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Will Gun-Toting Vigilante Get the Justice He Deserves?

Cochise County, Ariz. -- Crouching low, Ronald Morales and his 11-year-old daughter moved quietly and quickly, hoping to escape detection. Stealth was vital as they crept around the boulders and scrub brush that clutter the Sonora desert just north of the Mexican border.

It was Oct. 30, 2004. Morales, a 37-year-old Department of Defense employee, was deer hunting with his father, Arturo, and three little girls: his daughter, Vanese, who was then 11, her little sister Angelique, 9, and Emma English, a friend who was also 11. All were Mexican-Americans -- U.S. citizens since birth.

The way Ron Morales tells the story, around 4 p.m. he and his eldest daughter left the rest of the party at his truck to stalk a buck they had spotted.

Vanese had the deer in her crosshairs when the sound of a distant ruckus in the direction of the truck alarmed her father. Morales took the rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and they hurried back.

They arrived to find another truck parked near their own. Next to it, Morales says, an angry white man with a pistol strapped to his side paced back and forth, shouting obscenities. "You're fucking trespassing! You guys need to get the fuck out of here!"

"I have a hunter's permit, I have a map," Morales protested as he walked to his vehicle, set down his rifle, grabbed a Bureau of Land Management map, and tried to reason with the man.

Morales, a Navy veteran, says he addressed him as "sir" and asked his name. The man reached in the cab of his truck, yanked out an AR-15 assault rifle, and gave Morales his answer.

"My fucking name is Roger Barnett! If you don't get off my property, I'm gonna shoot you and shoot you and shoot you!"

Then, Morales says, Barnett chambered a round and pointed his weapon at Morales' chest.

The clash

Two years later, Ron Morales and Roger Barnett met again, two men sitting stoically at opposite ends of Judge James Conlogue's stark courtroom in Cochise County, which ends at the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona. Outside, November winds whipped the streets with impunity.

It was to be a momentous confrontation, probably the most dramatic yet seen between anti-immigration hard-liners and those who oppose them. Closely watched by reporters and other observers from near and far, the clash would unfold at ground zero of the increasingly virulent battle over illegal immigration.

More people trudge across this ruggedly beautiful part of Sonoran Desert, which stretches from Mexico north into Arizona, than any other section of the 2,000-mile-long border. It is here that Roger Barnett brought national attention to the immigration situation with his loud and public complaints about illegal migrants who trespass on his sprawling ranch. It is also here that Barnett, a man who boasts of having personally apprehended 12,000 border-crossers, effectively sired the entire citizen's border patrol movement -- a movement once characterized as "vigilante" by President Bush, a Texan intimately familiar with the borderlands.

A rancher since 1996, Barnett's a swaggering, silver-haired, ruddy-faced product of the desert sun whose militant reputation -- like the vigilante movement he inspired -- stretches far beyond Cochise County.

"Humans, the greatest prey on earth," Roger Barnett told a reporter from London's Independent in May of 2000, six months after he was photographed for Time magazine brandishing an M-16 -- and a full 16 months before Chris Simcox would leave his California kindergarten classroom to form the Arizona militia that would eventually become the Minutemen, now the best-known citizen group to carry weapons to the border in an effort to halt illegal immigration.

"A vigilante goes out, rounds up people, holds a trial and executes them. I haven't done that yet," Barnett told USA Today that same year. "But bloodshed could happen."

Failure to prosecute

While there's no hard evidence Barnett has drawn blood, reports of Barnett and his brother Donald holding illegal immigrants at gunpoint, chasing them on ATVs, and using their dogs to intimidate and attack, have trickled into the Cochise County Sheriff's Office for years. Four months before the Morales incident, for instance, a group of immigrants reported that Barnett held them at gunpoint, yanked a woman by her hair and stuck a pistol in her ribs. Another member of the group said the rancher threw him over the front rack of his ATV and sicced a dog on them.

Yet Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer has repeatedly declined to file criminal charges against the wealthy, gun-toting rancher, stating that Barnett is well within his rights to use the threat of deadly force to prevent or terminate a criminal trespass. "We try to avoid getting caught in the middle of political issues," Rheinheimer said. "If Roger Barnett crosses the line and we get a prosecutable case, we won't hesitate to prosecute him." Even if that's true, the local atmosphere is hardly conducive to such a prosecution.

"Cochise County is very conservative, one of the most conservative areas of Arizona," Morales attorney Jesus Romo Vejar told the Intelligence Report. "Barnett has a great number of people who are of like mind here. There are a lot of people who support his ideas and the way he acts."

