Gunman 'seemed mad at the world'

Miami Herald, July 6, 1999
By Martha Irvine

CHICAGO -- At times, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith looked the part of a skinhead -- the words ''Sabbath Breaker'' tattooed on his chest and his head sometimes shaven.

Police say he also played the part, blanketing neighborhoods and university campuses with hate-filled fliers mostly aimed at Jewish, black and Asian people.

But authorities and acquaintances wondered Monday what would drive a rich kid -- described as hateful but publicly reserved and even ''very polite'' -- to go on a two-state shooting spree that would leave two people dead and at least eight wounded before he killed himself late Sunday night in southern Illinois.

''He seemed mad at the world,'' said Tyrese Alexander, one of Smith's neighbors in Bloomington, Ind., and a fellow student at Indiana University, where Smith had been a criminal justice major, ''but I had no idea it would end like this.''

Smith, 21, grew up in a posh neighborhood in suburban Wilmette -- a country club world full of big houses, expensive cars and influence. The eldest son of a doctor and a real estate agent, he attended New Trier High School, one of the wealthiest public schools in the country.

Neighbors say his father, Kenneth, could be hard to warm to and even withdrawn. But Sid Condon, 61, an attorney and the family's neighbor in Wilmette, called Smith's mother, Beverly, ''a wonderful person -- soccer Mom 101.''

The Smiths, who have two younger sons, moved about two years ago to nearby Northfield, into a smaller house but one with a swimming pool and private tennis court.

They have declined to talk to reporters.

''I'm sure they're totally shocked and devastated,'' Condon said. ''They're probably in church praying.'' Hints that Smith had a streak of rebellion popped up in a high school yearbook, where his entry carried the slogan Sic semper tyrannis -- or ''Thus is always [the end] of tyrants.''

Those are said to be the words John Wilkes Booth spoke after shooting Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and a phrase on a T-shirt worn by Timothy McVeigh the day he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Brushes with the law

Smith's brushes with the law began in October 1997, when University of Illinois records show he was reprimanded for marijuana possession and for fighting in his room, including one report of domestic violence against a female student.

In January 1998, Smith met with the dean of students and was put on ''conduct probation,'' according to university records. He also agreed to attend counseling, an ethics class and to do community service, said Bill Murphy, a university spokesman.

Smith began that process but got into more trouble for putting up racist posters in his dormitory and eventually was called back into the dean's office for allegedly peeping in dorm windows and carrying unspecified weapons, records show.

He withdrew the next day, Feb. 14, 1998, ''because he was going to be expelled,'' Murphy said.

'A red flag'

Murphy said a notation was put on Smith's transcript -- ''a red flag for anybody'' -- but he did not know if officials at Indiana University, where Smith completed his sophomore year in May, had seen the transcripts or the notation.

Richard McKaig, Indiana's dean of students, said he did not have access to Smith's admissions records on Monday, a holiday, but said his university considers applications of transfer students on nonacademic probation, like Smith's, on a case-by-case basis.

Alexander, who is black, said he and other students at Indiana University were well aware of Smith's racist views. Alexander said he even discussed Smith's views in his African-American studies classes. But it never occurred to him that Smith would turn violent.

''He seemed to harbor intense anger, but it was never of a physical nature,'' he said. ''He never lashed out at anybody. He just had an angry look on his face.''

Alexander, 23, said he found it somewhat odd that Smith chose to live in an apartment building that housed many minority students.

''He was directly surrounded by five black people -- one on each side and three above him,'' Alexander said of Smith, who at one time belonged to a white supremacist group, the World Church of the Creator. ''It's not a place where you'd expect to find a racist.''

Unsurprised by end

While Alexander and others said they were shocked by the shootings, one of Smith's ex-girlfriends seemed unsurprised by his violent end.

''This is his Independence Day from the government, from everything,'' Elizabeth Sahr told The Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois, on Sunday.

''He is not going to stop until he's shot dead. He's not going to surrender,'' she said. ''He's not going to give up until he leaves this world.''

Smith took with him many unanswered questions, which investigators from a task force in the north Chicago suburbs are attempting to answer.

Sgt. Michael Ruth, a task force spokesman, said investigators partly want to cement their belief that Smith acted alone.

However, they also are looking for answers to help grieving relatives of victims, who included Ricky Byrdsong, the former Northwestern University basketball coach who was gunned down while walking with two of his children.

''I'm sure the family members from Mr. Byrdsong want to know why,'' Ruth said. ''I'm sure the other victims want to know why.''

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