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6/17/1999

News > News

Death in the desert

 

When cops found the dead, cherub-faced Florida airman last July 4, they thought he was one of those demonic end-of-the-worlders. Beyond him, huge crimson, gold and orange boulders burst skyward, like frozen explosions, surrounded by empty white desert. Dark mountain ranges loomed along the horizon. The dramatic landscape, just outside of Las Vegas, attracts racist skinheads and militiamen who saw it as an ideal stage for some Year 2000 apocalypse.

Airman 1st Class Dan Shersty, just three years out of Lake Mary High School, lay near his Chevy Cavalier a few yards off a highway exit northwest of Las Vegas. "He looked like the racist skinheads who feud, get drunk, occasionally kill each other; the desert is where street gangs leave bodies as a warning to their enemies, just like gangsters in the 1960s," says Metro Homicide Sgt. Ken Hefner. "He had steel-tipped boots, four nose rings, pierced tongue, shaved head." And a shotgun blast where his chest once was.

What Hefner found in Shersty's car stunned him. Anti Racist Action brochures lay next to an ARA sign-up sheet. Smiley faces crowned names of teen-age members who defected from fascist skinheads.

Then they found Dan's best friend, Lin Newborn -- a 25-year-old black skinhead -- 150 yards away, executed. "That's when they realized a war is going on now that most Americans know nothing about," says Dan's commanding officer, Maj. Sharon Crowley. Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Dan's post, broke with military protocol by inviting Shersty's civilian friends to its memorial service. At a candlelight vigil near the base chapel, airmen read the company roll call. At Dan's name, there was a moment of silence. "He died on the field of honor," ARA members responded.

To Dan's military and ARA comrades, he was assassinated by an enemy as fierce as Iraq. "Whoever killed him thought he'd be a success," Crowley says. "He was what Nazis never are: He was fun."


Skinhead culture's genesis came in late 1960s England, where English youth mimicked the styles of Jamaican ska/reggae singers like Desmond Dekker and Peter Tosh. Skinheads represented the tougher, working-class arm of the mod scene; many worked the docks alongside Jamaican and Caribbean immigrants who had come to England for work when Jamaica was a British colony. As the mods' interests moved on to psychedelic rock, the skins stayed true to the Jamaican music. The guys who loved it, both blacks and whites, created a cool look they flaunted as a badge of interracial working-class pride: shaved heads, assorted piercings, dock workers' boots and suspenders, and clothes so tight a girl's eye could flow over every muscle.

By the time skinheads crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s as a British cultural impot, "skinhead" was synonymous with racist here, although there isn't a true comparison. Indeed, the skinhead movement now is evenly divided between racist and non-racist factions. Last year, Moon Ska Records compiled a CD of multiracial Florida ska bands, a handful of which have skinhead members. Skinhead musical icons of today include oi!, or street punk, bands such as The Business, or ska bands such as The Specials, the Skatalites and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Nazi skinheads have their own bands on the Detroit-based Resistence Records label.

In "The Skinhead Bible," cultural historian George Marshall says it wasn't until the mid-70s that white supremacists concluded the skinheads' tough, hip look might make a great youth recruitment device. They co-opted the clothes, added a swastika armband and started attending skinhead concerts. Racist skins gained fame for their vigilant pettiness, alert to any detail to blame and inflame astonishing cruelty. At a Los Angeles club last year, they stabbed a white boy for "race treason" because he wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. And the racists loved designing websites, mixing reviews of Sid Vicious bios with photos from Dachau.

But in 1988, the Anti Racist Action website blazed online. Aimed at brainy, blue-collar Gen Xers, the site invited anti-racist skins to join ARA to reclaim their culture.

