ray Barker, pastor of a Christian Identity church in his native Colville.
Last year, before the federal charges were lodged, Kehoe and Lee were charged in state court with the suffocation murders of an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife and her 8-year-old daughter. Their bodies were dumped in a swamp. In another case, Lovelace was convicted of killing a man the gang feared was an informant. And in January, Kehoes brother, Cheyne, was convicted of the attempted murder of a police officer during an Ohio shootout. Chevie Kehoe still faces charges in that incident.
Bombs, banks and
Other cases are cropping up with grim regularity. Last year, Identity followers in the Aryan Republican Army pleaded guilty to charges related to 22 bank robberies in the Midwest, allegedly carried out to fund a white supremacist revolution.
Three Identity believers, calling themselves Phineas Priests, were sentenced the same year to life terms after robbing banks and setting off bombs around Spokane. When the fourth gang member, Brian Ratigan, was sentenced to 55 years, he was unrepentant. "People of Washington have been warned," he bellowed at the court. "You have been sent four witnesses. Babylon is about to fall. ... So repent!"
Also in recent years, Identity pastor Michael Hill was killed by police after threatening a police officer with a gun during a 1995 traffic stop. Authorities are still seeking Timothy Michael Coombs, who allegedly shot a Missouri highway patrolman in a 1994 attempted assassination carried out to avenge the arrest of an Identity pastor.
Four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council who were Identity followers were convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to use the deadly ricin toxin to kill federal agents and law enforcement officers. The same year, Identity believer Larry Wayne Harris of Columbus, Ohio, obtained bubonic plague cultures for an unknown purpose. Imprisoned Phineas Priest Walter Thody boasts that he and his gang robbed 20 banks in 1990-1991 in order to finance a squad to assassinate the enemies of Identity.
The 1980s, too, saw a wave of Identity terror.
Identity believers played leading roles in The Order, a group of 24-plus terrorists that murdered two people, including a Denver talk show host, and robbed almost $4 million from armored bank cars. The faith underlay much of the ideology of the Posse Comitatus, responsible for the deaths of three law enforcement officers, death threats to judges and others, secret paramilitary training and a series of deadly plots.
Identity was the backbone of the Sword, the Covenant and the Arm of the Lord, the heavily armed Arkansas compound where white supremacists planned to poison the water supplies of cities and bomb federal buildings. And it was the religion of members of the Arizona Patriots who conspired to rob armored cars and to blow up a synagogue and an IRS complex. One Arizona Patriot tried to murder a police officer.
Dont leave one suckling
One of the most shocking cases was that of Michael Ryan. He was sentenced to death for the 1986 sexual torture, mutilation and murder of James Thimm, a follower of Ryans Identity cult near Rulo, Neb. Thimm was murdered at Ryans orders after being whipped and having his legs broken, his skin stripped from his thighs and his fingers shot off. Ryan later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case of 5-year-old Luke Stice, who died when his neck was broken after weeks of torture.
Authorities say Ryan was the "main man" in Nebraska for James Wickstrom, an Identity proselytizer and leading organizer of the violently anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus. Ryan turned his Nebraska farm into an Identity compound after meeting Wickstrom in 1981 and becoming enamored of his Identity teachings.
Today, despite this history of violence, Identity views are fairly widespread in the nominally more mainstream Patriot movement. John Trochmann, co-founder of the influential Militia of Montana, is an alleged adherent who has tried to disguise his views. Bo Gritz, another leading Patriot figure, has endorsed Identity beliefs, according to investigative reporter Richard Abanes. "[God] has given us all that we need," Gritz reportedly said in a 1991 speech at a Bible camp organized by Identity pastor Pete Peters. "Hes given us ... the likes of the Christian Identity movement."
Identity has grown in other directions as well.
Susan DeCamp of the Montana Association of Churches is quoted in Dyers book explaining how in recent years Identity families have infiltrated small fundamentalist churches. DeCamp told Dyer that entire churches have incorporated Identity racism into their doctrines. And Dyer reports that several rural pastors tell of being invited to "rural chaplain seminars," only to discover they are Identity recruitment sessions.
