Perez runs the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which is leading an inquiry (in concert with the FBI) into the tragic shooting of the black teen from Miami. If the state attorney's office in Florida declines to file charges against the gun-wielding George Zimmerman—the beneficiary of questionable police work and broad firearm and self-defense regulations—Perez and his colleagues in Washington could step in and file any number of charges, including police misconduct or even a hate crime.
It should come as a relief to Martin’s family that Perez is on the case; there are few lawyers in the nation better suited to manage an investigation of this nature. Since taking over the politicized and demoralized Civil Rights division in 2009, Perez has reinvigorated what Eric Holder once called the “the conscience of the Justice Department,” enforcing loads of civil rights laws intentionally ignored by the Bush administration. And as a young prosecutor working in the department he now leads, the Buffalo native racked up several high-profile convictions in cases targeting shady cops and white supremacists, including the arrest in 1994 of three Lubbock men who attempted to launch a “race war” by luring African-American locals to their car and firing a shotgun at them from a short distance, killing one and injuring two others.
Martin’s murder isn’t the only racially-motivated shooting Perez is currently investigating, either. Less than 30 days ago, his staff issued a fresh series of indictments in a notorious 13-year-old cold case, a double-murder described by a Las Vegas homicide detective at the time as "one of the more heinous crimes” his wicked city had ever experienced (Las Vegas Review-Journal, January 11, 2001). It’s a heart-wrenching story about skinheads, anti-racist activism, and two charismatic young men taken well before their time. Tabling the obvious fact that the states’ suspects are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, let’s revisit this fascinating and newly-relevant massacre.
To understand the context in which the crime was committed, it helps to detour briefly into the history of skinheads, a complex and misunderstood British subculture that arose in the late 1960s. A multiracial appendage of the mod scene, the original skinheads were not outwardly racist; in fact, they patterned their style off of Jamaican ska and reggae singers, which many had grown familiar with while working next to Caribbean immigrants on London’s docks. The look was distinctive: shaved heads, piercings, workers' boots (often Doc Martens), suspenders, tight jeans. Unwavering working-class pride, along with a modest disdain for “feminine” hippies, was the only major requirement for joining in.
That all changed in the mid-1970s, when England’s economy stumbled at the same time as immigration from its former colonies intensified. The meager job prospects of young white bulldogs proved a handy recruiting tool for white supremacists, who added a swastika armband to the unofficial skinhead uniform and set about expanding their ranks. "They take our jobs and our homes," one representative neo-Nazi told People in 1981. "If they went back where they came from, look at the opportunities there would be for us."
Suddenly, skinheads were divided into rival camps — anti-racist and racist, SHARPs and “boneheads.” When the movement migrated to the United States 30 years ago, the split remained intact. To be sure, only a tiny portion of the population identified with either strand; by 1998, an expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center pegged the total number of racist skinheads in the States at 4,000. (Don Terry, reporting for the New York Times in 1998, joked that “there are probably more Elvis impersonators [in Las Vegas] than skinheads.”*) Even fewer took up the anti-racist mantle. Yet the animosity between the two groups was real, and violence —vandalism, bullying, street fights—erupted with troubling frequency. In Las Vegas, young Nazis often congregated outside of Durango High School, where they reportedly beat black and Mexican classmates with bats and screamed "race traitor" at white pupils who didn’t share a similar sensibility about fashion or politics.
In 1998, the city’s most popular skinheads were Daniel Shersty and Lin Newborn, best friends and co-founders of the Las Vegas chapter of Anti-Racist Action. Neither had a bigoted bone in his body. Shersty was an “All-American” boy; before enlisting in the Air Force to earn money for college, the handsome Floridian played trumpet in the school band and started on the varsity lacrosse team. His true passion, though, was acting, and he broadcast his love of the theater by tattooing on his left shoulder the masks of comedy and tragedy, one black and the other white. Newborn, called “Spit” by just about everyone, was a few years older than Daniel and the father of a two-year-old son. He was also one of the only black skinheads in the country, a man steeped in the history of the movement’s inclusive origins. An employee at a body-piercing shop, he maintained a reputation as a responsible and thoughtful guy. One police officer who patrolled the neighborhood where Newborn worked called Spit “a super-nice kid,'' who was “looked up to by the kids in the area.” That included Shersty, who met Newborn after arriving for duty at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
The twosome bonded immediately over music and their attraction to pretty girls with nose rings, and they organized the nascent ARA chapter by appealing to working-class kids in search of a like-minded community of peers. “We pay our bills, and we don't do drugs. We drink, but we don't drink and drive,” one member told the Review-Journal on July 7, 1998. “We look out for each other." An old friend of Shersty told the Orlando Weekly’s Lynda Edwards that his activism “filled an intellectual thirst in him, and much more.” It also left the pair vulnerable to abuse. In 1996, Newborn’s house was shot at by unknown assailants after he delivered a speech at a gathering of SHARPs. In June 1998, Shersty’s car windows were smashed and a stack of ARA brochures left inside were “methodically torn to confetti” (Orlando Weekly). Both received harassing telephone calls. The message was clear: they were being watched.