Still, as the complaints against Barnett have mounted, so has the frustration of civil rights activists and others in Cochise County who see the lack of criminal prosecution as an official endorsement of Barnett's actions. And so Vejar and his clients finally decided to take it upon themselves to seek justice through civil litigation, hoping that a victory could become the first crack in the dam of official reluctance to take on the vigilantes. Last fall, they filed a case against Barnett with the advice and financial assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center (which publishes the Intelligence Report), accusing him of assault, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They sought $200,000 in damages.

Vejar knew full well the odds were against him, even though this time, unlike others, Barnett had threatened U.S. citizens. Vejar had lost another civil case against Barnett in the same courtroom just months before, and in this trial was facing a nearly all-white jury drawn from a county that is 30% Latino.

"It's like trying a case in Mississippi in the '60s," he said with a weary smile.

Here comes the judge

When Judge Conlogue calls for opening arguments, Vejar flips through a small stack of index cards before turning to face the jury. His manner is quiet, simple and methodical. Tall and balding, with bronze skin, warm eyes and a goatee, he looks like a chemistry professor and speaks with a marked accent.

"On Oct. 30, 2004, lives changed drastically for my clients," he explains to the jury as he begins to walk them through the details of what happened when three little girls encountered Roger Barnett "screaming obscenities that no child should hear, his face twitching, wearing a sidearm."

Vejar is less flashy than determined. He closes by simply telling the jurors, "I ask you for justice."

Barnett's attorney John Kelliher, wearing a pinstriped suit and stroking his own goatee, presents his client as a local boy who grew up in Bisbee before becoming a rancher, eventually purchasing and leasing 22,000 acres of ranch land. Throughout the trial, Kelliher will attempt to keep the focus on the issues of trespassing and property rights, rather than Barnett's controversial reputation and willingness to engage in armed confrontations.

"I don't doubt that there were words spoken. There were people holding guns, people trespassing," Kelliher tells the jury. "What I do doubt is whether this man, Roger Barnett, threatened to kill anyone."

Vejar's first witness is Arturo Morales, a nervous grandfather wearing a maroon and white shirt printed with horse silhouettes.

"The only things [words] he used was profanity, threats, that I need to get off his fu -- his fucking ranch. Just looking at his face was enough to scare me."

Barnett nonchalantly chews on his glasses and lets his fingers wander over his constantly twitching face as the old man details his version of events. Arturo testifies that Barnett was "wild" and ordered him to "get the fuck out of here or I'm going to start shooting!"

Kelliher's cross-examination of Arturo is aggressive. "You say it has changed your life, was devastating, and yet you have sought no emotional or psychological help?"

Arturo concedes he has not.

Kelliher also gets Arturo to admit that he was cited for illegally hunting on Barnett's land more than a year before the confrontation in 2004.

The attorney reads from the older man's deposition slowly and haltingly, emphasizing Arturo's grammatical errors.

Kelliher picks apart inconsistencies in Arturo's statements about who was standing exactly where during the encounter, trying to impeach his credibility. Arturo is quickly confused, and Kelliher seems to delight in tripping him up on details.

Finally, Arturo Morales is dismissed from the stand and the judge declares a recess. Roger Barnett remains in the courtroom and jovially greets a supporter in the audience. A polarizing figure in this area, Barnett has as many fans in Cochise County as he does critics.

"This isn't a border issue, it's a constitution issue," Barnett, who leases government lands in addition to his own, explains to his friend as they shake hands. "I gotta watch that state property carefully because I'm a caretaker."

Barnett bends over and speaks with another friend who comments on the ethnic makeup of the jury, especially the lone Latino. "Yeah, there were three of 'em yesterday," Barnett says with a grin. "They dumped two."

Innocence lost

The jury returns from recess and Vejar calls Ana English, an attractive Latina dressed in dark slacks and a creamy white sweater whose daughter, Emma, was with the Moraleses that day.

"[Roger Barnett] took part of her innocence away, he taught her what evil is, because that is evil, to traumatize a child for the rest of her life," Ana says angrily. "People need to know what he's doing. It's not just illegals anymore, it's little kids and they're U.S. citizens."

Kelliher spends much of his cross-examination attacking Ana's parenting skills. "If you had known Arturo and Ron Morales were going to take your daughter to Roger Barnett's ranch, would you have let her go?" Kelliher asks.

