Midwest Gunman Who Shot 11 Had Engaged in Acts of Racism at 2 Universities

New York Times, July 5, 1999
By Bill Dedman

CHICAGO -- Hate arrived in the neighborhoods of Indiana University, in Bloomington, in the early morning darkness of spring 1998, as a criminal justice major named Benjamin Nathaniel Smith drove his light blue Ford Taurus down residential streets, tossing little plastic bags of pamphlets into yards.

The brochures asserted that the white race was being crowded out by Jews, blacks and the "mud people," his derogatory term for Asians. Hate apparently arrived again over the Fourth of July weekend, as August Smith -- no longer Benjamin, he told a journalist, because it sounded too Jewish -- returned to his old haunts in Indiana and Illinois. According to the police and the F. B. I., Smith, a 21-year-old college student, drove the same light blue Ford slowly, firing one handgun and then another at Jews, blacks and Asians.

The deadly visit to Bloomington on Sunday came near the end of a three-day tear of violence in two states. Before it was over, two men, one black and one Korean, were dead, both shot in the back, and nine other Jews, Asians and blacks had been wounded. It ended with a suicide in rural southern Illinois late Sunday night, when Smith stole a van and during a chase by the police shot himself three times, the last during a struggle with officers after the van crashed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said. Those who encountered Benjamin Smith say they never saw him commit racially motivated violence before last week, but they saw him become more willing to express his racist views. The places where the shootings occurred may not have been random, the police and the F. B. I. say. Smith shot at Orthodox Jews, blacks and Asians on Friday night in the northern suburbs of Chicago, where he grew up. Ricky Byrdsong, 43, a former basketball coach at Northwestern University, was killed.

Then on Saturday he shot at blacks and Asians near the University of Illinois, where he quit in February 1998 before being expelled over domestic violence charges, possessing marijuana and posting racist literature. On Sunday he returned to Bloomington, where he had just completed his third year of college at Indiana University. There, authorities say, he killed Won Joon Yoon, 26, a Korean-American man, at a church near the university, where his one-man flurry of white power pamphlets had scared the community into marching against hate speech.

Smith grew up in the affluent northern suburbs of Chicago, in Wilmette and Northfield.

Neighbors say his father is a doctor, his mother a real estate agent and former town trustee. He has two younger brothers.

"Where he got his racist ideas, who knows?" said Ruth Hanna, a neighbor of the family for 16 years in Wilmette. "There was no indication it came from the family."

The quotation that Benjamin Smith chose for his senior yearbook in 1996 at New Trier High School was "Sic semper tyrannis," Latin for "thus ever to tyrants," the same slogan spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. Smith went to college that fall at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, at first in the school of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences. He lived in an elite dormitory, Allen Hall, a "living and learning community" known for its progressive program of visiting authors and artists of many cultures and points of view, university officials said.

In an interview last year with an alternative newspaper, Smith said he had no racist views until he entered the university. He said felt uncomfortable around so many foreign students and professors. He started to read neo-Nazi literature and met Matthew F. Hale, of East Peoria, Ill., who was recruiting on campus for his World Church of the Creator, an anti-black, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish organization.

"When he first met me he had mentioned violence," Hale said. "And I said, 'That's not the way to go, brother.' "

Smith came to the attention of the Illinois campus police in the fall of his sophomore year. In a single week in October 1997, he was accused of beating his girlfriend, Elizabeth Ann Sahr, in his dorm room, then of possessing marijuana, then of fighting with other students, university officials said. "He tried to keep his racism and his anti-Semitism hidden," Ms. Sahr said in a telephone interview. "People really need to pay more attention to domestic violence and racism."

In January 1998, because of the charges, Smith was placed on probation and required to undergo counseling, to take an ethics class and to perform community service, according to university records.

Ten days later, he was confronted about racist literature posted in the dorm. "He vehemently insisted on his First Amendment rights, but didn't admit he had done it," said Bill Murphy, associate chancellor for public affairs.

The next month, there were more complaints against Smith: peeking into dormitory windows, and unconfirmed reports that he had acquired weapons, Murphy said. Then Smith filed his own complaint with the university's office of conflict resolution, saying the dormitory administration was mistreating him.

A week before his disciplinary hearing on the latest charges in February 1998, university officials consulted with his parents, and Smith withdrew from the university, signing a statement promising never to return. "If he had not withdrawn, he would have been dismissed," Murphy said.

