Authorities here, across the country, are watching hate groups

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(KWTX) Hate crimes were up 17 percent in 2017, the FBI reported this week, and law enforcement agencies in Central Texas and across the country are watching known hate groups, at least 55 of which have been identified in the state.

But the FBI is quick to say although the number of attacks has increased, so has the number of law enforcement agencies reporting hate-crime data.

Virtually every police agency in the country, and all of those in Texas, have initiated regular reports to the FBI and most have put protocols and policies in place to deal with issues that might be prosecuted under federal or state hate crime laws.

The the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national group that closely monitors hate groups and hate crimes, the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety all say they’ve identified at least 55 such organizations in the state and maybe as many as 66.

Those are the ones they know about.

Most are centered around more populous regions of the state, but there are some in surprising places including groups with chapters in Killeen, Gatesville, Bryan and Waco, the SPLC report says.

Faith and Heritage, a white nationalist group, is headquartered in Killeen, and Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan claims Gatesville as its home.

The Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has chapters headquartered in Bryan and Waco, SPLC research shows.

In 2017 in Central Texas only three hate crimes were reported to the FBI’s database, one in Bryan, one in Temple and one reported by Baylor University police, the FBI report says.

The SPLC defines a hate group as an organization with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

Central Texans don’t hear too much about the local groups because they don’t make much noise.

“They’re here and they’re on our radar,” Gatesville police Chief Nathan Gholke said.

“We’ve identified the leadership and the membership.”

Gholke said the membership is very small, “maybe six or so.”

But in larger cities, the issues can quickly be amplified.

“They’re here. We know they’re here,” Bell County Chief Deputy Chuck Cox said.

Cox also said there likely is a hate group connection to the recent murder of a man who was shot to death and then burned because his killer’s suspected “he was cooperating with police.”

Firefighters found Army veteran Michael Vanlandingham’s burned body on Sept. 17 after dousing a brush fire off FM 1670 near U.S. Highway 190/Interstate 14 just west of Belton.

He had been shot twice in the head.

Owen Thomas Free III, 37, who’s also known as “Tommy Knocker,” and Dana Francis Walcott, 39, both remain in custody in the Bell County Jail and both have been charged in connection with the deadly shooting.

Cox said investigators believe one or both of the suspects have ties to an Aryan Nation group in Bell County.

The regularity with which these crimes happen is shocking, obvious after viewing this partial, most recent list.

On Oct. 31, a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania charged Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, Pa., in a 44-count indictment with federal hate crimes, including the murder of 11 people, for his actions during the Oct. 27, 2018 shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

On Oct. 24, Glenn Eugene Halfin, 64, of Grapevine was sentenced to 12 months in federal prison for a hate crime after he pleaded guilty to interfering with housing rights when he repeatedly threatened and intimidated an African American family living in the apartment above him because of their race.

“In court documents, Mr. Halfin admits that in December 2017, he purchased a baby doll at Walmart, fashioned a rope into a noose, and slipped the noose around the baby doll’s neck, then hung it from the railing directly in front of the staircase the victims used to access their apartment.”

On Oct. 18, Roland J. Bourgeois, Jr., 55, of New Orleans, pleaded guilty to charges that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he shot at three young African-American men because of their race as the men attempted to evacuate New Orleans.

“According to documents filed in court, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Bourgeois and other white male residents of the neighborhood where they lived agreed that they would use force to keep out African Americans,” a DOJ report says.

“They moved fallen trees to barricade the streets near their homes and started armed patrols of the neighborhood.”

On Oct. 17, Marq Perez, 26, was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison for burning down the Victoria Islamic Center on Jan. 28, 2017.

A jury found Perez guilty of a hate crime for burning the Victoria Islamic Center, and for the use of fire to commit a federal felony.

In addition, the jury found that Perez possessed an unregistered destructive device for a separate but related incident that occurred on Jan. 15, 2017, the DOJ report says.

That’s over the past 45 days.

John Truehitt has been dealing with hate crimes for most of his professional life, not quite so often now as chief of the Lacy Lakeview Police Department, but for the 25 years before he started there, as a special agent for the FBI, “a lot,” he said.

He recalled one case among the early ones when he was a resident agent in West Texas.

“It was a Skinhead thing,” Truehitt recalled.

“There were three of them who decided to drive around and each one was supposed to shoot a black man and they shot three within 20 minutes.”

One of the victims died, the other two survived their shotgun blast wounds.

All three Skinheads were identified and arrested and all are in federal custody, each serving a life-plus-20 years sentence.

Truehitt said it happened in Lubbock and the only reason the FBI was able to get involved was “because (the dead man’s) feet fell in the street.

“If he’d fallen on private property we’d have had no jurisdiction, but because his feet were in the street, every man has the same privilege to be on public property, so it was a plain civil rights violation because he’d been deprived of his right to be there,” Truehitt said.