ARA now has about 2000 members with chapters in 11 states, Germany and Colombia. And this spring, ARA posted a mailbox and e-mail address for Orlando-area skins to begin forming. Such chapters usually take shape in direct challenge to local white-supremacist activity. Gerry Bello, in ARA's Columbus, Ohio, headquarters, says Orlando skinheads contacted him about joining ARA after they encountered a notorious neo-Nazi youth group, the Hammerskins, recruiting at Central Florida concerts.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also has noted a strange flurry of supremacist activity in Orlando. Last May, two men were arrested for making pipe bombs to use in Orlando bank robberies; they had hoped the loot would finance a white-supremacist group they were forming. In October, police arrested a 25-year-old adorned in neo-Nazi tattoos after he bombed three different interracial households in Orlando. The web page of Christian Identity, a white separatist group whose members include Eric Rudolph -- a man accused of killing a doctor for performing abortions -- predicts Winter Park will be a "white man's fortress" in a Year 2000 race war.

Sgt. Joe Picanzo has tracked area militias and skinhead groups for the Orange County Sheriff's Office for the past seven years. "Skinheads here are mostly between the ages of 14 and 24," he says. "To avoid prosecution for gang activity under Florida law, they've started calling themselves 'independent white supremacists' when they're recruiting. They've become savvy about counter-intelligence. When they hold a rally or have a concert, they videotape the crowd -- just like we do -- so they can memorize faces. They learn to scan for law enforcement officers that way."

Both racist and anti-racist skinheads vehemently forbid drug use by followers. "But racist skinheads here regard selling designer drugs to outsiders as a way to finance their ideological war," Picanzo notes. "They've started selling at raves and area goth clubs." The development has an eerie resonance since the Columbine massacre, as investigators puzzle over how goth kids became enamored with Hitler and Nazi slogans.

ARA's shoestring budget means the most Bello can afford is one Greyhound bus trip to meet with Orlando recruits. "The Internet links us," Bello says. ARA gives new chapters free lessons in HTML, the computer code of web-page designers. "If one of us gets a death threat, the call for reinforcements goes on the Net. Middle-age, middle-class groups like the Anti-Defamation League don't acknowledge us as bastard step-children, much less brothers, because we'll fight back physically. But it's our fight as much as theirs."

Dan Shersty co-founded the Las Vegas ARA chapter last March. His father, Walter, searched for clues to Dan's passion in the box of personal effects shipped to his Jupiter home by the Air Force after Dan's murder. The box contained old photos: Dan grinning and at attention in a Cub Scout uniform, a diamond-shaped citizenship badge covering his chest. As a soapbox derby winner, a YMCA coach, a varsity lacrosse player. As a handsome, dark-eyed teen in a gold silk robe playing trumpet for a church choir. "Like Angel Gabriel," Walter smiles.

At the bottom of the box was a hunting knife. "Dan doesn't hunt," he says. He believes that in his last days, his son sensed he was hunted.


Why Dan risked his life for ARA is a mystery to many. They count the black and Latin faces in photos of Dan with friends. They search his Lake Mary High School yearbook brags for mention of any political or social causes. One high-school friend doesn't think Dan had ever heard of skinheads or their music. Walter Shersty can summon only one possible influence: When Walter was 7, his best friend, who was black, ran away from abusive relatives to the Shersty house. The Sherstys agreed to take him in and raised him as Walter's brother. "He was always part of Dan's world," Walter says, "but I see that as normal life -- not a big deal."

Walter worked 14-hour days delivering chickens for Golden Delicious and as a garbageman while Dan attended Lake Mary High School. "He was a blue-collar kid bagging groceries at Winn whose classmates drove BMWs," Walter says. (His Winn-Dixie boss ordered Dan to tackle a shoplifter sporting Hell's Angels tattoos when the store's security guard balked.) But Dan was no outcast. He was smart and cocky enough to glide across rock-ribbed boundaries dividing teen cliques. He donned a candy-apple red uniform and black plumed hat for marching band, yet was cool enough to pick up girls at raves. He was just a freshman -- and sporting a Mohawk -- when the pretty valedictorian took him to the senior prom.

"I was so shy and Danny was so daring," remembers Kelly Goodman, a frequent date and confidante. "He'd hop from one cafeteria table to another -- from the freaks, to the metal-head rockers, to the snobs, to the nerds -- like he was a star in an Hollywood restaurant."

