Breaking the Skins
On March 24, 2003, neo-Nazi Skinhead leader Josh Fiedler sat regally on a sofa in the living room of his suburban Phoenix home.
Fiedler's Skinhead followers sprawled on the floor at his feet fondling pistols and slurping bottles of St. Pauli Girl while their charismatic fÃƒÂ¼hrer unwrapped a series of rather redundant birthday gifts -- pair after pair of Dickies workpants in black, red and khaki.
Fiedler's former girlfriend, Jessica Nelson, gazed up at him longingly. Once a Skinhead matriarch, Nelson got strung out on meth while Fiedler was in prison and had only recently been allowed to rejoin the crew.
Sean Gaines, Fiedler's intoxicated second-in-command whose rap sheet included a felony conviction for bashing a Latino man in the head with a tree branch, tried to give Fiedler his pistol.
Fiedler reached for it on instinct, paused, and then snapped his hand away as if he had been burned, laughing uproariously. The terms of Fiedler's parole mentioned something about avoiding firearms, and he wasn't ready to go back to prison yet.
Skinhead activity in the Phoenix area was on an upward spiral, as dramatically evidenced by a high-profile murder five months earlier, and Fiedler was one of the scene's rising stars, holding press conferences for television cameras, posing for the cover of the local alternative weekly and clearly delighting in his role as a celebrity Skinhead. He seemed to genuinely believe he was untouchable.
Fiedler joked with his crew that day about this being the first birthday he could remember that he wasn't celebrating behind bars.
One man was determined to make it his last.
Starsky and Hutch
"Do I know you?" a confused Josh Fiedler asked, squinting into the face of the detective cuffing him in front of his home several months later.
"Yeah, you do, you moron," responded Matt Browning, a Mesa detective who spent 10 years off and on working Arizona's white power circles -- and two years in an intensive undercover period that broke two major murder cases. Overall, Browning's work has wreaked havoc on Arizona's Skinhead scene.
Fiedler's arrest came more than a year after he led a home invasion of a family whom he robbed of jewelry, guns and two pounds of marijuana. It was a typically brutal Skinhead affair -- a disabled child was duct-taped to a chair while Fiedler and a cohort ransacked the home. Fiedler wore a ski mask, but he forgot to cover up a telltale tattoo on his neck and a piercing between his eyes showed through the mask. When police working the case contacted Browning, he knew right away who the culprit was -- the tattoo and piercing removed all doubt. As a result, Fiedler was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Browning's remarkable ability to insinuate himself into a particularly ugly and vicious segment of society has helped pull a number of suspected violent criminals off the street -- including eight accused murderers. His is an uncommon profession wrought with stress and danger. But Browning makes it look easy.
"There are very few detectives that take an interest in something, develop a passion for it and focus all their energy on it. Not many detectives are willing to invest the personal time," says Browning's sergeant Mike Ivey. "He's really a lightning rod for this stuff in this area." And a successful one at that. Out of the original 37 members and associates of Fiedler and his Skinhead crew that Browning collected intelligence on, 18 have been sentenced to prison, are in custody awaiting trial, or have been released after spending time in jail.
Of that group, seven were indicted on charges of capital murder. These were investigations that consumed Browning for more than two years, drawing him deeper into the violent world of Skinheads than he'd ever gone before.
Although Browning took satisfaction in the arrests, the toll undercover work has taken on him -- and still does -- is evident.
Phone calls and meetings with Skinheads inevitably disrupt weekends and holidays. The gun he carries with him constantly is a burden he yearns to put down.
One of his young sons sleeps with a kitchen knife under his pillow, terrified that his father's work may somehow harm him.
The gruesome details of the cases he works etch themselves into his brain, as does the knowledge that for every skin he puts in jail there will be another to take his place. His is a lonely road.
Charlie Fuller, founder of the 360-member Undercover Law Enforcement Officers Association and a former ATF agent for 23 years, estimates that only 2% of all law enforcement officers are involved in undercover operations, which he says are an invaluable tool but also the most dangerous part of police work. "Those guys go into very stressful situations on a daily basis," Fuller says. "People think it's like Starsky and Hutch. But it's nothing like that at all."
Joining the underworld
Now a muscular 6-foot, 4-inches with giant hands and steel blue eyes he uses to punctuate his sentences, Browning grew up in Phoenix playing football in high school and dreaming of becoming a forest ranger or a cop. He joined the Mesa Police Department 15 years ago, and it was through his work on the gang squad that he began to take an interest in political extremists.
As the only white member of an otherwise all-Hispanic squad working Latino street gangs, Browning had grown tired of being the guy who got to stay with the car. In 1996, of his own volition, Browning began looking into violent white supremacists.
