In a first-of-its kind assault on violent white racist organizations in Sacramento, local and federal agents are pushing to classify such groups as street gangs -- a move that could result in significantly enhanced punishments for hate crime convictions.
The FBI has teamed with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's Office in using the new strategy, which they hope will drive hate groups out of town or into prison. The effort mirrors similar attempts in towns around the nation where hate groups have been suspected of serious criminal activity.
"These are the most dangerous of all the gangsters I've ever dealt with," said Sacramento prosecutor Steve Harrold, a longtime gang specialist. "The glue or the bond among these people is hatred. ... It's not about turf."
Using a number of previously unsolved, years-old hate crimes, federal and local agents are trying to convince a Sacramento court to rule that organizations such as the World Church of the Creator and Western Hammerskins, which have been active in Sacramento's northeastern suburbs, are in essence the same types of groups as the better-known Crips or Bloods located in some inner-city neighborhoods. Members who commit violent crimes then could face enhanced prison penalties under state and federal law.
The move comes at a critical time for the shadowy hate movement: In the wake of last year's hate crimes spree, various efforts are under way nationwide to either imprison or bankrupt racist leaders.
On Monday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for instance, trial is set to begin in a lawsuit that the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed against the Aryan Nations in hopes of financially destroying the hate group.
"The barbarians are at the gate!!" Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler warns in his Nazi group's Web site.
Other lawsuits have been filed elsewhere in the nation, the most notable by the law center's Morris Dees, and have resulted in some multimillion-dollar judgments against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.
Matthew Hale, the leader of the Peoria-based World Church who is being blamed for inspiring a Midwest shooting spree by former church member Benjamin Smith in July 1999, is among those who have been sued.
Hale, whose organization is one of those under scrutiny in the Sacramento cases, has denounced efforts to blame the groups for the actions of individuals.
"It's tyrannical, it's illegal and it's unconstitutional," Hale said in a telephone interview last week. "Let's see the D.A. go after Christian churches because of members who have committed crimes."
The Sacramento effort stems from a series of crimes that began in 1997 with an attack on a 16-year-old Sacramento youth who was beaten nearly to death while walking to a friend's house in Carmichael to help build a skateboard ramp.
Jeff Almon, a Del Campo High School student who had no involvement with gangs or racist groups, was walking near Dewey Drive and Palm Avenue when he spotted a car parked along the side of the road with two men inside.
"An animal instinct told me I didn't want to run into these guys," Almon testified during a preliminary hearing in Superior Court earlier this month. He crossed the street and eventually ran through some yards before the pair cornered him in a nearby church parking lot.
"I remember a blow to the back of my head that came like the mightiest thunderstorm," Almon said. "I've been afraid to walk down the street." The beating left Almon in a coma for five days and hospitalized for 15.
During his testimony, he broke down and had to leave the courtroom because he said it was too unsettling to confront his alleged attackers. "I've been afraid to be alone," he said. "My mental ability ... I've been afraid I'll ever make it in life."
No arrests were made at the time, and detectives were slow to develop a motive for the attack. Last summer, when authorities were investigating the firebombing of three Sacramento-area synagogues, detectives questioning avowed racists in the area got a tip that Almon's beating had been a hate crime.
Sheriff's Sgt. Milo Fitch, the department's gang expert, teamed with FBI agents Gary Schaaf and Andrea Dobranski to investigate. Their investigation ultimately expanded to a multi-agency probe of hate group activity in the area that includes pending inquiries into four other attempted murders and a Carmichael house arson.
Prosecutors now believe Almon was targeted by two racist skinheads who mistook him for a SHARP, a member of a white group that calls itself Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.
After a lengthy investigation, two well-known area skinheads -- Joshua Gilmore, 24, a former World Church of the Creator member, and Richard Molinare, 22 -- were charged with attempted murder, which could net each 25 years to life in prison.
"When they asked Almon if he was a SHARP," Fitch testified, "he said, 'No, I'm a human being,' and this infuriated Molinare and Gilmore."
If the two are convicted and Superior Court Judge Michael Virga accepts Harrold's contention that the men are gang members, they would not be eligible for parole until they served 15 years in prison, Harrold said.
Without the gang enhancements, they could be paroled after seven years. The preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume Sept. 8, when Virga is to decide if there is ample evidence to warrant a full-blown trial and whether the gang charges can be included.
In court proceedings this month, the pair appeared wearing orange jail jumpsuits that did not completely cover their racist tattoos. Molinare's left biceps is adorned with a large, elaborate tattoo of Adolf Hitler's profile. Gilmore is similarly tattooed with a portrait of a Nazi officer, and investigators say the pair have extensive tattoos elsewhere, including Iron Crosses and other Nazi insignia.
The defendants' attorneys have declined to discuss the case at length, but they maintain their clients are innocent and in court have attacked the notion that the two are active members of an organized gang.
Prosecutors say they're determined to break up a group of eight to 12 violent skinheads who inhabited some Carmichael-area duplexes for years and who they say may have been responsible for a series of violent crimes.
Members of the group, who decorated their residences with Nazi and Confederate flags, also are suspected in a Nov. 1, 1997, stabbing that took place at a Citrus Heights coffee shop called the Cyber Cafe. In that incident, Andrew Harris, while picking his wife up from work, was attacked by a mob and beaten and stabbed 20 times before being left for dead.
Harris said he was mobbed by a group of men with shaved heads who were wearing heavy black boots, leather jackets and chains after he apparently was mistaken for a security guard who earlier had ejected two skinheads from the cafe.
"I remember people screaming, I remember hearing my wife scream," Harris said. "I remember someone shouting, 'Oh, my God, he's going to die, he's going to die, he's bleeding all over the place, he's going to die.'" Harris survived after losing his right lung.
William "Billy" Johnson, 21, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in the case and did less than a year in state prison. Prosecutors now have charged Gilmore with attempted murder in that attack and are planning to file additional charges that could result in gang-related penalties against other prominent racist skinheads from the area.
According to Fitch's testimony, an associate of Gilmore's who also lived at the duplexes and participated in the attack said Gilmore was the stabber. "He saw Josh straddling Mr. Harris and stabbing him repeatedly," Fitch testified. "Gilmore was proud of what he had done. He said, 'Did you see the way I stabbed him, the way the guy went down?'"
In the Almon beating case, attorneys for the two defendants attacked Fitch's credibility as a gang expert and have questioned the reliability of witnesses called to testify against their clients.
Prosecutors maintain they have a strong case and say it's simply the beginning of an effort to destroy hate groups in the area. Along with federal authorities, local prosecutors say they could charge up to a half-dozen additional people before the investigation is over. And already, they say, the strategy is having an impact.
"Their status is in disarray right now," Harrold said of the Sacramento-area hate groups. "All the closet doors have been opened."