A White Supremacist Murderer Devastated Chicago 20 Years Ago. Why Didn’t Anything Change?
Just before sunset on July 2, 1999, a Ford Crown Vic approached 15-year-old Ephraim Wolfe in Chicago’s West Rogers Park.
A bullet had just torn a dime-sized hole in Wolfe’s leg, a couple of inches below the knee. The friend with whom he’d been walking had run to a nearby house for help, and Wolfe was alone. He was bleeding badly, and his leg had swelled to twice its normal size, but his body was in shock, and he didn’t feel any pain. Perhaps one minute had passed since he’d dismissed two explosive pops from the window of a passing car as early July 4 fireworks, only to look down and see blood.
Wolfe watched the Crown Vic. It was driving the wrong way down the one-way street. He screamed for his friend, thinking that the gunman was back. And he said the Shema.
For millennia, Jews have said that prayer, Judaism’s most fundamental expression of faith, at the moment of their deaths. If the shooter was back to kill him, Wolfe knew why. So when the car stopped and, to his relief, police emerged — every unmarked cop car in Chicago that summer was a Crown Vic — he told them “He shot me because I was Jewish.’”
When he was shot, Wolfe said, he had been walking to Friday night services. Anyone in West Rogers Park, long the home of Chicago’s Orthodox community, would have recognized his religious apparel. But his rapid understanding that his shooting was a hate crime was surprising. When he first spoke with the police, he didn’t yet know that 21-year-old Benjamin Nathaniel Smith had already shot five other Jews in the neighborhood. And Smith had yet to target the black and Korean communities in Chicago’s northern suburbs, southern Illinois, and Bloomington, Indiana, where he would, over the next two days, claim two lives.
“He didn’t try to steal my money, he didn’t ask anything from me, he didn’t yell anything at me, just tried to kill me,” said Wolfe, who now lives in Israel and is married with three children. “And my gut reaction was, he shot me because I was Jewish. In my mind, there’s only one reason.”
Today, it’s hard to find evidence of Smith’s rampage in the north Chicago neighborhoods he targeted.
Smith’s attack, which made front-page news across the country, unfolded between July 2 and 4, 1999. During that time, Smith shot and killed two people: the 43-year-old former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, who was black, and 26-year-old Won-Joon Yoon, a Korean graduate student at the University of Indiana. He injured nine more, including Wolfe.
Smith first targeted the Jewish community of West Rogers Park, after which he drove north to the suburb of Skokie, where he shot and killed Byrdsong, then on to Northbrook, where he shot at, but didn’t hit, an Asian couple in a nearby car. By Saturday morning he was in Springfield, Illinois, where he shot and injured a black man. That afternoon, in Decatur, he shot and injured a black minister, and in Urbana, that night, he shot at six University of Illinois students of Asian descent, injuring one. On Sunday morning, in Bloomington, Indiana, he opened fire outside a Korean church, killing Yoon. That night, as the police closed in on him in southern Illinois, he shot himself in the chin, chest and leg, killing himself.
Smith was a white supremacist, a follower of the neo-Nazi World Church of the Creator, which considers him a martyr. That organization, then led by Matthew Hale, who is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for seeking the assassination of a federal judge, billed itself as “dedicated to the survival, expansion and advancement of the white race.” In the still-early days of the internet, it was known for its efficacy at recruiting young adherents online. “The Creativity Movement [Smith] was a part of made extensive use of what was then referred to as cyberspace,” said Oren Segal, Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Smith was recruited offline, learning about Hale’s organization in 1998, from a leaflet tucked beneath the windshield of his car. But his radicalization was in part a result of the new possibilities opened by the internet. “He was spending time on forums,” Segal said; “Where do extremists get support for their hateful views? It’s not just from the people they engage face to face, it’s from the reality that there are online communities that make them feel emboldened.” In the immediate wake of the shooting, Smith’s freshman roommate at the University of Illinois, Luke Muzyka, told The Chicago Tribune that Smith, who in high school had a Korean girlfriend and Jewish best friend, became increasingly interested in white supremacy during the time they lived together. He read “Mein Kampf,” and commented that Hitler “did some admirable things.” Around the same time, Muzyka found Smith exploring an Aryan Nation website.