While perhaps most visible are the groups who practice hate along racial or ethnic lines, hate groups “often advocate and practice hatred, hostility or violence toward members of various sectors of society, including race, ethnicity, and religion, and increasingly, recently based upon gender and sexual orientation,” the SPLC says.

When violence in such a situation occurs, in most jurisdictions the violation can be charged, thus enhanced, as a hate crime and the penalties stiffen upon conviction under the enhancement.

The Texas Government Code defines hate crimes as “crimes that are motivated by prejudice, hatred, or advocacy of violence including, but not limited to, incidents for which statistics are or were kept under (the Federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act).”

The federal law referred to further defines hate crimes as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” and in 1997 added, disability.

Texas law goes a bit deeper: “Violation against selected groups within Texas has been recognized as a threat to the safety of Texans. In an effort to quantify these incidents of bias crimes, the Texas Hate Crimes Act directed every law enforcement agency within Texas to report bias offenses to the Department of Public Safety.”

Truehitt said part of the issue with defining a crime as a hate crime is, who’s doing the defining.

Though it’s hard for him to talk about, he was one of the special agents in charge in November 2009 at Fort Hood when Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hassan, 48, murdered 13 adults and an unborn child and wounded 33 more in a shooting rampage at the post’s Soldier Readiness Center.

“In my mind it’s an act of terrorism; it’s a hate crime,” Truehitt said.

“We (the FBI) wanted to charge it as a terroristic act, but the Army called it workplace violence,” Truehitt said.

He said the charging issue went all the way to the White House where it was decided the Army would take the lead.

The murders were not charged as hate crimes, rather were charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the sentencing authority was a court martial, where the rules are somewhat different, but he is serving his sentence on death row at the Army’s U.S. Bureau of Prisons – Leavenworth Military Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

There are five inmates in custody there, all awaiting execution, but no active-duty military member has been executed since 1961 and all five likely will die in prison before their sentences can be carried out.

Texas, with at least 55 identified groups, ranks third in the country, California first with 79, Florida second with 63; Pennsylvania, with 40 and Tennessee with 38 rounds out the top five.

The recent annual FBI report shows agencies nationwide reported more than 7,100 hate crimes last year and it showed increases in attacks motivated by racial bias, religious bias and because of a victim's sexual orientation.

The report, released Tuesday, shows there was a nearly 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes, there was a 37 percent spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes, specifically.

Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s Civil Rights program, the FBI’s website says, not only because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities, but also because groups that preach hatred and intolerance can plant the seed of terrorism here in our country.

The SPLC reports a 197 percent increase in the number of anti-Muslim groups since 2015.

Nationwide, there were 193 black separatist groups in 2015 and The Ku Klux Klan had 130 groups nationwide in 2016. There were also 663 anti-government "patriot" groups in 2016, according to most recent numbers available from SPLC.

Tuesday Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker says the report is a "call to action," that such hate-based offenses are "despicable violations of our core values as Americans."

“The FBI investigated what are now called hate crimes as far back as World War I,” a published FBI history document says.

“Our role increased following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, provided the impetus for a visible and sustained federal effort to protect and foster civil rights for African Americans.”

It’s the event on which the film “Mississippi Burning” is based.

On Oct. 20, 1967, seven men were convicted of conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of the slain civil rights workers and all seven were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years.

Then, “In 2009, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal definition of hate crimes, enhancing the legal toolkit available to prosecutors, and increasing the ability of federal law enforcement to support our state and local partners,” A U.S. Department of Justice statement on hate crimes says.

In the seven years since the passage of the Shepard-Byrd Act, the Justice Department has charged 72 defendants and convicted 45 defendants under this statute, says the DOJ.

In total, as of July 15, 2016, the DOJ has charged 258 defendants for hate crimes under multiple statutes over the last seven years.

The most recent hate crime prosecuted in the area as a hate crime ended with a Temple man and woman being sent to state prison for the hate motivated shooting of Julian Anguiano, 22.

Two different juries in October 2014 sentenced Tamron Monche Shores, 22, and Manuel Leija Jr., 20, who because of a charging issue were tried in separate actions.

Judge Fancy Jezek, in 426th District Court, sentenced Shores to eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Institutional Division for her role as the getaway driver and Leija to 38 years in prison.

Hate crimes have a dramatic effect on victims, on society and ultimately, on humanity as a whole, but the lawmen who deal with them, figure them out and deal with the people who commit them aren’t spared impact.

“These acts are borne of anger and divisiveness and the responses are extreme actions,” Truehitt said

“I understand it, but sometimes whether something is seen as a hate crime comes down to semantics.”

“I’ve heard people talk about the worst thing they’ve ever experienced and Ft. Hood was that for me,” Truehitt said and his voice shook as he said, “I just remember being up all night and just as the sun was coming up, in the pink light I could see one young soldier, maybe 20 or 21, standing guard over, protecting the crime scene, securing it for us.

“I try, but I’ll never forget that.”