Red hair shaved down to his skull, Nathan Thill lounged in a black leather jacket and mulled over why he shot to death a West African man at a bus stop here.
Without a trace of emotion, Thill, a 19-year-old skinhead, told a television interviewer that he “walked through town with my gun in my waist, saw the black guy and thought he didn’t belong where he was at. How easy it would be to take him out right there. Didn’t seem like much to me.”
While Denverites watched the jailhouse interview on the noon news Friday, about 2,000 people, including the city’s mayor, Wellington Webb, gathered at the city’s largest mosque for the funeral of the murdered Mauritanian man, Oumar Dia.
“Oumar was one of millions of people who come to the United States to improve their circumstances, fascinated by the American dream,” Mohamadou Cisse, a friend, said after coming home from the mosque by bus. “For Oumar, his dream was shattered.”
Eight years ago, Arab authorities expelled Dia from his native Mauritania because he was black, his friends said. On Tuesday night, after work as a housekeeper in a downtown Denver hotel, Dia, a 38-year-old father of three, crossed paths with Thill, a burly, former meatpacker who carried a .22-caliber pistol, Celtic tattoos on his forearms, and a visceral hatred of people different than him.
“It was not a stray bullet that killed Oumar,” Cisse, a Senegalese vendor, said in the thick French spoken on Africa’s West Coast. “The murderer knew exactly what he wanted to do - to kill someone who was black.”
The murder, the latest in a two-week string of skinhead incidents, has shocked Denver, a city that prides itself for racial tolerance, country good manners and a booming, high tech economy. Only a block from the site of the race killing newstands prominently display the current issue of Fortune magazine which ranks Denver as North America’s “second most improved city for business” - below New York and above Boston.
But this month’s parade of skinheads going before judges or engaging police in shootouts has awakened dormant racial fears.
“I am walking around downtown looking over my shoulder,” said Monette McIver, a black woman who is a graduate student in education. “I am just wondering if this or that person is going to take me out because of the color of my skin.”
Farther down Denver’s 16th Street pedestrian mall, Joseph Chinn, a black man who is studying criminal justice, said bluntly: “It makes me want to go out and buy a gun, OK?”
On Saturday, a rally to protest the attacks is to be held in Five Points, an historically black neighborhood.
A white woman who tried to help the fallen African was also shot by the skinhead. Jennie VanVelkinburgh, a 36-year-old single mother of two boys, was shot in the back. The bullet severed her spine. Doctors say she will be paralyzed for life.
“I was trying to help someone who needed help and didn’t have any idea I would end up in this situation,” Ms. VanVelkinburgh, a nursing home aide, said in a statement from her hospital bed. “But I would do it again if I thought there was a chance that I could save someone’s life.”
The shootings followed a spate of skinhead incidents: a high speed car chase that ended with the arrests of two skinheads and another car chase that ended with the murder of a police officer and the suicide of a skinhead. After the skinhead’s death, police stations started receiving death threats. The word “pig” was scrawled on a gang unit police car and a pig carcass scrawled with the name of the dead officer was left at his old police station.
Webb, who is preparing for a visit here by President Clinton on Saturday, said that Denver police and federal authorities are trying to determine if the incidents are linked to a single skinhead organization.
“There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that it is an organized effort,” said the mayor. Webb, who is black, argued that the city remains a tolerant place, adding: “Denver is a city where the African-American population is 12 percent, and where, in 1991, both candidates for mayor were African-American.”
In neighboring Jefferson County, where the two car chases originated, John Stone, a county commissioner, threatened Wednesday: “If we need to go to war with skinheads, we’ll do that.”
But some critics say that Colorado has become too complacent.
“The whole leadership of Colorado is caught off guard by this,” said Carl Raschke, a University of Denver religious studies professor who studies local hate groups. “There has been this sugary image about Denver: that it happens everywhere else but here.”
Indeed, a police unit that was credited with disbanding skinhead groups in the early 1990s was recently redirected to other projects.
“Law enforcement needs to come down hard on them again,” said Bobbie Towbin, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League here, “let them know that their activities are not welcome here.”
Denver police have in custody two other skinheads. Jeremiah Barnum, 24, surrendered on Thursday after learning that he was wanted for questioning about the Dia killing. On Wednesday, police arrested a skinhead who had stockpiled in his motel room bomb-making parts, ammunition and a Mac 90 semiautomatic assault rifle.
Police are searching for three more who may have been involved in the attempted ambush of a Denver policeman on Thursday morning.
While Denverites await the outcome, they ponder the words of Thill, a gas station clerk who saw himself as a soldier in a race war.
“In a war, anybody wearing the enemy’s uniform is an enemy and should be taken out,” he said of his victim, who had been waiting for a bus. “I guess I was kind of thinkin’ about him because he was black.”
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