But his favorite high-school teacher, band instructor Terry Pattishaw, knew the years were an emotional ordeal. Dan's parents went through a grueling divorce even as Dan excelled -- at school, in social circles, as a jazz trumpeter in a marching band whose members landed gigs at Disney World, Universal Studios and local clubs. "You can actually make a living as a musician if you have talent and rich parents to subsidize you while you get off the ground," Pattishaw says. "Danny had the talent, definitely. But his family's financial situation meant music was not a career option." Instead, music became Dan's escape. "I'd watch him get lost in the sound, leaving his traumas behind," he says.

Dan's other sanctuary was the home of Brian Burchard, his best friend since fourth grade. The boys were neighbors in Tiburon Cove, a cul-de-sac of jade, topaz and coral-colored frame houses shaded by orange groves. The boys made their friends play "Tom Wars," a game named for an Airborne ranger they knew. They lobbed soft, rotted fruit that fell to the earth as missiles. Orange splats made it easy to spot kills.

"Our clothes would be stinking from pulp, so my mom would let us wash up and play computer games till midnight," Burchard says. When his father remarried, Dan confided to Burchard that he felt like a stranger at home. "So my house was a second home, one that would never change," he says.

The guys went everywhere together and even shared a dream of becoming pilots. But Danny was devastated when another dream they shared didn't come true; the guys hoped to attend college together.

Walter Shersty still has a school psychologist's letter from Dan's junior year stating that Dan had scored in the top 2 percent for his age on an IQ test. When told that the family had no money for college, Dan joined the Air Force to earn his tuition. In preparation, the kid who always carried 15 extra pounds forced himself into shape.

His streamlined look made him even more of a playboy. But he teased his closest female friend, Kelly Goodman, so mercilessly that she once broke down crying. "I asked him how he could be so proud of being a good friend to people if he meant the mean remarks about my personality and my ambitions. And I guess, well, I wondered if he ever noticed I was so in love with him but afraid to say it out loud," she says. His glib charm instantly faded. He apologized. He confessed he was a bit envious of her future.

"He felt like he was going into exile," she says. "He'd be in the desert fixing planes while his friends would be in nightly bull sessions on music, poetry, politics." He told her that no matter what friends they made or who they dated, when they were equals, in education and life experience, fate or luck would bring them together again. "I always believed that, too," she says, "right until the day his dad called to say Danny was murdered."


The young Nazis across the street from Durango High School in a blue-collar section of Las Vegas have swastikas tattooed all over their shiny bald heads. They've beaten black and Mexican pupils with baseball bats and big wooden crosses yanked off churches, and no one doubt they'll do so again. They scream "race traitor" at white kids dressed like cholos or homeys who know to run like hell at final bell.

Retired black attorney and Las Vegas Review columnist Barbara Robinson often represents parents who are angry that police can't halt Nazi skinheads' activity near their local schools. "Now the Nazi skinheads are so bold they recruit new members right in eighth-grade playgrounds and high-school parking lots," she says. "Parents think that police don't want Asian, black and Latin tourists scared that they'll be attacked in a hate crime, so they pretend [they] don't exist."

The Las Vegas Police gang unit's perspective seems skewed on its website: There's a two-sentence heads-up about Nazi skins in schools. Then an entire screen is devoted to a plea for the public's help in refuting "an ABSOLUTELY FALSE RUMOR" that tourists are drugged in hotels so wicked doctors can cut out their kidneys to sell as transplants. The rumor could destroy the hotel industry's reputation, the website warns.

Dan Shersty's ARA recruits face more tangible destruction. Mitzi, 18, walked across the Durango High parking lot last fall sporting the female anti-racist skin, or "rude girl," look: short, fluffy hair, twirly mini, wrap-around sunglasses -- and an ARA badge pinned to her cardigan. Nazi skins pointed at her. "They roared like lions, a big roar, like angry lions hunting," she shivers.

