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Feds classify Kansas shootings as hate crimes

April 14, 2014 at 6:05 PM EST
Federal authorities confirmed that they believe shootings at two Jewish community sites in Kansas were motivated by hate. Gwen Ifill talks to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center to learn more about the 73-year-old suspect, Frazier Glenn Cross, who faces first-degree murder charges for the deaths of three people.
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Editor’s Note: On the PBS NewsHour Monday, we mistakenly referred to the man suspected of shooting and killing three people in Kansas as Franklin Glenn Cross. His name is Frazier Glenn Cross (or Frazier Glenn Miller). The transcript has been edited to reflect the correct name.

GWEN IFILL: Federal and state authorities continued their investigation today into the shootings in Kansas that left three people dead.

Federal authorities confirmed it today. They believe the Passover eve shootings at two Jewish community sites were motivated by hate.

JOHN DOUGLASS, Overland Park, Kansas, Police Chief: We have unquestionably determined through the work of local and federal law enforcement agencies that this was a hate crime. We need the verification of some investigation to make this determination. It’s more than just an opinion; it’s actually a legal status.

GWEN IFILL: The suspect in Sunday’s shootings, 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross, also faces state charges of first-degree murder.

Police say that Cross is also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. After his arrest, he yelled Nazi slogans from a patrol car.

FRAZIER GLENN CROSS, Suspect: Heil Hitler!

GWEN IFILL: The gunman’s first target was a popular Jewish community center, where two people died, a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather, who was dropping him off for a singing competition. They were not Jewish.

Today, the boy’s mother, Mindy Corporon, spoke to reporters.

MINDY CORPORON, Mother of Shooting Victim: People keep saying, how come you’re so strong? And I’m strong because I have family. I’m strong because I have faith. I know that God didn’t do this. I know that there are evil, evil actions.

But what we do have is each other, and we have love and we have prayer and we have friends. He was with us for a wonderful 14 years. He had a really full life for a 14-year-old, and we were very blessed.

GWEN IFILL: A theater coach says she huddled inside, in lockdown, for about 90 minutes with a group of children in her care.

JENESSA WATKINS, Witness: It was really scary. I mean, people are calling their loved ones. And I thought that I was fine and under control, but — and when I called my mom and she started crying and then I started crying. And I kind of just couldn’t help but think about Sandy Hook, just looking around at these very young children. And I was really scared.

GWEN IFILL: Minutes later, a third person was killed outside a Jewish assisted living center about a mile away. She, too, was Christian.

In Washington this morning, President Obama joined in condemning the attack.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nobody should have to worry about their security when gathering with their fellow believers. No one should ever have to fear for their safety when they go to pray.

And as a government, we’re going to provide whatever assistance is needed to support the investigation. As Americans, we not only need to open our hearts to the families of the victims. We’ve got to stand united against this kind of terrible violence, which has no place in our society.

GWEN IFILL: Cross has not yet appeared in court. Formal charges could come tomorrow.

As it turns out, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has been keeping its eye on the suspect in this latest crime for some time.

Mark Potok of the center has more about his history and beliefs. He joins us from Montgomery, Alabama.

Welcome.

So, the authorities said today — the federal authorities, U.S. attorney said — and the FBI — this was definitely a hate crime. So start off for us — for us defining what that means.

MARK POTOK, Southern Poverty Law Center: Well, a hate crime simply means a crime that is motivated largely or in whole by a particular type of prejudice.

It varies according to the state law, but generally it’s sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, those kinds of things. So — and the classic hate crime is where a person kills another person who he doesn’t know at all. And that is precisely what appears to have happened here. It seems that Cross allegedly murdered people simply because they were Jewish — or he thought they were Jewish, wrongly.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s — that’s an important point, actually. It doesn’t matter in this definition whether the victims were actually of the group that he was seeking to terrorize.

MARK POTOK: That’s right. It has no legal meaning at all. It’s simply what he thought he was doing.

GWEN IFILL: So tell us about Frazier Cross. What do you know?

MARK POTOK: Well, we have known him as Frazier Glenn Miller before he apparently legally changed his name to Cross as a grand dragon of a group called the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan back in the early ’80s.