Ana's reply is firm: "I know that Ron and his father would not put my daughter in danger on purpose."

He then asks repeatedly if Ana has hired a counselor for her daughter. She answers each time that she has not, then finally erupts: "If you're trying to say I'm a bad parent because I haven't taken this child to counseling, you're wrong!"

"I'm suggesting," Kelliher says, "that a reasonable parent would have taken their child to counseling."

Kelliher's bullying strategy appears to backfire. Several members of the jury glare at him with open contempt.

Vejar calls Tucson psychiatrist Hector Barillas, who addresses the jury in a gravely voice. Barillas walks the jury through a definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms required for a diagnosis, and how they manifested in each of the three girls.

It's a lengthy bit of testimony, and as Barillas talks, Kelliher plainly demonstrates his impatience. He fidgets and paces, hops on one foot, scratches his head against the plaster on a wall, and continuously smoothes his mustache.

This frustration spills over into Kelliher's cross-examination of Barillas, whom he criticizes for describing Barnett as a vigilante in his report. He asks Barillas whether such a description is crucial to diagnosing PTSD.

"I don't know if it's crucial but it is consistent with somebody accosting someone with an automatic rifle," Barillas replies.

Vejar next calls Deputy Timothy Williams, a tall, hefty cop whose sunglasses have left tan lines on his face. Vejar asks Williams, who responded to Ron Morales's 911 call, to read aloud the criminal charges he officially recommended that prosecutors bring against Barnett: "Three counts of aggravated assault, a Class 2 felony, two counts of Class 3 aggravated assault, three counts of Class 6 aggravated assault, five misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, and five misdemeanor counts of threatening and intimidation."

Not a single charge was ever filed.

'Dirty Mexicans!'

Before the children take the stand, Roger Barnett and his wife leave the courtroom. Kelliher stresses that they volunteered to do so as a courtesy.

Of the three girls who testify, Emma English, now 13, is the most articulate and polished. The emotional eighth-grader tells the jury that Roger Barnett "started getting really red, his whole body started twitching, 'You better get the fuck off my land, you fucking dirty Mexicans!'"

Barnett backers in the courtroom scoff loudly at the girl's tearful statements.

Later, the testimony of both Morales girls is strikingly similar to Emma's. Vanese and Angelique both cite Barnett's red-faced rage, his twitching, and their fear that he would kill them.

"I don't want Barnett doing this to anyone else," Vanese says solemnly. "I don't want him hurting anyone else."

Renee Morales, a smiley stay-at-home mom with straight black hair, takes the stand and talks about watching Angelique play the video game Big Game Hunter and pretending she was killing Barnett instead of the deer, calling out "Die, Barnett, die!" as she pulled the trigger.

"My daughter wants somebody dead? But this is a child, and you have to put yourself in a child's mindset. If he's not here, she's safe, and until that happens she's not safe."

Renee then turns away from the jury and fixes her gaze squarely on Roger Barnett, addressing him directly. The courtroom goes silent.

"I'm not asking this to hurt you or punish you," she tells him. "We're asking you to take responsibility for what you did. What did those children do to you, Mr. Barnett?"

Previous encounters

When the trial shifts into the defense phase, Kelliher continues to counter high-pitched emotions with cold facts. He's pitting property rights against civil rights, which he hopes will go over well in a conservative county where many view Barnett as a hero.

Kelliher begins the defense's case with a videotaped deposition from an Arizona Game and Fish regional supervisor, who testifies that it's illegal to cross private property to gain access to state land.

He brings in a surveyor who uses maps to show that for the Morales party to access the site of the confrontation, they had to cross private land owned by Roger Barnett, which Ron Morales admits he did.

Then Kelliher calls Donald Barnett, Roger's younger, more dapper brother. Donald, a former sheriff's deputy who resigned after beating a prisoner, paints the Moraleses as sneaky and threatening. He testifies that when he first spotted Ron and Vanese in the brush, "What caught my attention is that they were running in a crouched position, running to hide behind a bush."

Donald then describes a previous encounter on the ranch with Arturo: "They had killed and were cleaning some deer. I asked who they were and they said none of my business. He became very angry and lunged at me with a hunting knife."

"Objection!" Romo Vejar says angrily.

"Sustained," replies the judge, who then orders the jury to disregard the unsubstantiated comment about the knife.

Roger Barnett, also a former sheriff's deputy, follows his brother to the stand. He looks at ease. Barnett, who lives in Sierra Vista, testifies that he goes "sightseeing" at his nearby ranch every weekend with his wife, his brother, and their dogs.