The skins chased her to her car. The leader, enraged and bat-less, clawed at her door. She fumbled her key into the ignition when SMASH! A glittering spiderweb of cracked glass and blood radiated from the Nazi's skull as he crashed his head against her window. Screaming, she hit the accelerator and escaped. Teachers told her to stay home all week, fearing this was beyond police ken.

"It scares me to be hated," Mitzi says. "But Dan and Lin taught me that if you're brave, people will see a power in you that no one can take away."

Dan met Lin Newborn at Tribal Body Piercing, where Dan popped lobes, belly buttons, tongues and lips. Dan asked Lin to pierce Dan's nose because he'd heard the 6-foot-tall, muscular black skinhead never had a shaky second. They became instant, inseparable best friends. "They bonded over girl chasing first, then politics," Mitzi grins.

"Those two women who set them up for assassination?" she adds suddenly. "They must have been really pretty, because Dan and Lin had their picks. Those guys were handsome. And ARA made them, well -- dashing."

Dan loved the skinhead music tapes Lin loaned him. A week after they met, Lin shared a dream. He logged onto his office computer. Swastikas with the international circular sign for NO followed by these green words glowed on the screen: THE 411 ON ARA -- We know this country is jacked. But we believe white supremacists can be out-argued and out-organized because

1) WE GO WHERE THEY GO We challenge the Nazis' attempts to recruit youth whether at schools, malls or concerts.

2) WE DON'T RELY ON COPS OR COURTS That doesn't mean we don't ever go to court or work with cops. But we must rely on ourselves to stop fascists.

3) AN ATTACK ON ONE OF US IS AN ATTACK ON ALL. BUT WE STAND BEHIND EACH OTHER.

4) ARA WILL DO THE HARD WORK NECESSARY TO BUILD A STRONG BROAD MOVEMENT AGAINST RACISM, SEXISM, ANTI-SEMITISM

The site advised any city wanting to launch a chapter and website to e-mail the Ohio headquarters for help. We are always home, it asserted. The document ends flashing crimson:

BE YOUNG! HAVE FUN! FIGHT RACISM! WE INTEND TO WIN.

Lin was an anti-racist skinhead activist. He clued Dan into a Las Vegas cultural war. White-supremacist militias in the Southwest needed young shock troops. They viewed Las Vegas, with its skinhead club scene and military base, as prime recruiting ground. ARA prides itself on its anarchist heritage, but "anarchist team-player" can be an oxymoron. Lin's prior attempt at organizing an ARA chapter ended in internal ego-butting. ARA members say he was bluntly self-critical and too volatile, that Dan had conciliatory gifts Lin lacked. He asked Dan to help start a new ARA chapter, but to think carefully about it.

Lin's house was shot at by unknown assailants after he gave a speech to anti-racist skins two years ago. "He told Dan some day that a bullet might catch up with him," says J.T., an 18-year-old Las Vegas ARA supporter. Friends recall Lin saying the downside to ARA was the risk. Dan said, "No, the gamble is part of the fun." When Dan called Goodman to tell her about ARA, he no longer sounded depressed. He was exhilarated.

"It filled an intellectual thirst in him, and much more," she says. He described to her the joy only true passion matches: the joy of discovering something that one feels destined to do. Danger meant the chance to define himself through risk and action, thwarting vicious opponents with wit and words.

John Toddy, 19, joined ARA in Durango High School. "Dan was the force even though Lin was known more by the media," he says. "Dan had this cowboy personality that inspired the comrades in ARA. He proved himself in the military, so we knew he was tough. But he was funny, too. We listened to him."

"Some teachers tell blue-collar kids out loud that our backgrounds make us racist [and] too stupid to think past a GED," Toddy, who's now a University of Nevada sociology major, continues. "What Dan and Lin gave ... I felt this -- dignity, how it feels to stand tall and know I'm not alone."

