Amid Denver's economic boom, a two-week spate of hate crimes Mostly white city has a history of ethnic, racial violence

November 28, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- This was to be the year that Denver arrived.

Thanks to an economic boom and downtown revitalization, it seemed that this city had clawed its way out of tortuous boom-and-bust cycles through diversification and public works projects -- including its 2-year-old international airport.

Denver received international attention when it was the host to ,, the 1997 Summit of Eight international economic conference, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing trials.

But two weeks of deadly confrontations involving racist skinheads has reminded the nation that this metropolitan region of 2 million residents -- like other urban centers -- also has a shadowy element and is still trying to find a way for people to coexist peacefully.

"When it comes to the violence of ethnic conflict, the West has a full record," said Patricia Limerick, professor of history at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "The notion that we live in a pure region where we were not troubled by the things that troubled the East Coast never worked."

But she is as puzzled as most people here -- including law enforcement officials -- about the motivations behind the spate of hate crimes that have made people of color afraid to wait for a bus at night.

"Whites are in such a clear majority [in most settings in the interior West]," Limerick said, "it takes a really paranoid white person to fear the overthrow of their dominance."

The most recent trouble started Nov. 12, after a high-speed chase that ended in a standoff with police. Officer Bruce VanderJagt, 47, was shot to death by skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig, 25, who then used the officer's gun to commit suicide.

A week later, 38-year-old African immigrant Oumar Dia was waiting for a downtown bus when, according to a witness, he was taunted and then shot and killed by two young white supremacists. Jeannie VanVelkinburgh, a single mother of two, was shot and paralyzed from the waist down when she tried to help Dia.

In a chilling interview with local television stations, 19-year-old suspect Nathan Thill smiled and said: "I'd had my gun in my waist and I'd seen the black guy there at the bus stop and I kind of just thought to myself how easy it would be for me to just take him out right there."

Police are investigating incidents in which a skinhead allegedly ambushed a police officer responding to a burglary call, and the carcass of a pig carved with VanderJagt's name was dumped in the parking lot of his station house.

Some authorities are blaming the surge in hate crimes on hardened criminal skinheads recently released from jail and filtering into Denver to spark some sort of revival.

Racist crimes are not without precedent in this predominantly white city with a two-term black mayor.

In the 1920s, Colorado's governor led a Ku Klux Klan parade along downtown's main drag. In 1984, a terrorist gang known as the Silent Brotherhood shot and killed KOA radio talk show host Alan Berg.

In 1989, a Denver skinhead shot and killed the driver of a car he was trying to steal -- then showed the body to his friends and set it on fire along with the vehicle. In 1991, police cracked down on skinheads who tried to disrupt a parade on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

Also that year, 10 people were arrested and six hurt during a confrontation on Adolf Hitler's birthday.

"Back then, members of subversive groups couldn't blow their noses without us knowing about it," recalled Denver police spokesman Dennis Cribari. "Many of their leaders went to prison."

Colorado officials are aiming to keep a vigilant eye on skinhead activities, and vow that hate crimes will not be tolerated.

On Tuesday, a thousand people attended an "anti-hate" rally downtown and observed a moment of silence in memory of Dia, a hotel employee who was saving to bring his family in Mauritania to Denver.

A tape-recorded message from VanVelkinburgh, whose spinal cord was severed, brought many in the crowd to tears.

"Sorry I can't be with you guys today," she said in a voice filled with conviction and confidence. "If I had to do it all over again, I would."

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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