Civil rights organizations have repeatedly failed to silence Tom Metzger, but a seldom-used legal tactic now threatens to financially ruin the white supremacist and bring down the organization he has been building for three decades.
The new tactic--a civil lawsuit filed against Metzger; his son, John, and their national White Aryan Resistance empire--relies on evidence that links the Fallbrook man to three skinheads who, in 1988, murdered a young black man in Portland, Ore., according to previously unpublished documents reviewed by The Times.
No one claims that Metzger wielded the bat that killed the victim of an apparently random racial attack, and no criminal charges are pending against him. But the suit seeks to hold the Metzgers responsible for the slaying because of their alleged role in organizing and encouraging the skinheads and to turn over their financial assets--up to $10 million--to the victim's family. No trial has been set.
Although Tom Metzger expresses nonchalance over the lawsuit, he is quietly liquidating assets. He no longer owns his house and is negotiating the sale of his television repair company.
In court papers, he claims to have lost thousands of dollars in work because of the lawsuit. He recently stood alone for two hours, invoking the Fifth Amendment during a legal deposition for the case.
John Metzger, head of the Aryan Youth Movement, has filed for protection under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in San Diego. He claims more than $2,000 in arrears and lists $10 million in potential losses from the civil case as a pending debt.
The American Civil Liberties Union rejected a plea for legal assistance from the Metzgers. So they are defending themselves against allegations that their encouragement played a role in the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Portland.
Key evidence shows that the Metzgers were deeply involved in Portland skinhead activities, sending organizers from California to teach young white recruits "how we work."
Three former members of the Metzger organization, including the ex-vice president of the skinhead faction, are in hiding, apparently to ensure their safety until they can testify that the Metzgers dispatched them to Portland to spread racial hatred.
Despite the suit, Tom Metzger exuded self-confidence during a recent two-hour interview at his Fallbrook home, which is decorated with wall photographs and medals cataloguing his travels in the John Birch Society, the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and as a 1980 congressional candidate.
"He ain't going to beat me," he said of Morris S. Dees, the Alabama civil rights attorney who is trying to make Metzger pay for Seraw's death.
"He don't understand me. I'm a fanatic. It wouldn't make any difference if I did lose everything, because I wouldn't lose my fanaticism. And I would be back in business some way, three days after he got a victory."
Metzger, 51, said he is liquidating his assets in preparation for retirement. However, if he should lose the lawsuit, the move would give him fewer recorded assets to be awarded to the victim's family.
Dees has patterned the Metzger suit after one against the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. In that case, he won a $7-million judgment against Klan members after the murder of a black teen-ager in Mobile. Dees successfully argued that the Klan, by encouraging violence and racism, helped bring about the killing.
Although the Klan branch did not have nearly that much money, the victim's mother was awarded a percentage of its leaders' future wages, a portion of their real estate and the deed to the group's headquarters.
Dees declined to discuss the specifics of the Metzger case, saying only, "We intend to prove what we claim in our court papers."
The lawsuit, filed in October, contends that the Metzgers "intentionally, wantonly and in utter disregard of their societal obligations" deprived Seraw of his civil right to life, and that $10 million in punitive damages would deter "future outrageous conduct of this kind."
Metzger said the Klan lost because it did not fight hard enough, something he vows to do.
"This is not the Klan, and this is not Alabama," he said. "Morris Dees may be a big boy in Montgomery, Ala., but out here he ain't jack.
"And, when I knock this guy out of the saddle, it'll make me the biggest thing in the country. I'm going to cost this guy so much money he's going to wish he never came out here. He's going to get bogged down like the Germans did in Russia. You've got another Stalingrad here."
And, if Metzger loses?
"There's no money," Metzger said. "I've got a '72 Chevy station wagon. Oh, and I've got a '79 Datsun truck that's rusting out in the back."
"Tom Metzger is definitely a national figure," said Leonard Zeskind, research director for the Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors cults, extremists and groups that espouse racial hatred.