13 November 1988: Murder Of Mulugeta Seraw (29 Years Later)
Mulugeta Seraw (October 21, 1960 - November 13, 1988) was an Ethiopian student who went to the United States to attend college. Seraw was killed in November 1988, at age 28, in Portland, Oregon by three white supremacists. His father and son successfully filed a civil lawsuit against the killers and an affiliated organization, holding them liable for the murder.
Portland's past: Skinhead murder of Mulugeta Seraw on Nov. 13, 1988, shook the city
The Mulugeta Seraw Murder: 25 Years Later
Here's what happened to his killers—and his son.
link to www.wweek.com
Portland's racist past smolders beneath the surface
The murder of Mulugeta Seraw
By the 1980s, Portland, Oregon, had become the skinhead capital of the United States, with rival gangs of white supremacists intermingling with the city's thriving punk rock scene. And it all came to a boiling point in 1988, when three members of a local skinhead gang, called East Side White Pride, beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death with a baseball bat in the street outside his apartment building.
link to www.oregonlive.com
1998 story: Legacy of a hate crime: Mulugeta Seraw's death a decade ago avenged
Editor's note: This story first appeared in The Oregonian on Nov. 13, 1998, the 10th anniversary of Mulugeta Seraw's murder at the hands of three racist Skinheads.
The murder scene is colder than a damp November night. The street holds no bloodstains, no shattered glass, no cries. They have been whisked clean by passing cars, cleansed by 1,000 gentle rains and avenged by time.
Ten years ago today, three men who shared a racist version of the American dream clashed with an African student with a different vision of America. They came together by chance -- a carload of neo-Nazi Skinheads and a 27-year-old Ethiopian named Mulugeta Seraw -- at the Southeast Portland corner of 31st Avenue and Pine Street. There, amid racial slurs, one of the Skinheads raised that most American of symbols, a baseball bat, and clubbed Seraw to death.
Because he was in the way.
Because he was different.
Because he was black.
The killing sent three of Portland's sons to prison. It launched a war among Skinheads. It prompted a series of hate crimes and a groundbreaking state law to monitor them. It galvanized the horrified citizens of Portland against racism. And it led to a landmark trial that pitted a famous civil rights lawyer against the West's most notorious neo-Nazi.
The specter of white American racists waging war against African immigrants -- after centuries of terrorizing black Americans -- drew international attention. The case uprooted perceptions that the Northwest was a growing bastion of racial tolerance. And it planted shame in Oregon's back yard.
"We were called the Skinhead Capitol of the country by B'nai B'rith," said Loren Christensen, a former Portland police officer and author of "Skinhead Street Gangs."
The number of people taking part in organized hate groups has declined in America since the Seraw murder. But human rights watchdogs warn that the number of such organizations appears to be increasing. Many of them -- including the Willamette Valley's biggest neo-Nazi group, Volksfront -- have dropped into a shadowy world of Internet traffic, telephone answering machines and mail drops.
Such groups are said to be responsible for fewer than 10 percent of America's hate crimes, but their public influence can't be measured.
In June near Jasper, Tex., three white men loosely tied to the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Brotherhood were accused of dragging an African American man behind their pickup until he was decapitated. Then last month, two men were charged with savagely pistol whipping a gay college student and leaving him to die, tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyo.
Skinheads in the NW
The Seraw murder stunned Portland, but it shouldn't have.
Racist Skinheads began to roost in the city in about 1985. But police mistook them for punk rockers and paid them little mind, Christensen said. Then in October 1986, more than 20 skins marched into the Old Town District carrying baseball bats, axes and pipes. And in March 1988, Skinheads stomped an Asian man nearly to death while his horrified wife and children watched.
White racists had long recruited in the overwhelmingly Anglo states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Some wanted to stake the territory as a white stronghold for a national race war, an idea that came to be called the "Northwest Imperative."
In the early 1980s, a white supremacist named Robert J. Mathews parted ways with a growing Idaho neo-Nazi group called Aryan Nations and formed a revolutionary racist gang called The Order.
Mathews' gang robbed banks, porno shops and a Brinks armored car to finance an American race war. The Order assassinated a Denver radio show host named Alan Berg in June 1984, then got into a gunfight with federal agents at a Northeast Portland motel that November. Two weeks later, Mathews died in a standoff with FBI agents on Washington's Puget Sound.
Mathews' beliefs inspired Tom Metzger, a Southern California TV repairman, former Klan grand dragon and failed candidate for the U.S. House and Senate. Metzger, an energetic man who often spoke of himself in the third person, founded the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) in 1983 and picked up Mathews' torch.
