Evil To The End

More than anything, John William King seemed bored. Throughout his weeklong murder trial, the 24-year-old white supremacist sat next to his lawyer in the same tired pose: left elbow propped on the defense table, chin resting in his hand, eyes gazing straight ahead. His neatly combed hair obscured the pentagram seared into the flesh behind his ear, and shirt sleeves hid his tattoo of a black man being hanged. He seemed not to hear his father's tortured sobs as prosecutors ticked off the evidence against him: a cigarette lighter inscribed with the KKK symbol, blood on his sandals from the black man King and two buddies allegedly chained to a pickup truck and dragged through the streets of Jasper, Texas. But King didn't actually speak until he was swiftly sentenced to die by lethal injection last week. On his way to death row, a reporter asked King if he had anything to say to his victim's family. "Yeah," he replied. "They can s--- my d---."

It was a parting shot to a world in which "Bill" King achieved precious little. A local loser who fell in with racist thugs in jail, King and his friends apparently killed James Byrd as the initiation rite to their own Klan-style group. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history," he wrote to one of his buddies from his cell, signing the note with "much Aryan love." Jasper was relieved by the death sentence, a first step toward putting King and his ugly legacy in the past. But killing King won't make history of his stubborn brand of hate.

In many ways, Bill King represents the new face of American hate: young, middle class and filled with a nameless rage. People who monitor hate groups say their disciples often come from troubled families and have questions about their own identities. (King is said to have grown up in a loving home, but found out when he was 12 that he was adopted.) The number of hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center jumped from 474 in 1997 to 537 last year. Aided by the newfound power of the Internet, hundreds of would-be white avengers are signing up young, troubled followers. The nation's fastest-growing racist group, the National Alliance, is now said to have 35 "units" operating across the country. The World Church of the Creator features a Web site with drawings of buxom Aryan women and a special page for kids. Many other groups consist of just a few individuals who pose little threat by themselves. But together, there's no telling how many potential Bill Kings they're reaching.

Within hours of the verdict, some were already bestowing on King the kind of folk-hero status he craved. One "Whites Only" site said King was guilty of "animal cruelty" and showed a cartoon of a newlywed Klan couple driving off from the church with two black men attached to the bumper. (The same site features a picture of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming man beaten to death because he was gay, burning in hell.) The 20-year-old leader of a growing Web-based Nazi group says King's crime was in not going far enough. "I'm not opposed to the fact that he killed a black guy," says Davis Wolfgang Hawke, a college student who says his ambition is to be the first fuhrer of the United States. "But killing one black or Jew doesn't do anything. We need King in the movement, not behind bars."

As the first of the accused murderers to go on trial, King heard his crime recounted in stunning detail. The friends allegedly picked up 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., who was hitchhiking on a Saturday night last June. Authorities say they chained him to the truck and dragged him, still alive, through the town until his elbows peeled away on the pavement and his head rolled off the road. Prosecutors say Byrd's killing was to be the first act of a new chapter of the Confederate Knights of America, the group King joined during a two-year prison term for burglary. They also produced a knife that King was making in his cell while awaiting trial--proof, they said, that he was still looking to harm others. In the end, King did little to help his own cause. "I kept looking at him, how young and handsome he is," said Karen Flower, a juror, after the trial. "I have a son about the same age. I wanted to find something to save him." She couldn't.

What everyone in Jasper wants to know--none more than King's devastated father--is what made him hate so much. "Everybody's been trying to blame it on prison, but I don't know if a man can get that much hate in his heart in a couple of years in prison," says Jasper Sheriff Billy Rowles, who discovered Byrd's headless torso in the middle of the road that June day. "I don't really buy that."

The jury didn't buy it, either. Trying to avert the death penalty, defense lawyers argued that King wasn't a bad kid before he hit the penitentiary and was assaulted by black inmates; they implied during the trial that it was a sexual assault. (Hate groups are nothing new in Texas prisons; the Anti-Defamation League says the violent Aryan Brotherhood has more than 400 members in the state's jails.) Prosecutors told the jury that King had been hateful from his youth. "Once he got into the penitentiary, he learned how to funnel that hate and added Satanism to his racism," an assistant prosecutor in the case, Pat Hardy, said in an interview. "In my opinion, you had another Adolf Hitler in the making."

Sadly, there's no shortage of people vying for that role. Take the case of Hawke,a junior at Wofford College in South Carolina. Hawke's given name is Brit Greenbaum; his stepfather is part Jewish, but Hawke says he doesn't know who his real father is. A Massachusetts native, he became a Nazi in high school, he says, and founded the Knights of Freedom. Hawke, who says he wants to build an Aryan homeland somewhere in the West, claims to have enlisted a thousand members on the Web in less than a year; knowledgeable estimates put the number closer to 100, but that's enough to alarm civil-rights groups. At school he's a pariah, but on the Web he's the fuhrer reincarnate. "I'm not interested in having a social life," says Hawke. "I'm interested in running the party." Watchdog groups say he's both puerile and dangerous. "He does command some fairly fanatical loyalty," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "In some ways, it's like 'Dungeons and Dragons.' But he has the potential to become a real leader."

Of course, it's not as if Nazi youth are taking over college campuses. The real danger is that all the hateful propaganda floating around will draw in more people like Bill King--volatile losers waiting to unleash their anger some Saturday night. After all, what scares folks in Jasper is that King was once a boy who seemed just like them. Now he seems more like a monster. "I just hope and pray Bill repents before he dies," says Father Ron Foshage, pastor of Jasper's St. Michael's Church. "I know God can forgive any sin, but you have to be sorry." It would seem that Bill King has a long road to redemption.