Dan was a celebrity. He and Lin were hailed by college kids when they walked into the upscale Crown & Anchor Pub. He held court at the Double Down Saloon, a bohemian and skin dive where film director Tim Burton slummed. Inside, psychedelic murals burn from the walls, Band-Aids patch the busy pool table, and Billie Holiday and Rage Against the Machine drift from the juke. Dan loved the sign that warned: "You Puke, You Clean."

Sometimes his swagger went to his head. Dan wasn't of legal drinking age but tried to impress a Double Down girl by using his teeth to open her beer bottle. His comrades never let him forget the $100 dental work the flirt cost him.

ARA gets financial support from punk-ska bands, the most famous being the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. (ARA members fistfight skin fans who shoot a Nazi salute at concerts.) Dan and Lin worked the club and concert scene, punching their way out of tight situations. Dan persuaded other airmen to attend ARA. "Technically, we don't condone recruitment for any political cause on base," Maj. Crowley says. But Dan was a good worker and popular. He never flouted rules in dumb ways. No one complained.

He shrugged off harassing calls. But a month before Dan's murder, Toddy remembers a warning. Dan parked his car, decked with ARA stickers, in the heart of the tourist strip to join Lin for lunch. When he returned, every window was smashed. ARA brochures inside were methodically torn to confetti. Dan was being watched.


A geographical fluke has made Las Vegas a militia magnet. "It's a convenient stopping point for racist L.A. skinheads driving across the desert to join Utah militias," says U.S. District Attorney Christopher Laurent of the region he oversees. Two hours from Las Vegas across the Utah border is a glorious stretch of earth. Sky-blue rivers twine Zion National Park's honey-colored cliffs, scarlet canyons and peaks wreathed with evergreens. In 1996, skinhead Johnny Bangerter claimed Zion for his 200-man militia until police forced him out. He settled in La Verkin, Utah, and he recruits people from Las Vegas. Southern Poverty Law Center militia expert Mark Potok regards Bangerter as the Las Vegas ARA's most dangerous enemy.

Bangerter covertly drops propaganda at Nellis Air Force Base hoping to convert troops to his cause. He cobbles his ethos from Mormon prophecies about an Armegeddon triggered by secret alliances of judges and military men. His leaflets rant against "the army of a mongrel government" and white soldiers who "racial mix." A longtime Las Vegas resident, Bangerter left in 1992 after losing a rumble with the Nazi Terminator Skins (ARA forerunners), whose leaders included Lin Newborn.

"Bangerter is the black sheep of a socially influential Utah family," says FBI agent Walt Stowe, who monitors hate groups for the Las Vegas bureau. "He was arrested as a teenager for a death threat against Orrin Hatch because the senator supported anti-terrorist legislation."

Bangerter led his skins directly from Las Vegas to Ruby Ridge, Idaho, Stowe recalls, to picket federal agents besieging white separatist Randy Weaver. There, Bangerter befriended white separatist Bo Gritz, the ex-Green Beret who later called the Oklahoma City bombing "a Rembrandt" (although he condemned the deaths of women and children).

Bangerter was nearly subpoenaed as John Doe No. 2, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh's alleged, unidentified compadre. Bangerter told the Rocky Mountain News it was an attempted frame. "Bangerter claims that a month before the bomb, he and McVeigh attended a Nevada militiamen's meeting," Stowe says. "All these young skins and militias seem to cross paths eventually because their philosophies converge. The public forgets that McVeigh was a white supremacist as much as an anti-federalist."

Dan never mentioned the danger to his friends. When he and Brian Burchard chatted by phone, Dan bragged about the girls he was dating: an Internet fashion model, a Caesar's Palace dancer. He teased Burchard for having a longtime girlfriend. But he recalls one unusual conversation when Dan visited him at his New Hampshire college shortly before his murder.

The two friends went for a midnight ramble. The night was beautiful, with moonlight icing the flowers and birches with a silver sheen. "Danny suddenly told me that he envied the relationship I had with my girlfriend, that some men died without ever knowing true love," Burchard remembers. At the time, it seemed like bad-date debris. In retrospect, Burchard sees his friend saying goodbye to a future he sensed he'd never have.