"I looked upon him as the beginning of the new wave," Metzger said recently. "We even talked about him being the father of the second revolution in America."
Metzger began to recruit violent racist Skinheads into WAR. He thought their trademark shaved heads and Doc Martens boots were peculiar, but he embraced the growing Skinhead subculture and installed his son, John, to lead WAR's Aryan Youth Movement.
A mad violence and death
Dave Mazzella was a rising star among the Metzgers' growing Skinhead clan. A bookish teen with a swastika tattoo, Mazzella was a veteran of racist street violence and John Metzger's best recruiter.
In early fall 1988, Mazzella traveled to Portland to organize a Skinhead gang called East Side White Pride, a ragtag bunch living on the city's southeast side. Mazzella hooked up with Ken Mieske, a death-metal rock singer known as "Ken Death.'' For several weeks, Mazzella taught Mieske and his comrades the ways of WAR. They spent evenings handing out racist leaflets and beating up non-whites.
On the night of Nov. 12, 1988, Mieske and two other Skinheads, Kyle Brewster and Steve Strasser, handed out racist tracts at Pioneer Courthouse Square, then drove across the Willamette River to a beer bash on Southeast 31st Avenue.
A cold fog was rolling into Portland in the first hours of Nov. 13 as the three Skinheads left the party and Brewster spotted Seraw.
The Ethiopian had been dropped at his apartment by two countrymen after a night of eating and drinking with friends. Seraw stood outside his friend's Oldsmobile, parked in the middle of the narrow side street, to bid them goodnight.
The Skinheads piled into a Nissan Stanza and pulled up to the Olds, screaming at the Africans to move. Angry words followed, and obscene gestures shot up in both cars.
Brewster was screaming a torrent of racial slurs when he climbed out of the Nissan and squared off with the much smaller Seraw. The other Skinheads jumped from the Nissan and smashed the Olds' windows with boots and a baseball bat.
Wondwosen Tesfaye tried to flee the Olds, but Strasser toppled him with a boot. The terrified man crawled partway under a parked car, crying as Strasser kicked his legs and Mieske beat him with a bat. The driver sped away for help.
Brewster was punching Seraw when Mieske moved behind and struck the African twice on the head with the bat. Seraw fell. His head lay bleeding on the cold macadam as if presented on a chopping block. Mieske took a final swing.
"It crushed his head between the bat and the hard pavement,'' said Portland police Detective Sgt. Tom Nelson, a key detective in the case.
The Skinheads sped off.
Mulugeta Seraw, who had grown up in the green fields of Ethiopia, whose father sold off livestock to send him to America, who had worked as a janitor at a Catholic school and slept in a boiler room to pay for college, began to die in a growing slick of blood.
A participant breaks ranks
Seraw's terrified friends did not know the men who attacked them and gave detectives little to go on. Days after the murder, a confidential informant affiliated with East Side White Pride cracked open the case by identifying the three Skinheads.
About a week later, detectives interviewed Strasser's roommate, Mazzella, who told them that the Metzgers had sent him to Portland and that he wanted out of the racist movement.
Mieske and the other two Skinheads told their lawyers the Ethiopians had started the fight by blocking the street and jumping out to tangle. This was no hate crime, they said, just a fight between motorists gone too far.
Prosecutors didn't buy it.
All three Skinheads eventually pleaded guilty to their parts in the slaying. They drew terms varying in length from nine years to life.
Two lawyers' manhunt
"Sounds like the Skinheads did a civic duty, and they didn't even realize it," Tom Metzger said on his taped Jan. 30, 1989, phone hot line.
The words were monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation's leading civil rights groups. They infuriated Morris Dees, the center's lead trial lawyer.
Dees, a curly-haired barrister with a silky drawl, kept up with the Seraw case from his office in Montgomery, Ala. He was convinced that Metzger helped to influence the murder. But he lacked evidence.
Four months after the slaying, Dees got the evidence he sought. One of his investigators had obtained a copy of a letter, penned five weeks before the killing, from John Metzger to Mieske. It advised the Portland Skinhead that Mazzella was coming to town to show his friends how the Aryan Youth Movement worked.
If Dees could prove that Mazzella incited Seraw's murder as an agent of WAR's youth wing, he might be able to bankrupt Tom Metzger's organization.
Dees enjoyed an excellent trial record against hate groups. In 1987, he won a $7 million verdict against Klansmen who murdered an African American teen-ager in Alabama and strung his corpse from a tree limb.
A few months after the Seraw murder, Dees asked Elden Rosenthal, a Portland personal-injury lawyer, to handle the local end of a lawsuit against Metzger. Rosenthal had lost family to the Holocaust and had strong feelings about neo-Nazis.
