Federal and state authorities have charged white supremacist Buford O. Furrow with attempting to murder five people at a Jewish community center's summer camp Tuesday and then killing a postal worker because he was a minority and a federal employee.
U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas said today that Furrow, who surrendered early Wednesday in Las Vegas and has been extradited to Los Angeles, has given authorities detailed statements about how he committed the crimes.
In a chilling account of the slaying of letter carrier Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American who was making his daily rounds at the time, Mayorkas said that Furrow has told investigators he decided to kill the man on a whim after spotting him standing next to a postal van and concluding that he was either Hispanic or Asian. "He stated that the postal worker was a good `target of opportunity,' " Mayorkas said.
The shooting occurred about an hour after the attack on the Jewish community center and only a few miles away. Furrow approached Ileto, who was on that route by chance, with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol tucked in his back pocket, Mayorkas said. He asked if he could give him a letter to mail. When Ileto agreed, Furrow instead brandished the pistol, shot him twice, then continued firing as the carrier staggered to escape, Mayorkas said. Ileto was struck several times in the back and the head and collapsed as Furrow drove away in a Toyota Camry he had just carjacked.
Furrow, 37, a burly and balding man from Washington state, has a history of ties to hate groups in the Northwest. He has been a member of a neo-Nazi group known as Aryan Nations, and investigators have found materials linking him to a movement known as Christian Identity, which considers Jews subhuman.
In all, Furrow has been charged by state authorities with five counts of attempted murder, one count of murder and one count of carjacking. Federal prosecutors charged him with killing a federal employee and illegally possessing a firearm while on probation for an assault conviction last year in Washington state. Furrow served five months in jail near Seattle for threatening staff members at a psychiatric hospital there with a knife shortly after he tried to admit himself, claiming he felt homicidal.
The most serious charges against Furrow are being classified as hate crimes, which under California law bring more severe punishment. If convicted of the shooting attacks, he could face the death penalty.
"We are horrified by these events," Mayorkas said. "Crimes with racial motives tear at the heart of our nation."
At his arraignment in a packed federal courtroom here this morning, Furrow looked briefly at the crowd and smiled as he told a public defender, "They all like me." A judge ordered him to be held without bail.
In the criminal complaint filed against Furrow for the attack on the Jewish center, which is in the San Fernando Valley on the northern edge of Los Angeles, authorities said he used an Uzi submachine gun. About 70 shots were fired into the center's front lobby, police said, at a time when most of the several hundred children and teenagers who spend summer days there had just left in buses for a field trip.
Three young children, a teenage camp counselor and an elderly receptionist were struck by the torrent of gunfire. Four of them remained hospitalized today in stable condition; one has been released.
Authorities said they are still investigating why Furrow allegedly targeted the center, but they believe he drove to Southern California in a van he purchased last weekend in Washington state. Tonight, a law enforcement official said Furrow scouted a few other Jewish institutions here before stumbling upon the community center and deciding it might be the easiest target to strike.
Police say Furrow's van, which was found abandoned in a parking lot not far from the shooting site, was filled with a half-dozen other assault weapons, cases of ammunition, smoke bombs, survivalist gear and propaganda materials from several racist groups.
Furrow turned himself in at an FBI office in Las Vegas after taking a 270-mile, $800 cab ride there. Law enforcement sources say he told them he had carried out the attack to promote hatred toward Jews.
Across Southern California today, as the investigation of Furrow continued, flags at post offices were ordered flown at half-staff in honor of the slain postal worker. Ileto, 37, had been a part-time letter carrier for two years. U.S. Postal Service officials said he was among a group of carriers who have no set mail routes but fill in where they are needed. Friends of Ileto left flowers and candles at the site of the slaying.
"We feel a deep loss," said John Freeman, a special agent for the Postal Service.
In Washington, meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno said the shooting rampage highlighted the need for tougher gun control measures, and she chastised Congress for not taking steps to enact them.
"We must decide now, as a nation, whether we are going to allow our culture of violence to continue into the next millennium or whether we are going to start into the new era with a commitment to tolerance and to peaceful resolution of our disputes and our disagreements," Reno said at her weekly news conference.
Staff writers Barbara Vobejda and Edward Walsh in Washington and special correspondent Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles contributed to this report.