Self-proclaimed racist leader Matt Hale still says he wants to start a law practice in Montana, but he’s also applied for law licenses in Wyoming, Iowa and Ohio.
“I thought four states was better than one,” says Hale, head of the Illinois-based World Church of the Creator (WCOTC). “If those four don’t work, I’ll apply to four more.”
Hale, 29, has been hunting for a place to hang his shingle since 1999, when an Illinois panel denied his application to practice law there on moral fitness grounds. Hale says Montana is his first choice of venues, primarily because it has “the image and reputation of being a freer state.” Another Big Sky draw is Missoula resident Dan Hassett and Superior’s Slim Deardorff, active church members who help fuel the flames of hatred.
But Hale, a 1998 law school grad who has devoted his life to degrading and uprooting Jews and people of color, says the low percentage of minorities in Montana is a liability rather than an asset.
“Actually, it makes my job a little harder,” he says. “The states we have the most members in are the integrated states.”
While a State Bar of Montana panel recommended in February that Hale not be granted a law license here, reviews are still pending in the three other states, officials say. Hale is fighting the Montana recommendation and wants more details about the six acceptance guidelines bar leaders say he has violated. Lawsuits over the 1999 shooting spree carried out by former WCOTC member and Hale confidant Benjamin Smith are a prime concern.
Records show that Smith, whom Hale christened as the church’s 1998 “Creator of the Year,” testified as a character witness at one of Hale’s Illinois Bar hearings and was apparently enraged when officials there rejected Hale’s attorney application.
On the same day the announcement was made public, Smith, 21, launched a three-day, two-state sniper hunt that left former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong and Indiana University student Won Soon Yoon dead and nine others injured. Smith, who reportedly had the words “Sabbath Breaker” tattooed on his chest, committed suicide as police closed in.
“I think it motivated him,” Hale says of the law-license decision. “He wanted to go to law school. I surmised that when he saw what was happening to me, it kind of crushed his dream.”
In response, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Hale and his church on behalf of a black preacher injured by Smith. The suit alleges that Hale encouraged and conspired with Smith to “commit wholesale acts of genocidal violence” against Jews, African-Americans, Asians and other ethnic groups.
In a separate lawsuit, an attorney for two Jewish teens shot at by Smith claims he has proof that Hale ordered the shootings. Hale adamantly denies the allegations and contends the “evidence” in both cases comes from a disgruntled former WCOTC member who’s been offered rewards for his testimony.
“Obviously, we don’t condone what [Smith] did,” Hale says. “The idea that I would set someone off to do these crimes and then kill themselves is personally offensive to me. I didn’t feel responsible then, and I don’t feel responsible now. We were close, but of course we weren’t close enough for me to know that he’d do that. I didn’t see anything building up in him to do such things.”
Nonetheless, Hale acknowledges that he issued a public warning that violence could erupt if the Illinois law license wasn’t approved. He says now, however, that the warning, which was noted by Illinois bar officials in their report, was not directly related to Smith’s reign of gunfire.
“The less rights people have, the more desperate they get,” Hale explains, adding that he’d hoped to instill “calm” among his followers after the Illinois decision was made. “It’s kind of like in China. If someone can’t speak, they might become violent. When free speech ends, violence often times does begin.”
Hale also says he got a letter from Smith that was apparently mailed on the first day of the shootings. The letter details Smith’s reasons for leaving WCOTC, primarily because his beliefs no longer fit with the church’s public stance against violence.
“I wish he hadn’t done it,” Hale says. “But in essence what he did was amoral,” meaning the racial shootings were neither right or wrong in the church’s view. The biggest impact, Hale explains, is that WCOTC lost a revered member who gave his life for the cause.
“I must say we’d rather see Ben Smith alive,” Hale says. “We don’t want to see white people go that route. Trading Ben Smith for two non-whites was not a good trade.”
While Hale spouts the doctrine of non-violence on one side, the line quickly blurs when talk turns to interracial marriage and other color-button topics.
“I think race mixing is a crime,” he says. “We do feel that one day, marrying outside of one’s race should be illegal, punishable by death.” He’s also recently escalated rhetoric about Jews, calling them “parasites” and saying they may need to be “swatted” unless they decide to leave on their own.
“I think the [Smith shooting] incident helped bolster the organization’s image as a violent organization,” observes Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, a Chicago nonprofit that tracks hate groups. “Hale is kind of the bottom feeder of the movement, attracting the lowest elements.”
“I make a lot of people think, and that’s good,” Hale counters. “Every time I’m denied a law license, I get more support. That just makes our cause stronger.”