That summer of 1998, Smith enrolled at the University of Indiana, in Bloomington, where he became a vocal exponent of racial views. He switched from computer science to criminal justice, joining a department known for its interest in crimes against racial minorities. A recent symposium is an example of the curriculum: "Challenging Stereotypes and Encouraging Empathy in the Criminal Justice Classroom."

Soon Smith was placing leaflets of the White Nationalist Party on cars on campus. After a university official met with him, Smith wrote a long letter as "August Smith" to The Indiana Daily Student in June 1998 criticizing the university's attempt to curb his free speech rights.

"It was true that the fliers were racially oriented," Smith wrote, "but to label them racist, bigoted or prejudiced demonstrates bias." He opposed the university's policy of affirmative action as "racist" and called attention to clubs for nonwhite students, like the Black Student Union.

"But where do white people go to discuss their issues and concerns?" he wrote. "There is no White Student Union established to help white students organize and react to the problems our people face. This is why the White Nationalist Party was established."

By the Fourth of July weekend last year, Smith was placing 2,000 fliers under windshields in a wide area of Bloomington. The text, from the World Church of the Creator, extolled the "Great White Race" and assailed what it called "a deceitful, alien government, a controlled media, and a suicidal religion."

The Mayor of Bloomington, John Fernandez, met Smith twice, at a rally and on a radio call-in show. "All indications were that he didn't have any history of violence," Fernandez said.

Smith began to give interviews. He offered his views on violence to Lisa Sorg, managing editor of The Bloomington Independent, as they sat in the Encore Cafe in Bloomington last summer.

"We believe we can legally come to power through nonviolence," Smith said, "but Hale says if they try to restrict our legal means then we have no recourse but to resort to terrorism and violence."

Smith said he had received death threats, but was not afraid. "I'm more afraid for my race than myself," he said. "Nature isn't concerned with the individual, but with the species."

He said he still spoke with his parents, but did not have the friends at home that he used to have. He called his former friends "race traitors." Although some members of the Church of the Creator wanted to partition the nation into areas for different minorities, he told Ms. Sorg that he wanted to expel racial and religious minorities.

"They won't be very happy to leave, but they'll probably end up wanting to leave," he said, Ms. Sorg recalled.

He said his career goal was to be a lawyer. This spring he testified for Hale, the World Church leader, as Hale tried to get a law license in Illinois.

Ms. Sorg said Smith came across as very calm, his voice flat, his eyes dead. He seemed to have an almost reverential devotion to Hale, she said. By November 1998, Bloomington residents had decided to respond.

"This was civic pornography," said Jeffrey Willsey, an organizer of a group called Bloomington United, formed in response to the leafletting. "We felt that because it was in our yards, and there was a clear attempt to psychologically intimidate our community, it was important to respond to it."

Smith wrote again to the student paper in November, saying that the community march did not prove that he was not a minority of one.

"The fact is that there has been no massive rejection of the World Church's materials or ideas," Smith wrote. "The rally was the product of a diverse gang of special interests groups, none of which represents the silent white majority of the student body. Most students do not want a ban of "hate speech.' "

He also said the pamphlets were not hateful. "Being familiar with the literature, I must argue that it is not so much 'hate literature' as much as truth that reflects poorly on nonwhites," Smith wrote. "The World Church stands for free speech and open dialogue and is willing to debate the issues at any time."

His writings and distribution of pamphlets sparked a campus debate on tolerance. The anthropology faculty wrote a letter to the editor to quarrel with some of the racial history in Smith's pamphlets. "We talked about Benjamin 'August' Smith the person in my Race and Ethnicity class last semester," said Tyrese Alexander, 23, a black student who lived a few doors down from Smith. "But I had no idea I was living next to him." Smith lived in Touchdown Terrace, a somewhat run-down, 30-unit student apartment complex with many minority residents. His neighbors said he glared at minority resident but did not act violently. But someone kept breaking the windows of his car and his apartment as often as once a week, apparently in retaliation for his writings.

It is not clear what set off last week's violence, but Hale, the World Church leader, thinks that he knows. Hale's latest attempt to become a lawyer in Illinois was rebuffed on Friday by a state panel. Smith had testified for Hale at a hearing in April, praising Hale's legal means. "He testified that he might be in jail now if it wasn't for me," Hale said. When asked if the adverse decision on Friday might have led to the killings, Hale said: "I do. I very much do."

That Benjamin Smith is dead does not make Bloomington feel safer. "Ben Smith may have taken his own life, but there's still far too much hatred out there, in the community, in the world," said Rabbi Sue L. Shifron, a founder of Bloomington United.

"While he may be gone, the organization that he was a part of and hundreds of other organizations are still out there."

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