In 1999, mass shootings were an undeniable part of American life, but had yet to become the commonplace occurrence they are today. A Washington Post guide to American mass shootings lists 35 in the decade between 1990 and 1999 and 54 in the near-decade between 2010 and today; in the 90s, only four attacks resulted in 10 or more deaths, while in the most recent decade, 13 did. (The Post guide counts shootings that result in four or more fatalities, so Smith’s rampage does not appear.) And while the threat of domestic right-wing terrorism was a force in the country’s consciousness — the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives, occurred only five years earlier — white nationalist violence, largely, was not. Neither was anti-Semitic violence, although just a month after Smith’s spree, on August 10, a white supremacist shooting at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center wounded five.
Looking back from 2019, Smith’s attack appears predictive of certain trends — including the nationwide uptick in mass shootings — that have now become troublingly prominent. People espousing white nationalist causes have recently committed mass shootings both in the United States and globally, including the 2012 murder of six worshipers at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, the 2015 murder of nine black worshipers at a Charleston church, the October 2018 murder of 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and the murder, this past March, of 49 Muslims at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques. Violent anti-Semitism is also on the rise. In April a gunman attacked the Chabad of Poway, California, killing one and wounding three; other events, since Pittsburgh, include the June arrest of a man in Florida who praised the Poway shooter and made threats to kill Jews.
Perhaps most significantly, Smith’s dabbling in online white nationalism presaged the web’s transformation into a breeding ground for white nationalist and white supremacist sentiment. While the ADL has tracked the potential of computer networks to inflame white nationalism since at least 1985, Segal said, Smith’s shooting occurred around the time in which that potential began to visibly correlate to offline violence. (In May 1999, Howard Berkowitz, then chairman of the ADL, testified to Congress on the matter. “The internet offers both propaganda and how-to manuals for those seeking to act out fantasies of intolerance and violence,” he said.) The gunmen responsible for the Wisconsin, Charleston, Pittsburgh and Christchurch shootings were all involved in online white nationalist communities before their attacks. The Southern Poverty Law Center now describes the internet as “white nationalism’s organizing principle.”
Smith is now a data point in a sadly familiar set of white nationalist and white supremacist murderers. But in 1999, his crimes were perceived as, in many ways, unique — so much so that an August, 1999 article in The New York Times, half-wonderingly titled “New Face of Terror Crimes: ‘Lone Wolf’ Weaned On Hate,” cited him, as well as Buford O. Furrow, Jr., the L.A. JCC attacker, as examples of a new and shocking danger. “The notion being preached in pamphlets, on telephone lines and on white supremacist Web sites is that of the romantic, heroic loner who fights his own private war, committing violent acts against the Government, Jews and racial minorities,” wrote Jo Thomas, the article’s author. The Christchurch gunman, who live-streamed the attack on Facebook, disseminated an online manifesto rife, as Vox’s Jane Coaston wrote, with “self-aggrandizing rhetoric about the shooter’s own personal bravery.” It sounds, to say the least, familiar.
West Rogers Park is a neighborhood of small houses and wide, low apartment buildings. One Saturday this April, a young girl in a blue dress crouched in one home’s front window, looking warily at the world outside. It was Passover, and among the families leaving synagogue, a man walking alone repeated “Good Yom Tov” to no one in particular. On Estes Avenue, one of the residential streets that Smith targeted, a piece of paper taped in the window of a brick house warned, in bold capital letters, that the area was under surveillance: “WE CALL THE POLICE.” Across the street, a lawn sign countered: “IN OUR AMERICA, LOVE WINS.”
At Adas Yeshurun, one of the area’s major synagogues and the congregation to which several of Smith’s victims belonged, a security guard looked suspiciously out the glass doors at a short-haired woman in secular dress — me — taking notes and photographs.
