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FBI Informant Helped Put Hate in Its Place

Former neo-Nazi tells Valley students how he cast off his racism and went undercover in fight against a white supremacist group.

October 19, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Martinez was looking for another Thomas Martinez.

He was hoping his tale of racism and redemption would resonate with some person like he used to be: young, poor, alone and desperate to belong to something, to anything.

Speaking last week to about 250 Taft High School students, Martinez related how his woeful existence led him into the world of neo-Nazis.

Martinez, 47, visited the Woodland Hills campus Wednesday as a guest of the Anti-Defamation League. These days, he crosses the country telling his story of how a racist-turned-FBI informant helped bring down The Order, once one of the country's most violent white supremacist organizations.

Martinez's exploits are told in a book and movie, "Brotherhood of Murder," recounting how he helped an FBI investigation that led to an indictment in Seattle in 1985 of 23 members of the white supremacist group. He testified in trials that resulted in the convictions of 15 people.

Going undercover, Martinez also led agents to a Portland, Ore., motel where they arrested Gary Lee Yarbrough, a member of The Order who was being sought for allegedly shooting at law officers in Idaho.

"This guy has been through so much," said Anti-Defamation League Director Amanda Susskind, who saw to it that Martinez's appearance was not announced in advance because he's helped send so many people to prison.

In addition to school police, six LAPD officers and detectives were on hand Wednesday to make sure there was no trouble. There were no incidents.

Martinez, whose heritage is Swedish, Spanish, Greek and Welsh, spoke of the roots of his racism. Growing up in a rough, white Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1960s, Martinez had little familiarity with African Americans. Not on the street. Not in the schoolyard.

"There wasn't hardly any black actors on TV," said Martinez. "All we had was that black guy on 'Hogan's Heroes' and 'Bill Cosby.' ''

So, in the mid-'60s, when black students were first bused into his Kensington neighborhood, it was, in Martinez's words, "an ugly time."

"I'm not proud of it, but I hated black people," Martinez said.

There were some rumblings among the Woodland Hills students when he said that, but Martinez, a dynamic speaker, had them listening.

He told how his hatred escalated years later at Thomas Edison High School, then one of Philadelphia's most gang-ridden schools.

"There was this stone lion in front of the school and the black gangs made most of the white kids kiss that lion's [rear end] to get into school," said Martinez, who stands 6 foot 2 and has a handshake like a vice. He never kissed the lion.

But he said one day at school, a leader of a black street gang threatened him: "We gonna put a homicide on you."

"I was scared to death," said Martinez, a 10th-grader at the time. He left school early that day and never returned.

In 1973, Martinez joined the Army, hoping to get as far from Philadelphia as possible. He only got as far as Ft. Dix, N.J. He left the Army with an honorable discharge after his girlfriend became pregnant.

"I was disgusted with life," Martinez said. "Here I am, my 16-year-old girlfriend has our baby girl. I have no health benefits. I'm working at a doughnut shop .... I was an angry guy."

He didn't know what to do with that anger.

He was watching television when he heard a man railing against blacks, Jews and Latinos.

It was David Duke, leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Martinez started attending Klan meetings. He began reading the propaganda. And he stopped watching baseball games because blacks were on the teams.

"I became a real sick puppy," he said. "It was like a cancer."

Even the Klan was not radical enough to feed Martinez's loathing.

Then, in the early 1980s, he met Robert Mathews, the 25-year-old leader of The Order.

In The Order, criminal activity was common, Martinez said. In June 1984, Martinez was arrested for passing counterfeit money. Since he didn't have a record, he was released on his own recognizance.

It gave him time to reflect on his life.

He began to realize how stupid he had been to join The Order, to risk years in prison because someone's skin was a different color.

Months later, with his conscience gnawing at him, he walked into the Philadelphia offices of the Secret Service and the FBI and started talking about The Order. He said he told agents about homicides and holdups and plans to blow up dams and assassinate black leaders.

He said he told them about the killing of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. Members of the Order were later convicted of violating Berg's civil rights.

"I became an informant," said Martinez. He went undercover to expose The Order.

Martinez said that after Mathews was killed in a shootout and several other members of The Order had been sent to prison, a hit was ordered on Martinez. An undercover FBI operation foiled that plan, he said. But his days as an informant were mostly over. He worked as a baker for more than a decade.

Now, he travels the country giving speeches. Though he said he makes up to $5,000 a speech, he spoke at Taft for free as a favor to the Anti-Defamation League.

Linda Vizi, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Philadelphia, said that the agents who worked on The Order cases are all retired now. As for Martinez, in keeping with FBI policy, Vizi would not confirm or deny he was an informant.

Martinez, who still will not allow his face to be photographed, urged the students to be tolerant of each other's differences and not be bullied into hatred.

The students seemed impressed.

"I felt bad for him that he had some much hatred, but he did a good job of turning his life around," said David Ghods, 15.

Another student said he was inspired by the speech.

"I think he was brave for getting up there and saying what he did," said Julio Rosales, 15. "Next time I see someone picking on someone because he's different, maybe I'll step up and say something."

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