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Sikh temple attack echoes in N. Carolina

The shootings inflame scars of racial turmoil in a city where the gunman once lived.

August 12, 2012|Matthew Teague
  • Jasinder Singh, left, and Manveer Sangha place candles in remembrance of shooting victims from the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin during a vigil at the Sikh Temple in Yuba City, Calif.
Jasinder Singh, left, and Manveer Sangha place candles in remembrance… (Nate Chute / AP Photo/Appeal-Democrat…)

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Wade Michael Page first arrived here in the mid-1990s, at a moment of crisis for both himself and the town. He came looking for answers, and found them in a not-so underworld of racist hate groups.

That entanglement of person and place is an unhappy fact here. A reminder of the way things used to be.

If the town committed a collective sin back then, people here figure, maybe Fayetteville can also find a collective redemption. They've been working toward it for years. But the past came roaring back just a week ago, when Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and shot to death six people, then himself.

As a child Page navigated a mess of divorce and remarriage, until his mother died when he was 13. He drifted in the years after, drawn at first to punk music that reflected the chaos and anarchy of his own past. But by all accounts he yearned for structure, so he joined the Army and in 1995 he landed at Ft. Bragg, and in Fayetteville.

Fayetteville is the largest town in southeast North Carolina, a city of a quarter of a million residents at the center of a dozen rural counties. People from the region have always gathered here, searching for others like them. It's where black scholars came together and founded Fayetteville State University in the 1860s. It's also where Glenn Miller massed his Ku Klux Klan followers in the 1980s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 19, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Sikh temple shooting: In the Aug. 12 Section A, an article about Sikh temple shooter Wade Page's time in Fayetteville, N.C, said that he performed music at the Black Cat Lounge. He had played at the club when it had a different name and owner.

For the last century or so, life in Fayetteville has turned around Ft. Bragg, the enormous military installation named for Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general in the Civil War. As the Army went, so went the town. After the Vietnam War, people here nicknamed the town Fayette-Nam. Prostitution took hold downtown, and pawn shops, and strip joints.

Half a century later on Yadkin Road, linking the town to the base, the pawn shops and strip bars and tattoo parlors still stack up like soldiers in sloppy formation.

Pawnshops everywhere sell guns, but the ones here feature great racks and walls full of the most obscure and lethal varieties, from short assault rifles to long-barreled sniper versions. Thousands of weapons, body armor, massive combat knives, training gear and manuals -- every implement of war is on offer.

At some point in the early 1990s neo-Nazis started targeting the base for infiltration. A former Special Forces soldier named Steve Barry lived in the area, and led an effort to recruit active-duty soldiers. That's when Wade Page showed up, aimless and angry. He later told people that he'd experienced a sort of "cognitive awakening," an epiphany in which the truth revealed itself to him.

In reality he had taken the same type of slow path to conversion that gang members take in South Central Los Angeles, or radical Islamists take in Karachi, Pakistan.

Life had equipped him with a powerful arsenal of anger. Fayetteville, though, taught him to aim it. By 1995 neo-Nazis lived and recruited openly in Ft. Bragg, distributing materials and hanging swastika flags over their bunks. In the course of normal conversation, at meals and sitting around the barracks, Page met and became friends with extremists like Pvt. James Burmeister. "It was casual," said Pete Simi, a professor at the University of Nebraska who later met Page while researching hate groups. "It was just, 'Hey, check out this paper.' "

Everything changed, for Page and for Fayetteville, in December 1995. That's when Burmeister and two other soldiers went out one night, found a black couple on the street in town, forced them to kneel and executed them. The murders shocked the city and the Army, both of which realized how entwined they had become with racist groups.

The Army brought its boot heel down on any sort of neo-Nazi activity. Page felt this acutely and resented it as persecution of white soldiers. He spiraled down until the Army ran him out of its ranks in 1998, when he reported for duty while drunk.

Today at Ft. Bragg, there's a room where new recruits are taken and instructed to remove their shirts. A pair of investigators examine any tattoos, looking for the coded, often numerical identifiers worn by neo-Nazis. The investigators -- whose identities are withheld by the Army for their safety -- coordinate with the Fayetteville Police Department, which has undercover officers moving among the hate groups on the city's fringes.

Any new recruit found to have extremist tattoos is questioned about his or her background, and is sometimes bounced back onto the street. According to an Army public affairs officer, if the recruit makes an appeal -- if he or she is trying to escape a gang or hate group -- the request for a waiver enters a long, complex process that ends with a thumbs up or down by an Army general.

The city of Fayetteville, too, has struggled to face its racial demons since the double murder. A group of professors formed Fayetteville United, devoted to improving race relations.

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