Neither were too concerned with their personal safety when two blond women walked into Newborn’s parlor on July 3, 1998 and asked for navel piercings. Shersty was coincidentally visiting his friend that day, and the foursome joked and flirted while Newborn completed his work. The ladies, as it turned out, were on their way to a Fourth of July party in the desert and wanted to see if their new friends would accompany them later that night. Newborn and Shersty enthusiastically agreed. Because the route to the gathering was confusing, one of the girls told Newborn to meet them at a highway exit just outside of Las Vegas so they could follow them for the rest of the drive. Mark Isquith, the parlor’s owner, watched as the boys celebrated their good fortune by high-fiving on the sidewalk outside of his shop. A store receipt shows that they purchased six-packs of Newcastle and Beck's shortly after 12:30 a.m. before pulling onto Centennial Parkway.
Prepped to party, they drove right into an ambush. Prosecutors and police agreed that Newborn was the primary target. Footprints suggested the black skinhead was grabbed first and dragged from the car. Shersty likely dove after the attacker in an effort to free his friend. He was shot dead on the spot with a shotgun. One of the assailants then lugged Newborn 150 yards away and executed him, too. Neither victim was robbed, nor did either carry a criminal record. Newborn was 24, Shersty was 20.
Three men driving ATVs in the desert the next morning stumbled upon a curious sight. Not only did they find Shersty’s body lying next to a Chevy Cavalier, but they saw two men and a woman emerge from a nearby patch of land—where Newborn’s body was ultimately discovered—and drive away quickly. The ATVers jotted down the license plate of the fleeing car, which police traced back to the parents of Melissa Hack, a girl who happened to be dating John Butler, the leader of a small, local neo-Nazi group called the Independent Nazi Skins. Ten days later, police spotted Butler, carrying a handgun, and took him into custody.
During Butler’s trial, which took 18 months to get underway, his attorneys tried to convince the jury that their client was not present at the time of the murder and only offered to help friends cover up the killing hours after it occurred. "He is guilty of being stupid," his lawyer said during the opening statement, according to the Review-Journal (December 8, 2000). "But he is not guilty of murder." Joseph Justin, the other man spotted at the crime scene, provided a much different account during his testimony. He contended that on their way to collect stray evidence early that morning, Butler spoke freely of his involvement in the slayings, identifying Melissa’s brother Ross Hack as the mystery co-conspirator. It didn’t help Butler’s case when prosecutors pointed out that Nazi websites commonly promoted Independence Day as an ideal time to kill “race traitors.” After more than three days of deliberation, the jury sentenced the skinhead to two counts of murder. He was initially sent to death row, but his sentence was later reduced to life-without-parole thanks to a technicality during the penalty phase of the trial.
Though pleased with the outcome, it always irked local authorities that Butler was the only person for which there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. It seemed obvious to them that Butler had help pulling off the complex plot. "We have one bird in hand and are watching several in the bushes,” U.S. District Attorney Christopher Laurent told the Orlando Weekly at the time. “We're collecting the evidence. They're gonna fall."
It took 13 years, but Perez’ Justice Department is finally getting closer. On February 29, the feds charged both Hacks, as well as a man named Leland Jones, with murder and firearms offenses. According to a statement, “prosecutors expect to introduce evidence at trial that all three defendants were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the slayings.” The Hacks are eligible for the death penalty, so the trial should garner significant headlines. Like the investigation into Martin’s killing, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the proceedings.