"Initially, I was interested in the freemen and constitutionalists [parts of the militia movement that peaked in the mid-1990s]," Browning recalls. "As I started working the militia angle, I found out that a lot of the militia groups had Klan ties. So I joined the Klan." It was surprisingly easy.
"You know that stupid little Klan passport, that card you get from [Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard] Thom Robb? That got me all over the place. People look at that and they don't question it."
Browning also joined a series of neo-Nazi groups: Aryan Nations, National Alliance, Volksfront, and the World Church of the Creator.
In 1997, he was transferred from gangs to Mesa's intelligence unit.
"When I became intel, I devoted almost all my time to working these guys. If there was a meeting, I'd be there. When the National Alliance started in Phoenix, I was their No. 4 guy, and it got to where they wanted me to run the East Valley chapter." Browning declined the invitation.
He used an alias and told his targets that he was a business owner infuriated because Hispanics had stolen all of his equipment. Neither his story nor his identity was questioned. Not once.
"At that time, they were so hard up for people they didn't check anything out," Browning says. "Now, I would probably backstop everything. Now, they are sending people to polygraph school to check the new people coming in."
Browning admits he made a few mistakes along the way, like the time he brought Mexican beer to a white-power barbecue. "I'd been born and raised in Arizona, so I was thinking I would just get a case of Corona. I even got the little limes. That was bad," he says, shaking his head with wry amusement. "They saw it and looked at me and I said, 'You know what? I'll be right back.' I went and bought some Heineken."
Browning worked fugitives for the FBI from 2000 until 2002, but kept up his contacts as best he could, using the story that a friend of his had been killed in a car crash in Idaho, where he had gone to take care of the widow and children.
When his stint with the FBI was up, Browning decided to call Jerry Harbin, leader of the Phoenix unit of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, and try to reenter the scene. His timing was perfect. Harbin invited him to an Alliance meeting in Phoenix attended by a cast of characters that would make the unflappable Browning more nervous than any other situation in his 15-year career.
On a smoldering day in August 2002, Browning pulled into the lot of the La Quinta Inn in Phoenix. He knew he was in the right place -- parked nearby were a jacked-up Chevy Blazer with 44-inch mud tires, a primer-grey station wagon converted into a 4-by-4, and several other vehicles spray-painted with crude Iron Crosses.
Browning stepped out of his truck and walked across the lot to the spot where Harbin stood conversing with a half-dozen burly, tattooed Skinheads.
"Welcome back," Harbin said warmly as he embraced Browning.
After some perfunctory small talk, the group strode through the lobby doors, past slack-jawed receptionists, and on to a conference room set up with 50 or so chairs. Browning was lucky to get one of the last seats near the back. He took a moment to glance around the room, which quickly filled to standing room only with the most hard-core Skinheads he had ever seen.
Nerves set in.
"These were real skins, real violent people. They were bragging about beating people down," Browning recalls. Unlike armchair neo-Nazis who talk trash about other races but rarely take action, "these were guys who actually went on hunting trips. They actually would go and hunt and find their victims and beat the crap out of them."
Browning called his surveillance back-up team. He asked them to move in closer in case things went bad.
After a while, Jerry Harbin, clad in flip-flops and khaki shorts, took his place behind a podium draped with a National Alliance flag. He began the meeting by asking the participants to introduce themselves.
The Skinheads were all members of Josh Fiedler's Unit 88, and the names they rattled off would come to be very familiar to Browning over the next two years: Chris Whitley, Sammy Compton, Justin LaRue, Patrick Bearup and others Browning would eventually help put behind bars.
Harbin welcomed the skins with open arms. "Unit 88, we're glad you're here. You are the Skinhead arm of the National Alliance. You are the enforcer arm of the National Alliance," he told them.
"I don't have any problems with your tattoos, but if you go out and do things, cover up your tattoos so nobody can see them," Harbin cautioned. Harbin's Phoenix unit was preparing to host the new Alliance chairman, Erich Gliebe, at a summit, and Harbin wanted Unit 88, which would be acting as security for the event, to make a favorable impression.
Harbin, an avid thespian, seemed to channel Hitler as he launched into an inspired rant, waving his arms and throwing out German words as he spoke of sacrificing a pig on a hilltop as part of an Odinist ritual. He told the crowd of his efforts to promote the movement while working as a respiratory technician at Phoenix Children's Hospital, talking to the young children he encountered there about racist variants of Odinism and handing out tiny Thor's hammer pendants.
Browning's eyes swept the room as Harbin spoke, memorizing faces, taking note of allegiances and tattoos, the most blatant of which belonged to the young Skinhead seated directly in front of him, Chris Whitley, who had the word "CRACKER" inked on the back of his shaven head.
