After a series of fatal hootings, high-speed chases, running gun battles and death threats involving violent young white supremacists, authorities here put the city on what amounted to a skinhead alert Thursday.
“In this city we’re not going to tolerate people shooting anyone … based upon someone’s color, or someone’s gender, or someone’s sexual orientation, or if they’re wearing a blue uniform,” Denver Mayor Wellington Webb vowed at a news conference. “We’re not going to give up the streets of Denver!”
As police fanned out across a 20-block portion of west Denver in search of a young white male who had fired on an officer Thursday morning, authorities separately launched a cooperative effort with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to determine whether recent incidents were part of some sort of skinhead uprising or mere coincidence.
The trouble started a week ago when 11-year police veteran Bruce Vander Jagt was shot and killed after a high-speed chase with a skinhead who ultimately committed suicide with the slain officer’s handgun.
On Tuesday, a dead pig was dumped in the parking lot of the slain officer’s station house. Etched on the side of the carcass was Vander Jagt’s name. On its belly, someone had carved the image of a police badge around the word pig.
Tuesday night, Oumar Dia, a 38-year-old West African refugee waiting for a downtown bus, was taunted and then shot and killed by two young white thugs. A single mother who tried to help the refugee was shot in the back and paralyzed.
Nathan Thill, 19, was charged Thursday with first-degree murder in connection with the killing of Dia.
Meanwhile, an officer responding to a reported burglary in progress Thursday was fired on by a young white male. The shooter remained at large despite a massive police response.
Authorities were trying to determine whether the burglary had been staged in order to lure an officer into an ambush.
After first being fired upon, “the officer retreated and took cover behind a wall,” said Police Sgt. Dennis Cribari. “Then the suspect jumped out of the bushes and began firing again at the officer, who returned fire. The suspect escaped.” The policeman was not injured.
Earlier, someone scrawled the word pig on a gang-unit police cruiser. And several police substations have received threatening telephone calls - including a bomb threat at the city jail - placed by anonymous callers who used language peppered with Nazi references.
In an interview, Jefferson County Sheriff Ron Beckham said, “We’ve got a real problem here, no question about it. This is really a street war.”
“The pig’s head said that they are ready to go to war with the police,” said Carl Raschke, a University of Denver religion professor who has studied white supremacist groups here and nationwide. “This is the worst outbreak of skinhead violence that has happened anywhere. Nowhere has there been such a direct challenge to the police.”
The crude racial hatred flies in the face of Denver’s image of an open-minded city where a white majority population has twice elected Wellington Webb, a black man, as mayor. The violence flies in the face of Denver’s world image as a city proud of its $5 billion international airport and of its smooth handling of a summit of world leaders last June.
But Denver’s unexpected outbreak of violence, most of it by young, white skinheads, is part of a national trend in which skinhead groups are growing while Klan and neo-Nazi groups decline, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group based in Alabama that tracks hate groups nationwide.
According to the Center, the number of Klan and neo-Nazi groups dropped by one quarter from 1995 to 1996, hitting 140 last year.
“As the economy goes better for most people, you get less of this scapegoating rage,” Mark Potok, a Center spokesman, said.
At the same time, the number of organized skinhead groups increased by 23 percent, hitting 37 in 1996. The difference seems to be demographic. The Klan often attracts a more middle-aged group. The skinheads draw on young people, often teenagers facing job markets without high school degrees.
Members of neo-Nazi groups have been linked to at least 37 murders nationwide, according to a recent Anti-Defamation League survey.