Back in the days when Tim Zaal believed in hate, he trolled Southern California high schools looking for recruits.
The director of propaganda for a Los Angeles skinhead group sent young minions to campuses to seek out the young and the rootless for the army of the White Aryan Resistance.
His targets: 14- and 15-year-olds who didn't really fit in, had low self-esteem and needed someone to blame.
"They're at that time in life when they're searching for an identity.
They want to prove themselves. ... They're trying to make a name for themselves," Zaal said.
Nothing has been proven, but last week four white teenagers were charged with a hate crime in an assault on a 17-year-old black male in a Simi Valley parking lot. Three of the boys, ages 15 and 16, were from Simi Valley, the other from Granada Hills. Prosecutors believe the sole motivation for the assault was bigotry.
The arrests have put school and police officials on alert. Simi Valley police have promised to dig deep into the community, ferreting out any trace of a skinhead gang or activity, said Simi Valley Police Capt.
A joint investigation with the Los Angeles Police Department is under way on possible connections between San Fernando skinhead gangs and the beating in Simi Valley.
White supremacist paraphernalia was found in the teenagers' car, and school officials suspect they may have been part of a group claiming "white pride" on Simi Valley high school campuses in March.
Those incidents led to a ban on student clothing bearing the German iron cross, a symbol as aggressive as a swastika.
"For whatever reason, these kids were strutting around campuses and getting in people's faces," said Don Gaudioso, director of secondary education with the Simi Valley Unified School District.
"Each time there is trouble of this kind, we see influence coming here from Chatsworth, Granada Hills, Woodland Hills. Valley kids are coming and trying to recruit our kids."
The philosophy of white supremacy, which has found a wide new audience through the Internet, assuages the psyches of youths who are on the fringes, experts say. Often, those most susceptible to the racist creed have no real talents and few social skills. Nine times out of 10, they come from families where racial slurs and gay-bashing are acceptable expressions of disdain for anyone different, say those who have dealt with them in the criminal justice system.
"They yearn for superiority, and they find it in this white supremacy philosophy," Ron Bam-ieh, former county prosecutor and The Star's attorney, said of Ventura's skinhead gangs. "They believe, 'I'm better because I'm white, and no one can take that away.' These kids are mostly losers who are easily indoctrinated into this kind of hate and blaming. Often they're latchkey kids. Too often, they learn this kind of thinking at home."
By far, according to local prosecutors and police, it is the young who are most likely to commit hate crimes like the one that happened this week in Simi Valley. Police arrested four white teenagers, ages 15 to 17, after a black teenager was kicked and beaten in a shopping center parking lot.
They were charged with assault and committing a hate crime because prosecutors believe bigotry was the sole motivation in the attack on the black youth, who was selling newspaper subscriptions.
Prosecutors say it's a typical scenario that the young are prodded and manipulated by the older members of white supremacist groups to act out their hatred.
"The young are certainly the ones committing the most hate crimes, while the older ones in the group are more likely to sit back and influence and encourage them," said Senior Deputy District Attorney Stacy Ratner, who is prosecuting the four youths arrested in this week's assault.
In Ventura, home to two of the largest skinhead street gangs in the county, racial tension is a pot that sometimes boils over and always simmers.
"We're forever vigilant," said Ventura High School Assistant Principal Robert Beem. "This campus is a micro-society -- what's going on out there in the larger community is what we see here on campus."
In 2003, 12 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported that someone at school used hate-related words against them based on race, religion, disability or sexual orientation, according to a national survey by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.
During the same period, about 36 percent of students ages 12 and 18 saw hate-related graffiti at school.
Those numbers are reflected in Ventura County high school campuses, officials say.
Hate crimes statewide have declined the past two years. In 2002, there were 1,659 hate events, including such acts as putting racist literature on car windows and vandalizing synagogues. That number dropped to 1,491 in 2003.
In 2002, there were 2,009 hate crimes, including such acts as murder, assault and forcible rape. That number dropped to 1,815 in 2003.
Ventura County's numbers also declined but are relatively high. In 2003, Ventura County reported 25 hate events and 29 actual hate crimes.
That's on par with counties like Kern and Fresno. Kern County reported a total of 48 hate crimes and hate events, and Fresno's total was 64.
Counties with the largest number of hate crimes and hate events were Los Angeles with 1,222 total and San Francisco with 282.
One reason hate crime numbers are going down is that people don't report what's happening, said John Hatcher, longtime president of Ventura County NAACP.
"I don't believe the statistics. There's hate crimes in the County Jail. There's hate crimes on the streets," Hatcher said, suggesting communities either deny what's happening or try to push it out of the spotlight. "To me, it's like saying we're trying to cover up what's really happening."
Without exception, those most often targeted by hate crimes nationwide and in California are African-Americans, statistics show.
Of the 1,150 hate crimes reported in California last year that were racially motivated, 32 percent were against blacks. By contrast, hate crimes against Hispanics made up 9 percent of the total.
Gay males are the second-largest group of victims. In 2003, there were 218 hate crimes reported in California against this group -- more than the number of crimes against Hispanics or Jews.
Local numbers tell the same tale, police officials say.
David Rodriguez, the national vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said hate crimes are "not a problem" for the Latino community in Ventura County.
"In the 12 years I've been with LULAC in Ventura County, I have never heard of a skinhead against a Latino in any community," Rodriguez said.
"But we're in this together. If you target an African-American for racial reasons, as far as we're concerned it's an attack on all of us."
In the past year, a window was broken twice at the Chabad Jewish Center in Thousand Oaks. Ku Klux Klan literature was left at the center's doorstep. Two young men in a compact car waved a Nazi flag as they passed Rabbi Chaim Bryski, wearing a yarmulke on an evening walk.
"That's hate," Bryski said. "It probably comes from ignorance. People are scared of something new."
Bryski thinks the way to fight hate is to draw attention to it. That's why he called a newspaper and the police to complain about the vandalism at his Chabad center. He wants to educate people.
"We have to be proud of who we are and explain who we are," he said.
"There's always going to be hate, but you're not living your life based on that hate. You're going to live your life stressing the beauty of the differences."
Attacks against Muslims increased dramatically after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Islamic Center of Conejo Valley was vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti a few months before the attacks and was hit again several months later.
Gennady Shtern, Anti-Defamation League director for a region that includes Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, contends the legacy of the Simi Valley beating on Monday will be the city's quick response that included four arrests.
"Obviously, the police can't control whether something like this happens. They can't control the actions of four individuals," he said.
"But one way of combating it is by educating kids that hate won't be tolerated."
Zaal, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, became what he termed a "Nazi punk" at the age of about 17. He later became regional director of operations, recruitment and propaganda for the White Aryan Resistance.
He renounced his beliefs about seven years ago and now preaches against hate through weekly talks at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
"Instead of having these hate glasses on, I took them off and started to see the world for what it really was," Zaal said.