"I've waited my whole career for this case,'' he told Dees. Rosenthal worked the case free of charge.
As they worked, the Portland area began to average more than two hate crimes a week. Oregon reacted by passing a groundbreaking law to track such crimes. Beginning Oct. 3, 1989, police agencies began to report all bias crimes to a statewide database. Congress soon followed, passing a similar law to collect national hate-crime data.
Dees and Rosenthal went to court. On Nov. 28, 1989, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the Seraw family in Multnomah County Circuit Court. It accused the Metzgers, WAR, Mieske and Brewster of causing Seraw's death.
Dees hooked up with Mazzella, who willingly told him all he knew about the Metzgers, and turned him into his star witness.
While hiding out before the trial in Southern Oregon, Mazzella was accused of organizing as many as 60 Skinheads and touching off a spate of hate crimes.
Metzger chose to defend himself in court but wanted control over who heard his case. Before one pre-trial hearing, he told a court clerk he objected to being tried by the county's chief judge, Donald H. Londer, saying his name sounded Jewish. When Londer, who was Jewish, heard about the comment, he asked Rosenthal and Metzger whether they objected to being heard by Judge Ancer L. Haggerty.
Rosenthal had to stifle a laugh as Metzger -- perhaps thinking Haggerty an Irishman -- agreed to be tried by an African American judge.
Metzger would later attempt to remove Haggerty, but the mild-mannered judge with the heavy gaze heard the case.
A racist group foiled
On Oct. 7, 1990, the day before the WAR case went to trial, more than 1,500 people marched through Portland to condemn hate. Protecting the marchers were 150 state and local police, the most ever assembled for a Portland event.
Police put the Metzgers, the plaintiff's lawyers and Haggerty under 24-hour protection. Skinheads and civil rights activists gathered outside the courthouse each day as police snipers set up on nearby rooftops and a surveillance helicopter hovered overhead. Police led the Metzgers in and out through a freight elevator in the sidewalk.
Tom Metzger opened the trial with a remarkably polished statement about his free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. He told jurors that the Seraw family's lawyers were trying to put his words on trial and that he had nothing to do with the Portland murder.
Dees and Rosenthal spent two weeks trotting out witnesses and evidence to portray Metzger as a monster whose actions did indeed incite the Skinheads to kill Seraw.
Mazzella delivered the coup de grace. He recounted to jurors how, taken under Tom Metzger's spell, he organized the Skinheads who murdered Seraw.
On Oct. 22, 1990, Dees held Seraw's 10-year-old son, Henock, on his lap as the jury returned its verdict: Tom and John Metzger, along with WAR, had incited Mieske and Brewster to murder. The panel awarded Seraw's estate $12.5 million. At that time, it was a record judgment for a U.S. racism case.
"It was more than just a case about a racial hate crime," Dees said a few weeks ago. "It involved the whole issue of immigrants coming to this nation. It involved different views of America and whose America this is."
After the verdict, Metzger told reporters: "The movement will not be stopped in the puny town of Portland. We're too deep. We're embedded now. . . . Stopping Tom Metzger is not going to change what's going to happen to this country.''
The racist movement in the Northwest hit a crossroads in August 1992, when federal agents botched a raid at Randy Weaver's Idaho cabin. Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son were killed in the siege. He followed Robert J. Mathews as a racist martyr.
That fall, two white supremacists were accused of a Salem firebombing that killed a gay man and an African American woman. Racist Skinheads were then at war with shaved-down youths who violently opposed racism. On New Year's Day 1993, a member of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice shot and killed a racist Skinhead in Portland.
Volksfront emerged in the city in 1994. But when affiliates were imprisoned for a 1996 cross-burning in Gresham and a human rights group began monitoring them, Volksfront went underground.
The movement foundered until last summer, when the West's most visible neo-Nazi group, Aryan Nations, marched 92 strong through the resort town of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. They were joined by a Texas Klan faction as knots of supporters gathered among 700 protesters.
Despite the rustling of coals in Coeur d'Alene, Dees is convinced the Skinhead movement is withering and Metzger's WAR is over. Metzger disagreed.
"I'm more radical than ever before," he said, "because I've got less to lose."
The court judgment flattened Metzger's personal finances. Rosenthal helped to collect between $150,000 and $175,000 from the sale of Metzger's house, pickup and other property. Metzger now lives in a rental house in Fallbrook, Calif., where he repairs TVs and works out on a secondhand treadmill. Nowadays, he shaves his head.
"I'm the oldest Skinhead, probably, around," he said.
-- Bryan Denson; John Snell and research librarians Gail Hulden, Kathleen Blythe and Lovelle Svart of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
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