Tax authorities in Illinois said yesterday they have begun investigating the white supremacist group linked to Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's Independence Day weekend shooting rampage for possible violations of state tax or charitable trust laws.
Investigators said they are seeking to determine whether the East Peoria-based World Church of the Creator violated any state tax laws after it was denied tax-exempt status in 1995. Smith was a member of the group until shortly before the three-day shooting spree in which he allegedly killed two men and wounded nine others before committing suicide.
Debbie Best, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, said the World Church of the Creator, which claims to have 3,500 members in 35 states and several countries, does not qualify as a religious organization under the legal definition of the term.
"Based on the information they sent us, they did not meet the criteria of a not-for-profit organization formed exclusively for charitable or religious purposes," Best said. She said the criteria includes whether the group maintains a place of worship, engages in training for the ministry or is affiliated with a registered national or regional church.
Matt Hale, the self-proclaimed pontifex maximus, or supreme leader, of the white-power group, called the state probe "another smear campaign by government authorities in the wake of the Smith shooting."
"We have no obligation to pay taxes any more than any other church does," Hale said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We will fight within the legal system for freedom of religion, and I will fight for every right I have."
World Church of the Creator members have been linked to numerous hate crimes in recent years, including the 1993 bombing of an NAACP office in Tacoma, Wash., the 1997 beating of a black man and his teenage son outside a theater in Sunrise, Fla., and last year's beating of a Jewish video store owner in Hollywood, Fla. The group's propaganda was also found in the home of two brothers, Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, who are suspected of the murder last week of two gay men in Redding, Calif., and earlier arson attacks on three Sacramento-area synagogues.
Best said that when police searched Smith's car after his suicide, they recovered a receipt for $6,190 from a printing company that in June had delivered 100,000 copies of World Church literature to a storage locker rented by Smith and Hale. State officials said the group had illegally invoked a charitable exemption from sales taxes on the printing job.
Best said officials are also investigating whether the World Church should be collecting and reporting taxes on sales of a white supremacist book, "The White Man's Bible," and other publications sold by members. She said that if Hale is found liable, his group would be billed for back taxes. The Illinois attorney general's office said that even if an organization asks for donations for publications, the law requires it to register as a church or charity.
In addition to the tax probe, two investigators from a task force that is looking into the shootings interviewed Hale Wednesday in an attempt to determine whether he had advance knowledge of the rampage conducted in Illinois and Indiana. Calling the interview a "witch hunt," Hale denied having prior knowledge of Smith's intent and said that he regretted what Smith did "in terms of his death and the breaking of laws."