Racist shooting spree ends in suicide
Tuesday 06 July 1999
The man, who died shortly afterwards, was identified yesterday as Benjamin Nathaniel Smith. Police said they believed Smith had been responsible for a string of attacks over a period of 48 hours, shooting Jews, blacks and Asians. Two of the victims died and another seven were injured.
"It looks like our guy," a spokesman for the FBI, Doug Garrison, said yesterday. The suicide brought to an abrupt end a weekend of increasing terror in the Midwest as the gunman carried out a series of drive-by shootings in a succession of cities and neighbourhoods.
Smith was a follower of a white supremacist group, the World Church of the Creator, which preaches hatred against non-whites.
Until May he was a student at Indiana University, where he was known for distributing racist literature on campus. One leaflet concluded: "Our people, the Great White Race, are slaves to a deceitful, alien government, a controlled media, and a suicidal religion."
Smith was seen late on Sunday near Salem, Illinois, driving a van he had apparently hijacked earlier. After leading police on a chase, he shot himself in the head before crashing the van. Police found weapons in the van that seemed to match those used in all of the weekend's shootings. They were able to identify him because of a tattoo on his chest that read: "Sabbath Breaker".
Even at the outset of the rampage, police warned that the shootings culd be racially motivated. It began on Friday evening, just as the Independence Day holiday was getting under way, in the Rogers Park neighbourhood of Chicago, an area with large numbers of Orthodox Jews. From his car, the gunman fired on groups of worshippers as they left synagogue, injuring two seriously.
Later the same evening, a black man was shot in the back and fatally wounded in Skokie, a Chicago suburb. He was Ricky Byrdsong, a former basketball coach at Northwestern University, who had been walking with two of his four children. They were unhurt.
From Chicago, Smith headed south. Two blacks were fired on in Springfield, Illinois, on Saturday but were not hurt. Later on Saturday, the gunmen shot at a group of six Asian students on a street corner in the university town of Urbana.
One suffered serious wounds to a leg.
Another man was fatally wounded outside a Korean church in Bloomington, Indiana, on Sunday morning. He was named as Won Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old doctoral student, who collapsed and died on the pavement outside the Korean United Methodist Church after being shot.
"I heard bang, bang, bang, bang," recalled the church's minister, Byunchill Hahn, who was preparing the Sunday morning service when the shots rang out.
Weeping, Mr Hahn went on: "I thought it was a firecracker for the Fourth of July." Another worshipper, Pyung Ho Kim, who had been walking with Mr Won, said: "How can you possibly imagine that kind of thing happening at the church?"
Police noted that Smith had personal links with almost every location on his 48-hour spree. He was from Chicago, attended university both in Urbana, about an hour south of Chicago and home to the University of Illinois, and more recently at the Indiana University in Bloomington.
At Indiana, Smith had contributed to the Indiana Daily Student, under the pen name August Smith.
An official of the Anti-Defamation League in the Midwest acknowledged yesterday that Smith had been under its scrutiny for some time, because of his affiliation to the World Church and his activities at Indiana University and a year earlier in Urbana. "He has been on our radar screen for quite some time," Harlan Loeb, a lawyer for the league, said. "That is particularly tragic for someone so young."
The leader of the World Church of the Creator, Matt Hale, conceded that Smith had been a member of the organisation until recently. But he denied that the church's teachings were an incitement to its followers to commit murder. Of Smith, he said: "When I spoke to him he never gave any inkling of being able to do this."
At Indiana University, the dean, Richard McKaig, remembered summoning Smith to his office earlier this spring to question him about the racist leaflets he had been handing out. "He was a very common type of student, nothing disturbing or unusual about him at that time. Not his dress or look, except for his racist views, which were pretty abhorrent," Mr McKaig said.
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