Barnett says that when he confronted Arturo Morales, he told the old man to start honking his horn to draw in the others that Donald had spotted in the brush. When Ron Morales and his elder daughter returned, Barnett testifies, Morales was carrying a rifle and arguing over their location, insisting that Barnett look at a map.

"I told him, 'Just get the fuck out.' There needed to be a shock factor," Barnett says.

At that point, according to Barnett, Ron Morales turned and looked at him. "And that didn't look right. I go, 'Looks like we might get shot here.' I felt threatened."

The rule of law

Barnett tells the jury he was also concerned that Arturo Morales might sneak around the corner of the truck with a gun. Fearing for his own safety, Barnett says, he grabbed his AR-15 out of the cab of his truck and chambered a round. After that, he says, Ron Morales "didn't jawbone no more. He told his people to get in the truck."

Kelliher asks his client if he used any racial slurs during the encounter. "That's a flat-out lie," Barnett says.

Kelliher asks if he is a white supremacist.

"No," Barnett says.

"Do you have a dislike for any particular race?" Kelliher persists. "No," he answers again.

"Do you like people trespassing on your property?"

"Another no."

Finally, Barnett tries one last time to assert that he was afraid for his life and property. "I was seeing the way he [Ron Morales] looked, and when he turned around I thought, 'Boy, this is it. We're gonna get shot.'"

Barbara Barnett is the last defense witness. An elegant woman in her late 50s who favors tunics in bold patterns, Roger Barnett's wife says she was much too frightened by Ron Morales to even get out of the truck that day. "I was so afraid to say anything," she says. "I thought this crazy man is going to kill us right in front of these little girls and he just doesn't care!"

During closing arguments, Vejar quickly recaps his case, stressing the image of Barnett pointing a combat rifle at children, and the symbolic importance of a verdict against him.

"John Adams said a free people should be governed by law, not the whim of man," he tells the jury. "Roger Barnett is dependent on a system that consistently favors him, not because he's right, but because he's Roger Barnett."

Kelliher's closing is more relaxed. He explains to the jury that "this is about access," a point he has reiterated throughout the trial. "A landowner has a right to use reasonable force to eject trespassers." He points out Morales admitted to crossing Barnett's land, and he questions the sincerity of the children's testimony, which wavered in some respects from their original written statements. The girls had no reason to fabricate or embellish their original witness statements, Kelliher points out, "but they do now, when they've got their parents talking to them for the past two years."

"Somebody wants to make this an immigration issue," he concludes. "I sure don't."

The Verdict

With 15 counts to weigh, the jury begins deliberations. Ed English and Ron Morales head down to a café to wait. Roger Barnett and his wife remain in the courtroom. Camera crews hover outside.

When the jury files back into the courtroom after just three hours of deliberation, the plaintiffs are stiff in their chairs. An ashen Ron Morales seems to stop breathing entirely as the jury foreman rises to read the verdicts, one by one.

The jury finds for the plaintiffs on 14 of 15 counts, and orders Barnett to pay the Morales and English families nearly $99,000.

Kelliher and his clients leave the courthouse swiftly, refusing to comment. He also declined to reply to a later letter from the Intelligence Report requesting an interview.

Ron Morales appears stunned, pacing back and forth to one side of the courthouse door and whispering, "Thank God, thank God, thank God." Romo Vejar expresses his satisfaction to reporters and television cameras, calling the verdict a "landmark decision," and calling on County Attorney Rheinheimer to reconsider filing criminal charges against Barnett.

A few days later Rheinheimer tells the Bisbee Herald-Review, "It's obvious that the civil jury saw something, and so we're going to take a good look at the jury's findings."

Three months later, Rheinheimer still has not filed a single criminal charge against Roger Barnett.

The heat goes on

The civil verdict was hailed by civil and immigrant rights organizations around the United States and reported in newspapers from coast to coast. Without question, it represented a gleam of hope to those in Arizona, in particular, who feel vigilantes and vigilantism have been allowed to run roughshod over the rule of law and basic humanity. But, at the end of the day, it was only a civil verdict.

Local support for Barnett galvanized in the trial's aftermath and seemed to grow even stronger with passing weeks. "I think most of the people of Cochise County support Roger Barnett in principle, as far as rightfully protecting his family and property from the invasion of illegal immigrants," read one of many pro-Barnett comments published in the Bisbee Herald-Review after the trial. "My personal thanks to the Barnetts and Mr. Kelliher for standing up for us all."

