WASHINGTON — President Clinton met with relatives of the victims of last year's North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting Friday at the White House, and pledged to work "until the last day of his presidency" on getting federal hate-crimes legislation passed, the relatives said.
"It was very encouraging and uplifting to hear that he is going to be fighting for this bill very strongly," said Ismael Ileto of Chino Hills, the brother of Joseph Ileto, the Filipino American postal worker shot to death allegedly by avowed white supremacist Buford O. Furrow, who is charged in the August 1999 attack on the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.
Eleanor Kadish, whose son Benjamin, now 6, was the most critically injured child in the attack, said Clinton spoke briefly but "from his heart."
Relatives of Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student from Wyoming who was beaten to death, and the family of James Byrd, an African American man from Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to death from the back of a pickup truck, also joined the session with Clinton.
"It was nice to be together but it was somewhat sad to see that we are all together because of hatred in the world," Kadish said. "It would have been nicer to be together under better circumstances."
The highlight of the meeting for Benjamin Kadish was meeting Buddy, the President's Labrador retriever.
"I asked him if I could see his dog and he brought him in," Benjamin said.
Friday's meeting came just hours after the latest apparently racially motivated shooting rampage, in which authorities said a white man shot and killed five people and wounded a sixth in suburban Pittsburgh. Of the dead, two were Asian, two Indian and the fifth black. A Jewish woman found dead at her home nearby was also believed to be a victim of the shooting suspect, who was in custody late Friday, police said.
The families are in Washington this weekend for "Equality Rocks," a concert sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation today at Washington's RFK Stadium. On Sunday, they will speak on the importance of passing federal hate-crimes legislation at the Millennium March on Washington, an event advocating gay rights.
Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign Foundation who attended the meeting, said Clinton "reiterated his very driven, strong commitment" to the legislation.
"I think it meant a lot to be surrounded by all these families, all with different stories, but at the same time their grief is the same."
If passed, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act would give local law enforcement access to federal resources such as the FBI crime lab and the entire federal law enforcement arsenal. It would allow the federal government to prosecute a hate crime if local law enforcement is unable to, said David Smith, a spokesman for the foundation.
In public appearances recently, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have spoken out against hate crimes, and have pressed for stricter control of handguns.
Earlier in the day, Clinton traveled to the District of Columbia police training school, and offered his support for a federally assisted program that pays people to turn weapons over to the local police.
Last year, the program took 3,000 handguns off the street, Clinton said.
"Every one of the guns taken out of circulation could mean one less crime, one less tragedy, one more child's life saved," the president said.
Clinton signed a bill earlier this month renaming the Chino Hills Post Office the Joseph Santos Ileto Post Office. The Ileto family met briefly with Clinton in Los Angeles shortly after he signed the bill.
"It makes us feel so relieved to have the president on our side, but he told us to continue our stride, which we will," said Deena Ileto, the sister-in-law of Joseph Ileto.
She said the family has taken the letters of Joseph's name to develop an acronym that they use in their work against hate crimes. The first letters of each word spell out Joseph Ileto: "Join our struggle, educate, prevent hate. Instill love, equality, tolerance for others."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.