The Hammerskin Nation was seemingly born in violence.
In the summer of 1988, not long after the racist skinhead group was formed, five of its young members embarked on a spree of hate in Dallas. They spray painted swastikas on a local Jewish temple. They shot out the windows of a Jewish community center. They chased and beat minorities who dared to set foot in a park named for the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.When the men were indicted the following year, Dallas County assistant district attorney Michael Gillett said it was the beginning of the end for the violent white supremacist crew.
“This is our first major frontal assault against skinhead terrorist activities,” Gillett said.
But more than 20 years later, the Hammerskins are still unleashing havoc in America. Two domestic terrorism investigations this year have been linked to the group, with the latest and most violent example coming on Sunday when a relatively new member walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire on worshipers there. Authorities said he killed six people and wounded three before killing himself during a gun battle with police.
The other investigation came to a head in May, when a joint terrorism task force in Florida arrested more than a dozen members of another racist skinhead organization called American Front. The group was led by former Hammerskins member Marcus Faella. Investigators said American Front was experimenting with the creation of the toxin ricin, plotting attacks on rival groups and wanted to cause some sort of “disturbance” at Orlando City Hall.
For those who monitor hate groups, the recent violence shows just how unhinged members of the racist skinhead movement can be. Mark Pitcavage, who tracks extremists as the investigative research director for the Anti-Defamation League, said the Hammerskin Nation is known as one of the most violent groups around.
“For the past quarter century, they’ve kept that record up with murders, assaults, attempted murders, various other types of hate crimes,” Pitcavage told TPM. “It’s got a high association with violent activity, which is not surprising given that it’s a hardcore racist skinhead group.”
In 1991, three members were involved in the shooting of a black man they came upon in Arlington, Texas. Two of them pleaded guilty in the killing and the third was convicted by a jury two years later. In 1999, six young Hammerskins members in Southern California allegedly beat a black man and slashed him with a straight razor. In 2005, another member was sentenced to 19 years in prison for a Dallas nightclub beating that left his victim partially paralyzed.
Pitcavage said he and his team first came across Wade Page, 40, the gunman in the Sikh temple massacre, back in 2010. At the time, Page was playing guitar in multiple white power rock bands connected with the Hammerskins. He was merely a hanger on at first, Pitcavage said. But by late last year, he got patched into the the organization as an official member and was allowed to get its logo tattooed on him.
The future gunman was a relentless supporter of the movement. He frequented the Hammerskin Nation’s online message boards and posted hundreds of notes, many of them promoting his bands or telling people about upcoming skinhead meetings in North Carolina, where he was living at the time.
It turns out Page may have also unknowingly crossed paths with the investigation into American Front that was being run by the FBI and Florida authorities.
In March of last year, Page traveled to central Florida with two of his bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate, to play a music festival that was organized by the Confederate Hammerskins, the southern faction of the national skinhead group. It often goes by the initials CHS. The festival was a St. Patrick’s Day celebration held near Orlando. Fliers for the show appeared on multiple white supremacist websites in the days leading up to it and the Anti-Defamation League has since published a photo showing Page and his bandmates at the festival.
What the skinheads who were organizing the show apparently didn’t know, however, was that that they had an informant in their midst. A local man who ran in white supremacist circles was working with terrorism investigators for almost a year by that point, sending them dispatches from the various rallies and meetings he attended. He eventually became a member of American Front and helped authorities take them down. His dispatches were made public recently as part of the ongoing criminal case against the group’s members.
In one of those dispatches, the informant wrote that he attended the March 19, 2011 music festival: “The CHS charged 20 dollars at the door to help pay for the Band’s (sic) and food costs. Definite Hate, End Empathy (sic) and Attack.”
It’s unclear whether the informant ever came in contact with Page. If he did, the encounter wasn’t significant enough to mention. Page’s name never appeared in the dispatches and this week, Teresa Carlson, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Milwaukee, said he was never under investigation by the agency before the massacre.
Regardless, the informant kept sending information to investigators for more than year after the concert. He secretly snapped photos and filmed videos of American Front’s activities. Some of the videos showed members shooting guns at a rural compound the group set up outside of Orlando. Others captured conversations in which they talked about bringing guns and knives to confront rival groups.
Marcus Faella became the leader of American Front only recently after its previous leader was shot to death in California. Now at age 39, he has been part of the movement for about 20 years. It’s not clear when he joined American Front, but Florida newspapers reported that he got his start in the skinhead world in the early 1990s with the Confederate Hammerskins.
Faella even spoke to journalists on behalf of the Hammerskins in 1993 after police in Melbourne, Fla., received a letter threatening to mutilate black officers and their families, according to the Florida Today newspaper. He denied that anyone from the group had sent the letter.
“If something like that was going to happen,” Faella said at the time, “we wouldn’t be out announcing it.”
This May, Faella and the other American Front members pleaded not guilty to hate crimes and other charges. One of the members, Diane Stevens, told television station WFTV that the group was nothing more than a “social club.” But last week another member, Christopher Brooks, changed his plea to guilty on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Prosecutors told the Orlando Sentinel that Brooks will serve a mandatory three years in prison.
In Wisconsin, investigators are still sifting through the life of the man who carried out the Sikh temple massacre. The FBI’s Carlson said on Wednesday they so far had interviewed more than 100 people and issued 180 federal grand jury subpoenas. But they still hadn’t determined what drove Page to kill. He never left a note, Carlson said, and there was no indication he had threatened the temple prior to the massacre.
“After all of this work, we still have identified no one else responsible for this shooting other than him,” Carlson said. “We have also not clearly defined a motive.”
While Carlson largely declined to discuss the case’s skinhead ties, she acknowledged it was obvious that Page was involved in the movement. He was able to stay under the radar to law enforcement, she said, because his views were still protected under the First Amendment “no matter how reprehensible those things might be.”
Another thing is certain. There are still plenty of Hammerskins left in America. Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said he and his team have seen a rise in activity in just the past year. The Hammerskins have been holding more events and recruiting new members, he said. Nearly 25 years after that violent season in Dallas, there is no sign they are going away anytime soon.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org