Two brothers charged on Monday with the killing of a gay couple in Northern California and who are prime suspects in three synagogue fires apparently are fervent disciples of a growing national ministry that considers Jews subhuman and homosexuality an unforgivable sin.
Law enforcement officials say that their investigation of Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29, suggests the two men have ties to the Christian Identity movement, whose apocalyptic, supremacist views are worrying police and mainstream religious groups across the country.
Searches of each man's home have turned up teachings from that group as well as writings from an extremist organization known as the World Church of the Creator. It is a puzzling set of influences on the Williams brothers, investigators say, because one movement adheres to a strict and devout religious faith and the other claims to reject the idea of God or gods even though it calls itself a church.
"But what both groups have in common is hatred of Jews, and both hide behind a facade of religion," said Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific office. "That's why I don't think the Williams brothers made a distinction. It looks like they were dabbling in all of it."
An attorney for Benjamin Williams said today that he has yet to see any evidence from police linking his client to hate groups in California or across the country. "It seems like a long leap to make at this point," Jack Suter said.
In a jailhouse interview last week with the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif., a small valley town north of Sacramento where both men live, James Williams denied having a role in the synagogue fires and said that he had never met the gay couple. He also said that he does not belong to extremist groups.
"I read a lot of things," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "People have Satanic bibles. That doesn't mean they follow them."
The Williams brothers, who are being held without bail, each have been charged with murder, robbery and burglary. The indictment alleges that earlier this month the two men killed a prominent gay couple in Redding, Gary Matson and Winfield Scott Mowder, because of their "sexual orientation." If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
The couple was shot to death in their bed as they slept. Less than a week later, police arrested the Williams brothers in a shopping mall parking lot after they allegedly used the credit card of one of the dead men to purchase a stockpile of ammunition loading devices.
Both brothers, who were raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in California, were armed with semiautomatic weapons and one was wearing a bulletproof vest when they were apprehended, police said.
The couple's murder and the synagogue fires have drawn national attention and are part of a rash of recent hate crimes across Northern California, including the dumping of thousands of antisemitic fliers outside a number of schools around Redding.
The ties that the Williams brothers may have to the Christian Identity movement have become a particular focus of the growing investigation because law enforcement officials are concerned that the hate crimes in Northern California could be part of a still unfolding conspiracy.
Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups across the country, have warned authorities that with the millennium approaching some may be planning to act on their apocalyptic beliefs and inflict violence on minorities. Among the best-known followers of the Christian Identity movement is Eric Rudolph, a fugitive who is a prime suspect in the bombing at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and in a string of attacks on abortion clinics around the Southeast.
Earlier this month, an adherent of the World Church of the Creator killed two people and wounded nine others in a racially motivated shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana. He later killed himself.