Good intentions don't trump due process, probable cause

November 01, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

DOROTHY Elizabeth Wheeler, as she's known in the application for a search-and-seizure warrant that led to the arrest of her husband, Lovell Arthur Wheeler, even dresses differently from the rest of us.

There she was Wednesday morning, standing in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, flanked by her husband's lawyers, Brian Thompson and Byron Warnken, clad in a blue denim-type dress that dropped nearly to the ankles, while sporting a matching hat that had an Amish or Mennonite quality. She wore a red bandana tied around her neck. A red shawl draped from her shoulders.

Dorothy Elizabeth Wheeler looked very much like a throwback to a time when being white was so right in America that the phrase "free, white and 21" wasn't even considered offensive.

Those days are long gone, and, according to some, the Wheelers are two folks who are definitely sorry about that. But is that a crime? Did Lovell Wheeler spend four months in jail not for an action crime, but a thought crime?

Lovell Wheeler was arrested July 1 after Baltimore police raided his home in the 500 block of S. East Ave. and uncovered 80 pounds of gunpowder, 14 rifles, eight handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and other weapons he was in the process of making. He pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of reckless endangerment, one count of possession of more than five pounds of smokeless gunpowder and one count of improperly storing gunpowder. He received a five-year suspended sentence and three years supervised probation.

The Wheelers have been called white supremacists, members of the National Alliance, a group whose one-time leader, William Pierce, wrote The Turner Diaries, a racist fantasy in which "pure whites" kill off all the Jews and blacks in America. The novel is said to have inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Lovell Wheeler has denied he's a member of the National Alliance. Dorothy Elizabeth Wheeler acknowledged that she's a member, but said the National Alliance isn't a neo-Nazi organization. Thompson hinted that it is Lovell Wheeler's unpopular political views that led to his being held in solitary confinement for four months, first on $2 million bail and then on no bail.

Thompson and Margaret Burns, the spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, urged reporters to look at the application for the search-and-seizure warrant of the Wheelers' home to determine the probable cause for the July 1 raid. Indeed, there may be several civics lessons in that one warrant application.

Police learned June 24 that Lovell Wheeler may have been storing gunpowder and firearms from a City Council member, who received a tip from an anonymous "concerned citizen." According to the warrant, the "concerned citizen went on to explain that Mr. Wheeler has very strong anti-government beliefs that he is very vocal about and speaks freely about his beliefs within the community."

On June 28, police sent a uniformed officer to the Wheeler residence. The officer, according to the warrant, had an interesting conversation with Lovell Wheeler.

"Mr. Wheeler complimented the officer on being a `good' white officer and [said] there is a need in the city for more like him. Mr. Wheeler went on to express his views on Jews controlling the media and attempting to start a war within the city. Mr. Wheeler stated, `The war is going to start in the city and I am ready and need more troops to help in the fight.' Mr. Wheeler suggested that the officer consider becoming one of his troops and bring some more `good' white males along. Mr. Wheeler finished the conversation with this officer by quoting Dr. William Pierce [past National Alliance president] and stating you have to choose sides because the blacks are trying to kill all whites. Mr. Wheeler handed the officer a piece of literature entitled `Who Rules America?' which discusses racial views."

The warrant says police checked with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and learned both Wheelers belonged to the National Alliance. Nearly one and a half pages discussed the history of the National Alliance and the criminal activity of some of its members, none of whom had the last name of Wheeler.

"We disagree he ever said those things," Thompson said of the conversation police claim one of their officers had with Lovell Wheeler. "But those are political views. They don't constitute a crime. They're not a basis for holding a man without bail."

While conceding that all parties concerned had the best of intentions in this matter, it looks like Thompson and Warnken have the better argument.

A lot more probable cause was needed to raid the Wheelers' home than an unconfirmed anonymous tip and Lovell Wheeler's hunch that there may be a race war. Black columnist Carl Rowan even wrote a 1996 book called The Coming Race War in America and kept a gun in his home.

I'm sure no one remembers Rowan being arrested on such skimpy probable cause.

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