FULLERTON — When FBI informants set out in 1991 to infiltrate white supremacy hate groups in Orange County, they were pointed in the direction of a 20-year-old crippled man who needed a strap to hold him upright in his wheelchair.
Geremy C. von Rineman had become a fallen hero of the White Aryan movement after a bloody confrontation in 1989 with suspected minority gang members in Van Nuys that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Although the bullet that felled him elevated him to near martyrdom among fellow skinheads, and cemented his activism with the white supremacist movement, being disabled plunged him into near poverty. He was supported only by a state welfare check, and his relationship had become strained with his companion and caretaker, Jill Marie Scarborough.
It was in this desperate state of need, his friends now say, that two FBI informants found Rineman at his Fullerton apartment in September, 1991.
During that initial encounter, one informant pulled out a wad of bills, according to a friend who says he unknowingly led the undercover informants to Rineman.
"It looks to me like you need a little bit of help," one of the informants is remembered to have said as he handed over about $350 to $500. Before the evening was over, the new acquaintance would offer to buy a van to help transport Rineman in his wheelchair.
Rineman and his friends would worry much later that the two men were not seeking his friendship, but rather information to build cases for the FBI against white hate groups.
Rineman's worst suspicions were confirmed on Juy 15 when federal agents charged Rineman, 22, and Scarborough, 21--the couple is now separated--with possession of an illegal short-barreled shotgun.
Six more white supremacists from Orange and Los Angeles counties were arrested on weapons and other charges. Two juveniles and an adult were part of the Fourth Reich Skinheads, which authorities say plotted to commit violence against racial and religious minorities.
The Rineman episode shows how law enforcement agents get inside secret groups suspected of illegal activities, often by befriending vulnerable members. At the same time, the incident is becoming a rallying point for white supremacists who charge that authorities have manufactured the cases and engaged in entrapment.
Federal officials have said videotape and other evidence will show there was no entrapment.
Although Rineman could not be reached for an interview, friends and family members describe him as a nonviolent skinhead and they ridicule the charges.
"How can a man who cannot pick up a fork to eat and cannot take care of himself in any way because his fingers are closed into a fist--how can he pick up a gun?" asked one relative who spoke on condition of anonymity.
If Rineman was becoming a political radical while he attended Marina High School in Huntington Beach, his relatives did not know it. He was a skinhead, but they believed that it connoted nothing more than the style in which he and his friends wore their hair and the kind of music they liked.
With a grade average better than B, Rineman was one of many seniors in the Class of '89 presented with an academic citation bearing President George Bush's signature. Instead of going to college, he took a job as an apprentice machinist at McDonnell Douglas.
By October 14, 1989, just a few months after his high school graduation, Rineman was ready to marry Scarborough and begin a new life with her and her infant son.
But his life changed that evening.
About 50 skinheads had gathered in Van Nuys for a birthday celebration. Part of the entertainment included a viewing of two "Aryan weddings" videotaped the previous summer by members of the White Aryan Resistance in Oklahoma. Inspired by the weddings, Rineman proposed to Scarborough during the party.
But the evening ended violently when Rineman and two other skinheads went to a nearby supermarket, where partyers engaged in shouting matches with suspected gang members. Rineman was shot and paralyzed.
Rineman was initially treated in a county hospital ward filled with minority shooting victims and "felt totally defenseless being a skinhead," said John Metzger, son of White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger.
The incident brought Rineman and the Metzgers together.
Two weeks after the shooting, Rineman, his tattooed body in traction and a metal halo screwed to his head, was interviewed in a hospital by Tom Metzger for WAR's cable television program. Metzger called Rineman's shooting a "typical anti-white attack by nonwhites who feel that they own the streets."
Rineman has also been featured in WAR newsletters, which carried pleas for financial help. And like a war hero, he was decorated with a WAR medallion inscribed: "If you should fall my friend another friend will emerge from the shadows to take your place."
In July, 1990, friends raised money to send Rineman and Scarborough to the "Aryan Fest" in Oklahoma, where they had a legally non-binding "Aryan wedding," John Metzger said.