In Chicago and its northern suburbs, Smith’s attack resulted in a meaningful legacy: The annual Race Against Hate, organized by Sherialyn Byrdsong, Ricky Byrdsong’s widow. Every Father’s Day, thousands gather in Evanston, the northern Chicago suburb in which Northwestern University is located, to walk or run five kilometers in a protest against the forces that radicalized Smith. The event retains a focus on Coach Byrdsong’s legacy, and is fundamentally joyful, bringing together residents of the suburb and its neighbors.
But beyond the race, which is now run by the Evanston YWCA, it’s hard to see any long-term impact of the shooting on the community.
Jewish leaders in West Rogers Park, as well as the YWCA team that oversees Race Against Hate, said that the only significant commemoration of the shooting is now the Race. When I tried to speak to people affiliated with Northwestern, and specifically the basketball team, about the impact of Byrdsong’s murder, I was ruefully informed that no one there felt they’d been around long enough to observe an impact firsthand. Smith’s parents, whom Wolfe unsuccessfully sued after the shooting, alleging that the couple should be held partially responsible for their son’s violence, still live in the northern Chicago suburbs. (Smith’s mother, Beverly, declined to comment for this story.) The impact on the individuals and families whom the shooting directly affected is, of course, permanent. But in the community, Rabbi Baruch Epstein of the Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois’s Bais Menachem told me, “it’s very ancient history.”
“You might as well talk about Pearl Harbor,” he said.
The security measures in the Jewish community — the guard at Adas Yeshurun, for instance — are mostly responses to more recent, less local events. When I met Epstein at Bais Menachem, I waited outside by the locked door until he could come fetch me. But when I asked about the lock, he waved me off. “That’s a post-Pittsburgh thing,” he said. “That’s not from 20 years ago.”
“In the moment it was scary,” he said, remembering community discussions about increasing security after Smith’s attack. “The positive response from government officials and the police gave us the sense that this is not the pogroms.”
Prior to the shooting, Wolfe had never considered that his home might be the target of an anti-Semitic attack. “I grew up in a very safe neighborhood,” he told me. “You heard people yell some [anti-Semitic] things from cars,” and that was it.
After the shooting, Wolfe said, some things briefly changed. “My friend’s brother was held at gunpoint and beaten,” he said, indicating the attack had been in response to the victim’s Jewishness. But Wolfe recovered quickly; he was walking and even running without crutches three months after he was shot, and, he said, “I wasn’t really traumatized. I fell into a safety net right away.” The community’s process mimicked his own. “There weren’t any subsequent events, so it sort of simmers down,” Epstein said. “People have a tendency to regress back to what’s most comfortable, which is the presumption that everything is fine.”
It was odd to hear. I’m from Denver, and the Columbine High School Massacre, in which 15 students and teachers were shot and killed only a few months before Smith’s attack, happened when I was six. It shaped the world in which I grew up. The week that I was in Chicago to report this story, hundreds of Denver area schools closed after a young woman named Sol Pais, who frequently posted online about her obsession with Columbine, arrived at the Denver airport and immediately purchased a firearm and ammunition. Pais was eventually found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. But 20 years later, it’s clear that both in Colorado and the country at large, Columbine remains an omnipresent psychological wound.
Why didn’t Smith’s attack, one of the first major acts of white nationalist or supremacist terror of this current era, have a similar effect?
The answer is that Columbine was a sea change, the moment when American schools were understood to become unsafe. Smith’s attack was not. “It was before 9/11,” Epstein said. “Columbine was an outlier that had occurred in some faraway place. We didn’t talk about terrorism and security. This was one lone kook.”
But it’s clear, looking back, that Smith’s attack marked its own kind of distinct societal shift. It was one of the last moments in which a single violent white supremacist could be seen as a lone operator, an anomaly rather than a symptom. It was one of the first moments, although no one knew it then, in which the new form of domestic terrorism — born and encouraged on the internet; combining a hatred of the government with a hatred of marginalized non-white groups; informed by narratives celebrating the single white man taking a stand against a society no longer engineered entirely for his benefit — made itself known.
Epstein told me that this past fall “The police made a meeting, a response to Pittsburgh, talking about synagogue safety.”
“They kept saying ‘this is something that’s happening, don’t think this can’t happen,’” he said. “And someone said ‘it happened here, in 1999.’”