He later formed a group called the White Patriot Party. Both of these groups were essentially Klan groups, but that were very paramilitary in orientation. They marched through the streets with guns. They wore fatigues, that kind of thing.

We got involved because we sued the White Patriot Party in the Carolina Knights over their intimidation of black people in North Carolina, and also their operating of a paramilitary organization. It turned out they were actually being trained and supplied with stolen weapons by active-duty Marines at Fort Bragg. So it was quite a scandal at the time.

Ultimately, Glenn Miller decided — agreed to break up his group, to stop operating as a paramilitary organization. He broke that agreement, was convicted of contempt, went on the lam and was a fugitive until the FBI found him in 1987 in a trailer filled with explosives, with grenades, with weapons and, as it happens, also a plan to murder, to assassinate the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I work, Morris Dees.

GWEN IFILL: So if it turns out…

MARK POTOK: But that was really our original encounter with Glenn Miller.

GWEN IFILL: So if it turns out that he indeed is found guilty of a hate crime, what is the penalty? Is it a more severe penalty than if he was just found guilty of an attempted or committed murder?

MARK POTOK: I don’t think so, because I think in this case he can be charged under state law with a capital crime.

The federal hate crime statute doesn’t have a death penalty provision in any case. There are some civil rights laws that conceivably could bring the death penalty to bear. But I don’t think — you can’t get any worse than death. And that is what he is very likely going to be tried for in the state.

GWEN IFILL: You know, it is easy to dismiss people who make these kinds of threats as simply being — maybe not so simple — unbalanced. How do you make the distinction about when they cross the line into being dangerous in a way that can help head off at the pass these kinds of attacks?

MARK POTOK: Well, two things.

One, I think it’s a mistake to describe all people on the extreme right or even most people as mentally ill. That is a way of kind of pushing it away and saying it really has nothing to do with what is going on in our society.

The reality is, our society is changing. We are becoming less white, that, of course, very much represented in the election of a black president. And people like Glenn Miller are reacting. Now, Glenn Miller is a particularly vicious and violent man, certainly in his rhetoric over the years and the kinds of things he’s tried to do.

You know, there really — but the reality, of course, about somebody like Glenn Miller is that when he says that the world would be a wonderful place if only we killed all the Jews, he is 100 percent protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. So it’s very hard to say — to look at someone like Glenn Miller, who didn’t do much for the last 20 years, other than publish propaganda, and say he looks like he is about to commit a mass shooting.

I don’t think there was really any indication that that was coming.

GWEN IFILL: For anybody watching who is a little confused, I want to be clear this man goes by a couple different names, Frazier Glenn Cross, Glenn Miller, Frazier Miller, just so everybody knows we’re talking about the same person.

Are people like this always loners, individuals, or are there conspiracies out there we should be keeping — or that you are keeping an eye on?

MARK POTOK: Much, much more often than not these days, they are loners, so-called lone wolves.

And that is largely because conspiracies tend to be found out so very quickly, and often quite easily by law enforcement. And also conspiracies, when actually a whole group of people actually plan a crime or a domestic terrorist attack, they will very likely all go down if even only one of them is caught.

So, today, almost all of these attacks, certainly the most dangerous attacks, come from lone wolves or people with operating with just one or two friends like, for instance, Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.

GWEN IFILL: At what point — you mentioned Timothy McVeigh — that is an example. At what point do we begin to treat these kinds of attacks as domestic terrorism, not just as hate crimes or individual acts?

MARK POTOK: Well, I mean, they are domestic terrorism. Let’s be plain.

There is nothing to distinguish this from other forms of terrorism. It is a way in this case of terrorizing the Jewish community around Kansas City in particular, but around the country in general. And that’s what terrorism is. It’s a criminal act that is aimed at far more people than the immediate victims.

You know, the law enforcement has been off and on about being candid about the terrorist nature of these attacks. But I think, today, by and large, American law enforcement is perfectly well aware that there is a very serious domestic radical right and some people within that milieu are, in fact, terrorists.

GWEN IFILL: And we expect formal charges to be brought against him tomorrow.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, thank you very much.

MARK POTOK: A pleasure. Thanks for having me.