After the meeting, Harbin announced that William Worley, the Alliance's sergeant-at-arms -- a cage fighter who was also a convicted sex offender -- would be teaching a class on close-quarters combat for anyone interested.
Nearly all the Skinheads stayed.
Two months later, three of those Skinheads -- Whitley, Compton and LaRue -- allegedly would put their training to use. The brutality of that night still haunts Browning, whose work eventually helped piece together what happened.
Trouble at River City
It was on Oct. 16, 2002, that Cole Bailey Jr, a slight, white 20-year-old stopped by the River City pool hall in North Phoenix to drop off an employment application. After filling it out, he headed back into the street to wait for a taxi.
As Bailey came and went, according to witness statements and police reports, a group of Skinheads, including Unit 88 members Sammy Compton, Chris Whitley and Justin LaRue, had been inside playing pool and drinking while two of their girlfriends, Cassandra Woods and Kelly Coffman, looked on.
Soon enough, there was trouble -- bad trouble. Woods accused a young woman in the bar of flirting with Compton, her boyfriend. The two women began to fight.
When a bouncer stepped in, Compton, Whitley and others joined in the brawl, breaking a pool cue over the bouncer's back, knocking him to the ground and kicking him.
A female bartender was kicked in the head until the blood vessels in her eyes burst.
At one point, Whitley ripped off his shirt and screamed out his name and prison identification number. "Does anybody want a piece of me?" he roared.
Eventually, the bouncers got control of the skins and tossed them out of the pool hall. A few feet away, Cole Bailey was waiting for his ride.
Compton, jacked up on beer and adrenaline, goose-stepped around the parking lot yelling, "White power! White pride!" Bailey couldn't help but look.
"What the fuck are you looking at?" Compton bellowed.
"Nothing, I'm just waiting for a cab," Bailey replied.
Compton allegedly slammed Bailey between the eyes with a pair of brass knuckles. Bailey's glasses went flying and he crumpled to the ground. He struggled up and tried to run. But within seconds, the pack of Skinheads was on him.
They kicked him repeatedly, yelling, "Beat the nigger," as their steel-toed boots crushed his jaw, nose and eye sockets into the pavement.
The Skinheads fled. By the time a pool hall bouncer got to Bailey's side, the boy was so badly beaten that the man couldn't tell what race he was. Soon, Cole Bailey was dead.
Breaking the Bailey case
Skinheads had been relatively quiet in the area for years, and nobody in law enforcement outside Matt Browning had taken much of an interest in them.
But that October night, everything changed.
"The secret and key to working Skinheads is gathering intelligence, knowing who they are, what they drive, where they live and who they associate with," Browning says. The information Browning had been gathering was about to pay off.
Within hours of the Cole Bailey murder, Browning got a call from the Phoenix Police Department. "They asked me if I knew Chris Whitley and I said I did," Browning recalls. Whitley was "CRACKER," the Skinhead that Browning had sat behind at the National Alliance meeting in August.
That wasn't all he knew. Browning had met with Harbin just three days before the murder, and the Alliance leader had asked him to take over the Unit 88 crew. "Harbin told me I was to run the Skinheads through Whitley and Fiedler," Browning remembers.
"The Phoenix detectives asked me who are these guys, and I start giving them names. Then they asked me where I thought these guys might be," Browning says. "At this point, I could really think like a Skinhead: If I killed a person in North Phoenix, where would I go?"
He gave them the name and address of the home of a Skinhead in Apache Junction, far enough away, he reasoned, for them to feel safe. "Sure enough, after we caught one of the suspects and interviewed him, that's where they went. At that point, people started paying attention to what I had to say."
All three fugitives were eventually arrested. Browning played a central part in the investigation, but he can't talk about his role publicly until the charges are resolved in court. Whitley, Compton and LaRue could face the death penalty if they are convicted at trial later this year.
The Cole Bailey case and its incredible brutality riveted the Phoenix area as details unfolded in local news accounts. But it turned out that this wasn't the only murder case that went back to Josh Fiedler's Unit 88.
Butchers at work
Browning first heard stories about a body in the desert in June 2002, but it would be a year before he located the remains -- little more than a jawbone by then -- and several more months after that until he could make any arrests.
Browning can't talk about the details of this case, either, as it has yet to go to trial. But police records largely compiled by Browning spell out the authorities' allegations.
In early 2002, these records say, Jessica Nelson, Josh Fiedler's former girlfriend, was living with friends of Fiedler's while he was away in prison. They were Cecilia and Bruce Mathes and Bruce's brother, Mark.
In February 2002, eight months before the Cole Bailey murder, Nelson allegedly decided that Mark Mathes had stolen money from her purse. She called Sean Gaines and asked him to take care of the situation.
