Suspect Sought in Shooting Spree Said to Kill Self

'We're interviewing everybody,' says sheriff of investigation of burnings of 3 Sacramento synagogues

New York Times, July 5, 1999
By Bill Dedman

CHICAGO -- The man suspected in a two-state shooting rampage against Jews, blacks and Asian-Americans fatally shot himself on Sunday night after police pursued him in rural southern Illinois, an F.B.I. spokesman in Indianapolis, Ind., said late Sunday.

The suspect, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21, abandoned his blue car at a truck stop in Salem and stole a van, said Doug Garrison, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman.

Smith was driving south while being chased by police and shot himself, Garrison said. The van crashed off the road and he was pronounced dead at a hospital.

F.B.I. officials said they planned to check fingerprints to make certain the body is Smith's, but Jim Kennedy, police chief in Bloomington, Ind., said two guns found with the body were consistent with two of the shootings -- in Bloomington and Chicago.

A light blue Taurus sought by police was also at the scene.

Kennedy said the body had a tattoo on the chest that said "Sabbath Breaker," which Smith was said to have.

Smith had been the subject of the two-state search after shootings that began Friday in Chicago. Police also said shootings on Saturday in Springfield and Urbana -- as well as a killing on Sunday in Bloomington -- appeared to be related.

The latest victim was a Korean-American graduate student who was killed on Sunday morning as he entered a church in Bloomington, Ind. That followed an incident late Saturday in Urbana, in which an Asian-American student at the University of Illinois was shot in the leg.

In an hourlong series of shootings in the Chicago area on Friday night, a former basketball coach at Northwestern University, a black man, was killed as he walked with his children in his neighborhood, six Orthodox Jews were injured as they walked home from Sabbath services and two Asian-Americans were shot at as they sat in their car at an intersection.

"This man is on a spree," said Chicago Police Cmdr. William Hayes. "He's shooting people all over." In most of the shootings, a white man slowly drove a blue car, apparently prowling the streets for victims, and said nothing as he fired, first one handgun, then another while he reloaded the original, said Patrick T. Camden, a Chicago police spokesman.

In Indiana, the police there said, the man waited in his car and fired as people entered the church. The police have found matching shell casings at all the sites of the shootings.

Smith, whose last known address was in Bloomington, matched the general description of the killer, and owns a light blue Ford Taurus with a license plate matching the car that was seen leaving the Indiana shooting, Kennedy said. A similar car was used in the earlier shootings, although no witness saw the license number.

The police said the crimes did not yet fit the legal definition of a hate crime, because they had no expression of hatred or motive from the shooter.

Groups that monitor racial violence say the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist churches and other groups with similar ideologies have increased their membership dramatically in the Midwest in the 1990's. Smith had been a member of the World Church of the Creator, an anti-black, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish organization based in East Peoria, Ill.

The leader of the group, Matthew F. Hale, described Smith as nonviolent.

"Ben always struck me as a very thoughtful person, very intelligent," Hale, said in a telephone interview. "I was struck by his sincerity, his dedication and actually his coolheadedness."

Smith, a former Indiana University student, joined the Church of the Creator in 1998 by paying $35 and pledging his "undying loyalty to the white race," Hale said. He attended meetings and ordered large volumes of its literature attacking Jews and blacks, Hale said, until his one-year membership lapsed in May. The group's main publication is: "Facts that the media and government don't want you to know."

Hale has been fighting a well-publicized battle to obtain his law license in Illinois. On Friday, his appeal was denied again by a state administrative board, because of his racial views. The shootings began that night.

"I have heard speculation from reporters that Ben was angry about my appeal being denied, but I don't know if that's true," said Hale, who plans to appeal to the courts. "He looked up to me in a lot of ways because I was committed to the legal fight."

Hale said his organization neither condoned violence, nor incited it. He said it did not advocate killing Jews and non-whites. He proposes instead to "crowd them off the planet in self-defense," while "straightening out the thinking of white people."

"We are not in this for hatred," Hale said. "We're here because we love our own people, and want to protect it. We see the white people as being raped. We're losing our culture. A lot of people don't realize how angry the average white person is. We're told to be ashamed that we're white. We're trying to choose the legal path, but occasionally some people take a violent course."

The church, which does not worship any God, is opposed to other organized religions and has faith only in the white race. Hale said it supported the views of Hitler in many respects, but differed in a few. He would not say how many members it has, but said they were in 22 countries. Its Golden Rule: "That which is good for the White Race is the highest virtue. That which is bad for the White Race is the ultimate sin."

The shootings began about 8:30 P.M. in Rogers Park, a northern Chicago neighborhood with a large Jewish population and a mix of races. Six Orthodox Jews walking home from Friday evening services were shot in four locations. In the first case, the man stood on the sidewalk and fired at a group of men. The later shootings were done from a car. None of the wounds appeared to be life-threatening.

The first person was killed less than hour later. Ricky Byrdsong, 43, the former basketball coach, was shot once in the back. At least six other shots missed his son and daughter, who were walking with him near their home in Skokie, just north of Chicago. Byrdsong, 43, had coached the Northwestern Wildcats for four seasons, from 1994 to 1997. He also coached at Arizona, Eastern Illinois, Western Michigan, Iowa State and Detroit Mercy.

A few minutes later, in Northbrook, about three miles northwest, a man in a blue car fired shots at two Asian-American men in a car. Neither was hit.

At 11:30 A.M. Saturday in Springfield, Ill., south of Chicago, two blacks were shot at, but not injured.

In the shooting in Urbana Saturday night, a man in a blue car fired several shots at a group of six Asian students on a corner near dormitories and academic buildings, the police said. One was hit in the leg and was in serious condition, the police said. Urbana is about two hours east of Springfield.

In Bloomington on Sunday morning, three hours southeast of Urbana, a man fired four shots into a group of people entering the Korean United Methodist Church just before noon. Won-Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old student at the University of Indiana, was hit twice in the back and killed, the Urbana police said.

Witnesses told the police that the shooter sped east in a blue Ford Taurus, running several traffic lights.

The Urbana police said they knew Smith, who distributed the World Church's anti-Semitic literature in Bloomington last year. On Sunday they issued a warrant for the former student.

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