At the same time, prosecutors like Andrew Thomas in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, continue to decline similar prosecutions -- and are even now charging illegal immigrants with conspiracy, a novel legal construction, for conspiring to smuggle themselves. The first months of 2007 were marked by several murders of border crossers, and although authorities continue to attribute such deaths to human- and drug-smuggling disputes, suspicions are mounting that some immigrant-bashers may actually be murdering people.

Meanwhile, the Roger Barnett story goes on.

Last Dec. 30, five weeks after the verdict, Barnett got into a heated confrontation with paramedics attempting to administer medical aid to an injured Mexican who Border Patrol agents had just arrested on Barnett's land.

The man, who was carrying a backpack full of marijuana, told sheriff's deputies that Barnett had set three dogs on him and that he ran, fell, and injured his knee. He also said he was diabetic and hadn't eaten in three days.

The EMTs had just put him in the back of the ambulance when Barnett flagged them down and demanded they let him inside to look at the man's shoes to see if he was the same person Barnett had been tracking earlier in the day. When the paramedics refused, Barnett, who was armed with a pistol, became abusive, according a criminal complaint EMT Robert Vega filed with the Cochise County Sheriff's Department.

According to the deputy assigned to the case, Barnett stated the EMTs were "fuckin' lying" and claimed that the encounter, as they described it, "never happened." He also refused to give his own account of what happened.

Two months later, Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer, citing a lack of evidence, officially declined to press charges.

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 führer 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."

'Welcome back'

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.

Murder 101

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."

Meet the Nativists

The Intelligence Report is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of them says he'd like to bring nuclear weapons to the border. Another vows to stop the alleged Mexican invasion of Idaho. Several have links to white supremacist hate groups; others are given to dire warnings of horrible diseases, "barbaric" practices, and secret Latino conspiracies to "reconquer" the American Southwest. These are the nativists -- the new crop of activists who are driving the movement that exploded last spring with the Minuteman Project in Arizona, a monthlong effort by armed civilians to seal the border with Mexico.

Along with a whole array of media enablers, they have barged into the nation's consciousness with remarkable success. Some of them, like Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist, have made attempts to win high political office.

Others have contented themselves with trying to build a mass movement. Not all those who have joined the movement are extremists -- many are legitimately concerned about the ability of the nation to absorb large numbers of immigrants, particularly the undocumented. But one thing seems clear: A dangerous mix of nativist intolerance, armed and untrained civilians, and wild-eyed conspiracy theories could easily explode into violence.

The following are three profiles taken from the Intelligence Report's comprehensive review of nativist leaders in America.

Rep. Tom Tancredo
Littleton, Colo.

As the face of the anti-immigration movement in Congress, Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo has enraged countless members of his own party. In 2002, presidential advisor Karl Rove, angered at Tancredo's attacks on President Bush's approach to immigration, told him "never to darken the door of the White House again." Last April, after Bush called armed anti-immigration Minutemen patrolling the Arizona border "vigilantes," Tancredo told the Minutemen that Bush should have to write an apology on a blackboard 100 times, then erase the chalk with his tongue. More recently still, Tancredo endorsed three primary challengers to his Republican House colleagues and even, in California, a Democratic candidate.

None of this seems to bother the man who started the hard-line Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus in 1999. In fact, he has gone from what many consider one outrageous action to another. Campaigning for a Senate candidate in Illinois, he warned that illegal immigrants are "coming here to kill you and to kill me and our families." When a Denver newspaper ran a sympathetic article describing the plight of a high school valedictorian whose family was undocumented, Tancredo sought to have the family found and deported. In a discussion with a radio talk show host last July, he suggested that the United States should "take out" Mecca and other Islamic holy sites if the country is hit by a major terrorist attack launched by Muslims.

Because of his outrageous rhetoric and hard-line views, Tancredo is seen in heroic terms in the anti-immigration world. Barbara Coe, who heads one hate group and belongs to another, says Tancredo is a "gold-plated, card-carrying patriot." Angela "Bay" Buchanan, a hard-right activist, thinks he should run for president. Tancredo received a hero's welcome when he keynoted at an anti-immigration conference attended by 400 activists last Memorial Day weekend.

Tancredo often doesn't sound much different than the activists who spread fears about a supposed secret Mexican plot to reconquer the Southwest. "China is trying to export people," he told one anti-immigration group. "It's a policy for them, a way of extending their hegemony. It's a government-sponsored thing."