Gaines assembled a crew, including long-time Skinhead Patrick Bearup and a new initiate, or "freshcut," Jeremy Johnson. Police say the three reached the home that Jessica shared with Mathes around 10 at night, armed with a baseball bat, a shotgun and a large knife. In a prearranged setup, Mathes and Nelson were sitting in the backyard smoking, drinking beer and playing with their cats when the Skinheads rolled up. They quickly surrounded Mathes, according to the police account.
"You fucked up," Gaines said, pointing the 12-gauge at Mathes' head.
Gaines allegedly ordered Johnson to "take his legs out" with the baseball bat. Johnson swung at Mathes' knees, ankles and back. Nelson jumped in and punched him in the face.
With Mathes on the ground, police say, Gaines smashed his head with the butt of the shotgun until Mathes' screaming finally stopped.
Bearup dragged Mathes to the car Johnson had borrowed from his girlfriend and heaved him into the trunk. With Mathes moaning behind them, police say, Johnson and Gaines drove the car more than an hour north, to a remote area known as Swastika Mine. Bearup and Nelson followed in a separate car.
When they reached the mine, they stopped near an embankment. Johnson opened the trunk to find Mathes staring at him, gurgling from his injuries as he tried to speak.
Bearup and Nelson ripped the clothes from his body, police say. They used bolt cutters to cut off one of his fingers when they couldn't easily slide a ring Nelson fancied from his finger. Mathes screamed, but Gaines again silenced him with the butt of his shotgun. Then Gaines allegedly shot Mathes twice in the face. His lifeless body was thrown into a ravine.
It wasn't long before some of the Skinheads had bragged about the crime to friends. Jeremy Johnson -- who eventually confessed to police and agree to cooperate in the capital murder trial of his comrades -- told his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hall, what had happened that night. After all, it was her car he'd borrowed to transport the body.
Several months later, when Hall was no longer Johnson's girlfriend, she went to the police with her story. Quantities of Mathes' blood were recovered from her trunk.
Browning worked the case until the suspects' arrest in September 2003. He is expected to testify at their upcoming trial.
To Hunt the hunters
What gets to Browning is that no matter how many Skinheads he sends to jail, the problem seems to remain constant. He describes it as a never-ending circle.
"You have your main core group that you are working, you work them and all of a sudden, pow! You get them on charges and they go to prison. Because of the way the prison system works, they go in, become educated, become more versed in combating law enforcement, their beliefs become stronger. They come out and it's really still for a while and then it starts building up and building up and then your circle starts over again. Your core group is back out, just stronger, wiser and more and more violent than before."
After spending much of the last decade working undercover in white power groups, Browning has mixed emotions. "If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn't," he says in a moment of frustration.
But it's hard to believe him. Minutes later, Browning is talking with excitement about a project he started last year, the Skinhead Intelligence Network (SIN), a tri-state network composed of 60 law enforcement officers from Arizona, Nevada and Utah who meet on a regular basis to trade information on Skinheads. Browning hopes in the future to hold training seminars and take SIN national.
He wants to testify before Congress one day and lobby for stronger hate crime laws that would call for mandatory sentencing for those convicted of crimes committed because of the race, orientation or religion of the victim.
He says law enforcement needs to take Skinheads more seriously and look into using racketeering laws to take down entire organizations, as he had hoped to do in the Cole Bailey case.
"We started looking at RICO [the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act], but before we could use RICO on them, the NA guys got into a pissing match and pretty much destroyed the National Alliance before we could do it."
As he talks, his excitement and passion for his work is genuine, and the weight seems to lift from his shoulders. The stress, frustration and constant threat of violence that come with the job are things he is quite willing to shake off once he focuses back on his work. Browning seems to relish the challenge of beating Skinheads at their own game without ever really playing it, and he's full of advice, not discouragement, for those considering following a similar path.
"I think the most important thing to remember if you want to go undercover is do a lot of research," Browning says. "You can't go into a Skinhead meeting and say hey, I like your suspenders [the Skinhead term is braces]. They'll kick you out. Just like they will if you go into a Skinhead meeting wearing patrol-issued boots."
Learning to recognize things like white power tattoos is important, he says. And it's critical to earn the trust and respect of your targets -- just like it's important to choose the right targets.
"Skinheads are extremely easy to work once you get into it. There's that courting time, and you have to know who the players are and if the group you are getting into is worth the effort," Browning says. "Are they just a bunch of beer-drinking guys who wear a swazi [swastika] shirt now and then or are they the ones who are actually going out there and doing boot parties?"
Browning sits back and smiles.
"I want the boot party guys. I want to party with them. I want the guys who go on hunting trips and kill Mexican nationals and dump their bodies. That's who I want to go after."