"Identity believers," he writes, "are slowly infusing fundamentalist groups with their ultimate purpose: creating a white dominionist nation where the Bible is law."
Clearly, there are large portions of the Identity movement that hesitate at their leaders violent talk. But if even a small segment takes their message as a spur to revolutionary action, the danger, as recent history has shown, is great. The supercharged words used by many Identity leaders leave very little to the imagination.
"You go look in the Old Testament," W.N. Otwell, who runs an armed compound in East Texas, told a national Identity gathering in Branson, Mo., four days after the Oklahoma City bomb left 168 people, including 19 children, dead. "God did not mind killing a bunch of women and kids. God talks about slaughter! Dont leave one suckling! Dont leave no babies! Dont leave nothing! Kill them! Destroy them!"
Identity is born
In coming years, the doctrine would be transformed by American racists.
During the 1920s and 1930s, leaders in this transformation included William Cameron, editor in the 1920s of the Dearborn Independent, the Michigan newspaper owned by anti-Semitic automaker Henry Ford. A key follower was Gerald L.K. Smith, for decades the nations preeminent anti-Semite and a one-time aide to Louisiana Governor Huey Long. In the 1940s-1960s, the Identity message was refined by California lawyer Bertrand Comparet; Wesley Swift, founder of a California Identity church known as the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, and William Potter Gale, a World War II aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur who directed guerrilla operations in the Philippines and later founded the Christian Defense League.
By degrees, Jews were stripped of their Biblical roots. At first, the two southern tribes (the "House of Judah") were accused of having intermarried with heathens, thus defiling themselves and Gods law. Then they were turned into descendants of savage Khazar tribes, having nothing to do with the original 12 tribes. Eventually, the doctrine that Jews were actually direct descendants of Satan, having been born to the Serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden, became the theology known as Christian Identity.
In recent years, this "two-seed" doctrine -- that Jews are the progeny of the Serpent and Eve, while whites come from Adam and Eve -- has come under attack. Several leading Identity ministers, while certain that Jews are "ungodly and Satanic," dispute the genetic gist of the message. Instead, they see Jews as representative of evil in all humans.
Other Identity adherents bristle at being called racists. Non-whites are not human, they say, but are part of Gods creation. Like farm animals, they are not inherently wicked.
Seedlines and the
Garden of Eden
Today, the interpretation of Christian Identity varies markedly from place to place. Identity ministers like Charles Weisman, who last year published a 56-page tract attacking the "seedline" doctrine, have set off a rancorous dispute on some of the faiths basic tenets. But many adherents still hold the most racist beliefs of early Identity, which include:
Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples (whites) are Gods real "chosen people," and descend in an unbroken line from Adam and Eve. They are by nature a superior race.
Jews derive from Cain, himself the product of a sexual liaison between Eve and the Serpent (the original sin) in Eden, and so are biologically evil, the "synagogue of Satan."
Non-whites are "pre-Adamic" beings, soulless and akin to the Biblical "beasts of the field." Cain mated with these peoples to produce todays Jews.
Jews are part of a Satanic plot to unite the world under a single government, to be taken over ultimately by the Devil himself. The plot is thousands of years old.
Whites in America (the true "House of Israel") must battle bloodily to usher in a period of Godly rule prior to the Second Coming. That means a race war.
However Identity evolves in coming years, it is clear that it has made a close fit with the burgeoning antigovernment Patriot movement, which has largely avoided explicit racism but has woven a master web of conspiracy theories to explain its view of the world.
"Every purported conspiracy theory and cabal, whether of international bankers, Trilateralists or the U.N., can be brought within Identitys great conspiracy -- Satans plot to take over the world and deprive Aryans of their birthright, a plot that Identity believes began in the Garden of Eden and will end only at Armageddon," Michael Barkun, a leading expert on Identity, wrote in a 1995 book on militias. "Plot can be nested within plot, in an ascending pyramid of conspiracies that ends with the devil himself."