Let’s time travel to Pennsylvania in 1992 or so, when America was arguably “greater” than it is today in terms of moral clarity.
Pennsylvania’s then-Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr., its then-Republican Attorney General Ernie Preate, and local and federal law enforcement agreed there would be no tolerance for an emerging scourge of violence and murder in the name of white supremacy.
This state, a blend of urban and rural that makes it a proxy for our nation, was confronting a surge of white nationalism, similar to what we are seeing today. But the violence then was not greeted with the goading, tacit winks, nods, or silence that have characterized the rhetoric of Republican President Donald Trump and GOP leaders who otherwise spew that they live to “Make America Great Again.”
Here in Pennsylvania, when white nationalists began to commit violent crimes on fellow Americans, we were outraged. And our leaders acted to stop it. This is America at its greatest. A civilized land.
We can do this again. We must. And before what remains of our collective moral conscience is annihilated.
“Hate groups are now saying publicly what they once thought privately.”
Sound familiar? That quote is from April 1995. It came out of the mouth of Ann M. Van Dyke, of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. She was speaking to a Delaware County community group about an outbreak of hate-group activity. Her state-government-backed organization was tracking the violence as it exploded like land mines.
“There’s so much activity going on, practically every week,” Van Dyke continued to say, according to Inquirer archives. “It’s everywhere. It’s not fair to name a particular part of the state because it is going on all over the state.”
After the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people in Texas last weekend at the hands of a gunman who’d left behind a white nationalist manifesto, I began digging through news archives. I remembered vague headlines and chatter about neo-Nazi “skinheads” in the ’90s — I was too young to have paid too close attention.
The archives were staggering. In the late 1980s and all through the ’90s, one violent attack after another by white men affiliated with racial cleansing ideologies: In the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia, in Allentown, in South Jersey. They were called “skinheads.” And they were cropping up everywhere, it seemed — even across the country.
People were confounded. It had been decades since Jim Crow-era racial violence. Now this?
Skinheads in Allentown made international headlines after killing their parents. Federal authorities prosecuted the son of a Philadelphia fire battalion chief from Roxborough who had turned to bank robbery to help fund a white supremacist group.
In two of the earliest cases, white supremacists murdered an unsuspecting white man in Chester County and, separately, a black man walking in Philadelphia. The bad guys, according to prosecutors, were looking to prove their allegiance to white-supremacist groups.
I met a few days ago with the mother of one of those victims. Lee Russell Murdoch, 28, was lured from a Chester County bar one night after work in 1990 and killed by two men who later got celebratory tattoos at a party with members of a skinhead group.
Murdoch was white, but no matter: Prosecutors said his killers, Timothy Kleinfelter and Christopher Bocelli, had sought initiation into the racial cabal.
I found the prosecutor from back then, Lorraine Finnegan. She still remembers the case — its brutality above all. She’d tried but failed at trial to tell jurors that the post-murder celebrations included one man repeatedly playing a Queen song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with lyrics that include, “I just killed a man.”
Murdoch had had no ties to his killers.
“It was a very, very close-knit family,” Finnegan said, “and all of a sudden he stopped for a drink and he’s gone.”
Murdoch’s father was a plumber, his mother, a factory worker. Dorothy Murdoch was at both trials. She says she’s worked hard to keep the pain from taking over her life. Still, she sat in a living room chair and replayed it all for me the other day.
“He was kicked. He was stabbed. There were multiple wounds on him as well as defense wounds. He did try to fight them off," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “And then, [they] left him in this open field. They had left him there to die.”
The body of her son — the jokester of the family, second youngest of six kids — was found 10 days later.
His killers were picked up quickly. That might have been because, as Dorothy was told during the investigation, the young men, barely past adolescence, had been known to authorities.
“We learned they were being watched," she told me, "because of their skinhead affiliations.”
A year after the trials, the state Attorney General’s Office threw significant resources at hate-crime violence.
Top cop Preate — a Republican — hired a chief deputy attorney general to oversee prosecution of civil-rights crimes. He gave that job to Trent Hargrove, who ran a team of investigators and worked with state, local, and federal officials on hate crimes, from 1992 to 1999.
I found Hargrove. We talked by phone.
“What jumps out at me," Hargrove said, "is why are we still revisiting these same issues — and no one seems to remember that we had to address these same issues in the mid-to-late ’90s?”
What played out, from his perspective, was a team effort with strong backing from political leaders of both parties. There even was a task force deployed by federal prosecutors with support of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington and the White House.
“Law enforcement was more engaged,” Hargrove said. “The Pennsylvania State Police was very engaged, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office ... the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, [U.S. Department of] Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was involved. We were really keeping track of numbers and incidents.”
We did this once. We can do this again.
We must. This is what reclaiming “greatness” looks like.