When death came calling on Dan and Lin, it took the more innocent form of two pretty blondes. The women strolled into Tribal on July 1 looking for navel piercings and asked for Lin. Dan was there. The guys were smitten. Lin's boss, Mark Isquith, says one blonde left a message on Tribal's voice mail inviting Dan and Lin to a Fourth of July party. She told Lin the route was difficult, and suggested he meet the women by a highway exit so the two men could follow them. Isquith last saw the buddies leaping on the sidewalk outside of the shop, high-fiving.

The ambush came after midnight; Nazis said on their websites that it was right for a race traitor to die on Independence Day. From the footprints, police believe Lin was grabbed first. Dan threw himself forward to protect his friend. He died as the killers dragged Lin away.

Police have one of the blondes in custody. One of the two murder weapons belongs to John Butler, 27, a racist skinhead who boasted to cellmates about his friendships with militia leaders. Laurent sees Butler as the center of a complex plot. "I can't talk details, but you'd be surprised about how sophisticated people will be when it comes to revenge," he says. "We have one bird in hand and are watching several in the bushes. We're collecting the evidence. They're gonna fall."


Nellis Air Force Base sent an officer in dress uniform to accompany Dan's body from Nevada to Florida, as it would for any soldier fallen in combat. He was buried with full military honors including a 21-gun salute.

Like Lin Newborn, Dan Shersty was his father's only child. Both fathers also lost their wives to cancer the year their sons were murdered. Dan's father and stepmother bought a horse farm the month before Dan's murder, and he could hardly wait to see it. "Dan wanted to prove he made his peace with his stepmom," Goodman says. He mailed his ailing stepmother a card he'd made. A photo of a pre-skinhead Dan in a baseball cap gazes somberly from beneath a row of red hearts and the words: "JUST REMEMBER I LOVE YOU."

Photos of Dan were displayed at the funeral. One showed Dan in a school play, in gray wig and grease-paint wrinkles, playing what he'd never be: an old man. "My consolation is that my son died for his country, its ideals, as much as if he'd died on a battlefield," says Walter, an ex-Army MP.

It pains him that his son's sacrifice is unheralded while the media obsesses on the cultural war between liberal and conservative values. It's a war, he says, that demands no risk whatsoever from its TV-talking head combatants. "Dan died as a soldier who believed in his cause -- anti-racism," says Walter. His son's ARA troops are still fighting for the cause, though police advised them to leave when rumors surfaced that the Nazis had created a hit list. The cause unites them with something valued in military custom: courage and a code of honor.

More than 1,000 ARA supporters poured into La Vegas for their comrades' memorial. A Durango High contingent wore buttons pasted with Xeroxed photos of Dan and Lin. "I'm joining ARA because of Dan," says J.T., who met him at The Attic last July. In the hip vintage-clothing store, made famous by a Visa commercial, zebra-striped stairs lead up to a jackpot of '60s and '70s garb. J.T. went in and bought a porkpie hat to complete his skinhead look. The brim's shade hid his bruised face; he'd been jumped by Durango Nazi skins for the umpteenth time at his summer job as a fast-food cook.

"If this was summer vacation, what the hell was I gonna do [during] a school year?" he said of his plight. Dan was walking by outside. J.T. recognized the ARA face from concerts and bounded after him. "I asked him for an ARA badge. Said if I was gonna get punched, might as well be for a cause."

Dan laughed and patted J.T.'s shoulder. He said: "If you ever need to talk, call me at the brochure number. My name's Dan Shersty."

Instinctively, J.T. began a salute, hesitated, then tore off his hat with his left hand, extended his right, and tilted his battered face toward the bright Las Vegas sun. "Oh, sir! It's an honor, sir!" J.T. exclaimed.

Remembering, J.T. lifts his chin. "And I think -- hey, I'm pretty sure -- that made me the last man to shake Dan Shersty's hand," he says softly.

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