Jim Gilchrist
Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Less than a year ago, Jim Gilchrist's vision of the future was plainly apocalyptic. The country, he predicted to one newspaper reporter, will have "100 tribes with 100 languages," a situation from which "mayhem" will result. "I see neighborhood armies of 20 to 40 going out and killing and invading one another," he said. Too many immigrants, he added, could even result in a full-scale civil war -- a situation he suggested might be avoided by inciting a revolution in Mexico.

"Illegal immigrants will destroy this country," Gilchrist said last May. "Every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil, it is a declaration of war." By late August, Gilchrist wasn't talking like that any more.

Of course, by then he was a candidate for Congress from Southern California, where he lives with his wife and their dogs in the small city of Aliso Viejo. Gone was the rhetoric about civil war and private armies and immigrants who are legal. In fact, Gilchrist began to carefully enunciate support for legal immigrants.

It isn't the first time Gilchrist has changed his tune. He started out as a registered Democrat, then became a Republican. In 2003, he backed a candidate of the Green Party, America's largest left-wing political party. But now, Gilchrist is running in the 48th Congressional District on the ticket of the American Independent Party (AIP), the organization founded by former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a racist who promised from the steps of the Alabama Capitol to defend segregation "forever."

(Today, AIP's platform does not mention race. Affiliated with the far-right Constitution Party, the AIP is notable for its anti-government stance.)

Gilchrist, a retired accountant, is running, essentially, on a single credential: the fact that he is co-founder, along with Chris Simcox, of the Minutemen, a group of people who have tried to seal the Mexican border with paramilitary citizen patrols. Few analysts believe he has a chance, although he may do reasonably well.

Gilchrist, conceding that Gov. Wallace "was probably a bigot," insists he is no racist. But he is a close friend of Barbara Coe, who routinely describes Mexicans as "savages" and recently said she was a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a hate group that opposes "race-mixing." Gilchrist also is a member of Coe's California Coalition for Immigration Reform, another hate group.

Glenn Spencer
Cochise County, Ariz.

If there were a Paul Revere of the anti-immigration movement, it would be Glenn Spencer, a vitriolic Mexican-basher who may have done more than anyone to spread the myth of a secret Mexican conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest. The so-called reconquista, an alleged plot to turn several American states into a Mexican state or some kind of puppet government controlled by Mexico, has been a top concern for Spencer for years. Back in 1999, he put it like this: "The consul general says Mexico is reconquering California. A Mexican intellectual suggests that anyone who doesn't like Mexicans should leave California. What else do you need to hear? RECONQUISTA IS REAL. … EVERY ILLEGAL ALIEN IN OUR NATION MUST BE DEPORTED IMMEDIATELY. … IF WE CAN BOMB THE TV STATION IN BELGRADE [in the former Yugoslavia], WE CAN SHUT DOWN [U.S. Spanish-language stations] TELEMUNDO AND UNIVISION."

Spencer got involved in the anti-immigration movement in 1992, when he formed Voice of Citizens Together, also known as American Patrol, in California. In 2002, saying the battle was lost in that state, he moved to the "front lines" of the Arizona border, where he formed American Border Patrol. He was one of the first to call for border citizens' patrols and pioneered the use of surveillance technology.

He also was one of the first well-known anti-immigration activists to more or less openly court white supremacists and anti-Semites. He has attended conferences of American Renaissance magazine, which specializes in racist theories about blacks and others. He interviewed the magazine's editor, Jared Taylor, on his syndicated radio show. Another guest was Kevin MacDonald, a California State University, Long Beach professor, who is the architect of an elaborate anti-Semitic theory dressed up as evolutionary biology.

Just this September, Spencer promoted on his website a booklet published by Taylor called "The Color of Crime." The booklet is a "relentlessly factual" study that alleges that blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be criminals. It also falsely alleges people of color commit vastly more hate crimes than others. Sometimes Spencer's racial paranoia seems to get the better of him. One night in 2003, thinking he was hearing noises outside his Sierra Vista, Ariz., home, he grabbed a gun and started shooting into the dark. He managed to hit a neighbor's garage, among other things, and was charged with four felonies. But charges like that have a habit of going away in Southeastern Arizona. In Spencer's case, his felony charges were reduced to one misdemeanor. He was fined $2,500 and given a year's probation. His lease was also terminated, and he was forced to move away, taking up residence in a trailer in unincorporated Cochise County.
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