Jim Dey: Defiant white supremacist: 'I was right all along'
Matt Hale once had big plans, but he now lives in a small world.
"... I am confined to my cell 22 hours a day. I have a television, a radio, books, a shower and my own light that I can (turn) on and off any time," he wrote in a letter to The News-Gazette.
Hale, now 42, grew up in East Peoria, graduated from Bradley University with degrees in music and political science and law school in 1998 from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Fascinated by racial issues and German dictator Adolf Hitler from his early teens, he became involved in the anti-Semitic, white supremacist movement.
Hale courted controversy, and his ardor for racial confrontation did not dissipate as he grew into adulthood. Indeed, he reveled in the attention it drew, challenging a state decision to deny him a license to practice law on character and fitness grounds.
In the meantime, he promoted his views, drawing public attention by placing racist literature in the mailboxes of University of Illinois law students, appearing on network television shows to promote his cause and declaring himself "Pontifex Maximus" of the racist World Church of the Creator.
He was close friends with a former UI student, 21-year-old Ben Smith, and in close contact with Smith shortly before Smith went on a 1999 two-state, racially motivated shooting rampage that left nine wounded and two dead, including former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.
His life choices foreshadowed personal disaster.
In 2005, Hale was convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge, and he is serving a 40-year sentence at the federal government's toughest prison, a super-maximum facility in Florence, Colo. His scheduled release date is Dec. 6, 2037.
The super-max holds some of this country's most dangerous and notorious criminals under the most restrictive rules imaginable. Nonetheless, Hale is free to communicate with the outside world, and he was eager to share his description of life in prison with The News-Gazette.
Hale, who briefly lived in Champaign and worked at a local law firm, said he wishes it would have been different.
"I personally believe that I would have made an excellent judge, and there are few things that could conceivably make me more happy than if I (was) playing my violin in a string quartet now right now. I miss my freedom very much," said Hale, who was kicked out of Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra after his name came up in the Ben Smith shooting investigation.
Hale is Dr. Jekyll; he also is Mr. Hyde.
U.S. Judge James Moody, who sentenced Hale, described him as "a highly educated, intelligent individual who surrounds himself with troubled individuals, who feed his enormous ego. He is also very calculating and highly skilled in controlling and manipulating others. ..." The judge said Hale is "extremely dangerous."
It's been 15 years since the Ben Smith shooting spree, a portion of which occurred in Campustown and left a UI student with a gunshot wound to the leg. It's been more than 10 years since Hale's arrest in connection with his alleged solicitation of the murder of U.S. Judge Joan Lefkow, who presided over a trademark infringement case involving the name of Hale's church.
Federal authorities started taking a hard look at Hale and the World Church of the Creator after the Smith shooting spree, using one of Hale's top aides, Tony Evola, as a government informant. Evola's taped conversations with Hale were the basis of the murder solicitation charge.
Current UI Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald, then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, oversaw the federal investigation that led to Hale's demise.
Hale insists that he was wrongfully convicted, attributing the jury's guilty verdict to poor work by his lawyer, Chicago's Tom Durkin.
Hale has filed multiple appeals through the federal courts, and, now represented by Boulder, Colo., lawyer Clifford Barnard, Hale has a legal petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hale's parents, Russ Hale and Evelyn Hutcheson, were divorced. He has three brothers. Hale's mother Evelyn said, besides Matt, two of his three brothers are reputable citizens who have good jobs. She said a third brother has had problems with using illegal drugs and is currently incarcerated.
Hale's father died after Matt Hale was imprisoned. That has left Hale's mother to send out copies of press releases and legal filings that assert her son's innocence.
She calls him a "good guy" who is "locked away because of his racial beliefs," a view sharply at odds with the government's characterization of the case. But she does not dispute that her son took the wrong road in life.
"He absolutely did," said Hutcheson, who lives in Washington, a bedroom community of Peoria.
She said she does not share his racial views.
"Am I as radical? No," she said, stating that she believes every individual has opinions others might characterize as evidence of prejudice.
But she said her husband, a former police officer, "was what I would call a quiet racist."
Hutcheson said Matt Hale has repeatedly expressed regret over his actions "because he's hurt his family" and that he ignored her advice to moderate his behavior.
"He just wouldn't keep his mouth shut," she said.
For his part, Hale said he remains as committed to his cause of racial purity as he ever was, sharing websites (http://www.freematthale.com and creativitymovement.net) as well as the music and lyrics of a song he wrote that embraces racial solidarity.
While describing himself as a "happy person by nature," Hale said "it is difficult for me to have any confidence that the current legal system will right the wrong that has been done to me."
Despite that, Hale said he has the long-term hope that "before 2037 (his scheduled year of release) our white people will have forged their own new country in which I will be a leader...."
Super-max inmates have few physical contacts with each other or guards. Confined to his cell 22 hours a day, Hale said "I go outside to recreation 2-3 days a week where I play chess and do pullups (each inmate has his own cage, which is fairly large) and I go to an inside recreation area room 2-3 days a week where I can do pushups, do jumping jacks, squats, etc. I am fully up to date on current events since I watch the 24-hour news channels and get USA Today," he said.
Hale also said he enjoys listening to "the wonderful classical music channel that we have here."
Though contact is limited, Hale said he's "met some pretty well-known people" and gets along "with everybody."
"I've met individuals of all races and am respected and give respect in turn," he said.
He calls himself "the white man's Nelson Mandela."
"There is no question I am a political and religious prisoner and, yes, I was right all along," Hale said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.