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Reconstructing the Shooting Spree

July 5, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ The sun set and the Sabbath had just begun as a group of Orthodox worshippers headed to synagogue. A stranger stepped out of a shiny blue Taurus. Soon, the staccato of gunfire shattered the night, bullets whizzing past one man’s head.

The shooter had calmly approached a group of men and boys wearing traditional black hats and long black coats, aimed a pair of semiautomatic handguns and opened fire.

He got back into his car and slowly drove through the North Side neighborhood. He turned the corner, shooting two more men. A block south, two more. He drove on a few blocks, stopping three more times, all the time shooting from his car _ shattering the glass on the passenger side.

Within 15 minutes Friday night, six Orthodox Jews were wounded; one was hit in his back as he threw his young son to the ground, then covered him with his own body. The driver was gone _ without uttering a word.

Soon police had a sketch: A white man in his 20s, medium build, short, dark brown hair, driving a ’90s model Taurus.

The hunt was on.

It was the beginning of what police say was a three-day rampage by a white supremacist who targeted minorities in two states over the Fourth of July weekend; he is suspected of killing a black former basketball coach and a Korean graduate student.

It ended Sunday night with a third death on a quiet rural road, 235 miles south of Chicago.

This time, authorities say, the person killed was the suspected gunman _ Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, 21. Smith, who had the words ``Sabbath Breaker″ tattooed across his chest, was well-known to authorities for distributing hate-message leaflets.

Marion County sheriff’s deputies say they chased Smith after he carjacked a minivan in southern Illinois; he shot himself twice as he was pursued, they say, then a third time _ in the chest _ as he struggled with authorities.

``I’m glad it’s over,″ Sheriff Gerald L. Benjamin declared Monday. ``I don’t know what caused this but it’s very sad.″


Once the shootings began, it took just 17 minutes before he struck again.

This time it was fatal.

The scene was a tranquil tree-lined street in north suburban Skokie, where Ricky Byrdsong, a 43-year-old former Northwestern University basketball coach, had been walking with his son and daughter, about a block from their home.

Police say at least seven shots were fired at Byrdsong; he was hit once in the back and died in surgery hours later. His children were not hurt.

The final shots that evening came at 9:20 p.m. in the northern suburb of Northbrook, about 15 miles from where the men were attacked outside the synagogue. This time, police say, an Asian-American couple honked their car horn at a slow-moving light blue Taurus in front of them.

Four shots were fired, but no one was injured.

On Saturday, Chicago police began piecing together the shootings with ballistic reports.

Police said the shooter had .22-caliber and .380-caliber semiautomatics; they said at least 32 bullets and shells were recovered, but perhaps as many as 50 shots were fired _ all within one hour.

By Saturday, mourners were coming to the Byrdsong home; a makeshift memorial of flowers, cards and teddy bears was forming at the shooting scene.

By then, the gunman had moved on.


On Saturday, there were more ominous reports of a man in a blue Taurus taking aim at black men walking down the street.

This time, the scene was 175 miles south of Chicago, in the state capital, Springfield. Three black men reported being shot at in two separate instances. One was hit in the buttocks; the others weren’t injured.

Shortly before midnight and another 75 miles away, a gunman pulled up to six Asian-American men standing or a corner near the University of Illinois campus and fired three or four shots, according to police. A 22-year-old graduate student of Taiwanese descent was hit in the leg.

The gunman moved on again __ this time, apparently, crossing state lines.


It was a steamy July Fourth and the minister of the Korean United Methodist Church was preparing for Sunday Sabbath services in Bloomington, Ind.

``I heard bang, bang, bang, bang,″ Byungchill Hahn recalled with tear-filled eyes. ``I thought it was a firecracker with the Fourth of July.″

It was not.

The minister ran out to find Won-Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old doctoral student in economics, collapsing on the sidewalk.

By then, authorities knew the name of their suspect.

It was Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a young man who had been a member of the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization in Illinois.

Smith _ who sometimes liked to use the first name ``August″ because he thought Benjamin sounded too Jewish _ attended the prestigious New Trier High School. His father and mother _ a doctor and a real estate agent _ now live in Northfield in a home with a tennis court and swimming pool.

Smith had a troubled past: While attending the University of Illinois, records show he was reprimanded for pot possession; he also put up racist posters and allegedly was peeping into window and carrying weapons.

Police said he distributed white supremacist leaflets around the school, Chicago’s North Shore, where his family lives, and Indiana University in Bloomington, which he attended as a criminal justice major after leaving Illinois.

In fact, he had tucked fliers on car windshields on Bloomington last year.

The date?

The Fourth of July.


It was late Sunday, the end of a weekend of terror.

A minivan had been carjacked at a truckstop in southern Illinois, police said, by a man who resembled Smith.

A deputy spotted the vehicle. Soon, the chase was on.

Smith shot himself three times, the third while struggling with deputies after he crashed into a small building.

The questions of how and why this happened have just begun, but others already see a message in this tragedy.

Harlan Loeb, Midwest counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which has monitored Smith for more than a year, said this incident demonstrates the power of a hateful message.

``His rhetoric was fairly inflammatory, but until this episode, it was substantially rhetoric,″ he said. ``What it tells you is the consequences of words can be fairly significant, the consequences of hate and screed can be very, very destructive.″

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