The way hate groups operate and organize has changed in San Diego and across America, going from being highly visible to often hidden.
Experts who have tracked these crimes tell NBC 7 Investigates it’s becoming tougher to gather intelligence or anticipate organized hate activities. Hate groups used to organize marches, promote "hate" rock concerts to fire up their membership and actively recruit in communities, including high schools.
Now, according to law enforcement experts, the groups have gone cyber. But, while how they operate has changed, their targets have not. It’s still about race, sexual preference, and religion; people who are perceived as “different” from members of the group.
San Diego has a long history of hate. The region was the birthplace of vicious white hate groups, home to haters from the Klu Klux Klan and anti-Gay/LGBT groups.
Longtime civil rights attorney James McElroy points out that in “San Diego we have had a long history of extremism going all the way back to Tom Metzger and his organization White Aryan Resistance, and then we had all the border vigilantism and the Marine who was made a quadriplegic by skinheads out in Santee”.
McElroy is referring to the case of Lance Cpl. Carlos Colbert of Camp Pendleton. The black marine was paralyzed from the neck down after being beaten by five white men.
In 1989 McElroy led the Southern Poverty Law Center’s efforts in a successful $12.5 million civil lawsuit against Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, or WAR for the beating death of an Ethiopian graduate student. Three members of WAR beat the student to death with a baseball bat. Metzger lived in Fallbrook at the time.
Oscar Garcia has experience in investigating hate crimes. He’s run the San Diego County District Attorney’s Hate Crimes Unit for eleven years. In that position, he said he has watched how hate has evolved over time, beginning with East County’s reputation a decade ago.
“It was fair to say they had a bad reputation for the notorious hate crimes that occurred out in that area,” Garcia said. Now hate incidents and hate crimes are spread over a much wider area, “from South Bay to downtown San Diego to the beach areas to North County,” he said. “We still have some in East County of course but it really is all throughout the county.”
FBI statistics show hate crime events increasing in the region. According to the agencies latest data, there were 84 hate crimes reported in San Diego last year, up from 73 in 2015.
What is described as the “bias motivation” for the 84 events in San Diego breaks down this way:
- 31% were anti-Black
- 19% anti-gay(male)
- 11% anti-lesbian/bisexual/transgender
- 10% anti-Islamic
- 8% anti-Hispanic
- 6% anti-Jewish
- 5% anti-White
- 5% anti-Arab
McElroy, who is still on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC, an organization that tracks hate incidents nationally, said it’s a similar trend across the country. He said, “part of the reason for the increase in harassment, intimidation, bigotry, the rise of white nationalism, is because of the changing demographics of our country.”
In the San Diego region, SPLC pinpoints groups, including “Holocaust deniers” in Poway, “anti-LGBT” in San Marcos and “black separatists” in Lemon Grove.
According to a longtime hate expert and former sheriff’s investigator, there are two white hate groups, one located in Santee and the other in the Lakeside area, which has elements of the original White Aryan movement. She said they are a motorcycle gang that calls itself the Peckerwoods.
“There are known documented national hate groups that do have local chapters here in San Diego,” Garcia said.
According to him, hate websites now drive hate crimes and with those sites comes anonymity, making tracking and securing convictions much more difficult.
“We really haven’t had identified, prosecutable cases where we can actually say this person did the crime for the benefit of that documented gang or hate group,” he said.
McElroy, NBC 7 Investigates law enforcement sources and investigators agree with Garcia’s take on the problem.
“The internet is a great recruitment tool when it comes to organized hate groups,” McElroy said.
According to the experts, it has completely changed how the movement recruits and spreads racist propaganda. Including websites like Stormfront.org which features people like David Duke, a well-known Ku Klux Klan leader based in Louisiana.
McElroy said Stormfront “is one of the most virulent anti-everything sites you are ever going to see.”
On its home page, Stormfront boasts it supports the "new embattled white minority,” and has millions of posts from users.
Metzger has moved to the internet as well, looking for money and seeking recruits.
It’s a powerful teaching tool for hate groups McElroy said. “They got educated in racism, if I can use that term, from the Internet.”
NBC 7 Investigates contacted Stormfront for a response to the story but never heard back.
Metzger declined to comment for the story but in an email to NBC 7 Investigates said, “you are free to pass along to the D.A and Morris Dees both they can kiss my White Ass just like I have told them many times is the past.”
Dees co-founded the SPLC in 1971.
There is something else the Internet is driving. Garcia calls it “the lone wolf attack, which is something we know in intelligent circles is encouraged by leaders of hate groups.”
It replaces those hate concerts and rallies, according to McElroy.
“These people who may be considered lone wolves still feel a sense of community through websites like Stormfront,” he said. “We have to expose the lies that are out there, expose the lone wolf best we can and make them known to the public.”
Garcia notes hate groups now “are a little more sophisticated than perhaps traditional gang members because they know if law enforcement can link them to a hate group, it is easier to prosecute them for a hate crime.”
He said because of how hate crimes are committed these days, assistance is needed from the whole community. Garcia told NBC 7 Investigates there is a need for witnesses to remember a license plate, get a good description of the subject and most importantly make that call to the police. He added that many victims of hate crimes take twice as long to recover from the emotional trauma because it’s a human characteristic that was attacked and victims can’t change the color of their skin.
NBC 7 Investigates interviewed three of the foremost experts in our region on the issue: McElroy, Garcia and Morris Casuto, former director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego. Information was also confirmed with the San Diego FBI. For this story, interviews were also conducted with current and former law enforcement that are not being named because of the sensitivity of their work and the fear of reprisal in one case. In addition, information was used that was provided by investigators familiar with the groups currently operating in the San Diego region, the SPLC based in Montgomery, Alabama and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Requests to the ADL’s current leadership in San Diego and New York were never responded to.