A former Nation of Islam minister who clashed with fellow Muslims had a small arsenal, including a hunting rifle with a scope, when he allegedly shot black nationalist Khallid Abdul Muhammad and five other men outside a university auditorium, authorities said Monday.
The suspect, identified as James Edward Bess, 49, opened fire just after Muhammad finished a speech on the University of California campus here Sunday night.
Muhammad--a former Nation of Islam spokesman known for his fiery anti-Jewish, anti-white rhetoric--was shot in the legs. He and a bodyguard were reported in stable condition. Four other bodyguards were treated and released.
Law enforcement authorities said they have not ruled out a conspiracy in the shooting but they believe Bess, a Tacoma resident who was booked on several counts of attempted murder, was acting alone. Investigators have not offered a motive.
People familiar with the suspect described Bess as a devotee of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and a contentious figure who was removed from his post as a leader of the Seattle-area mosque.
He once wrote an open letter in a black community newspaper criticizing the mayor of Seattle for denouncing remarks by Farrakhan.
On another occasion, he told viewers of a public access television station in Seattle that violence was the way to deal with black leaders who let down the black community.
“If this false leadership continues I won’t be surprised to see the same thing as happened in South Africa, where the black woman was hacked to death with an ax and . . . thrown on a fire and burned up,” Bess said on a 1985 tape aired by ABC and CBS. “Matter of fact, I think that’s what needs to take place with this leadership. They ought to be doused with gasoline and burned in public.”
A former top aide to Farrakhan, Muhammad had been one of Farrakhan’s most vituperative lieutenants until a verbal assault on Jews, Arabs and whites provoked denunciations by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, black members of Congress and President Clinton, leading to Muhammad’s suspension.
Despite the suspension, Muhammad has remained so publicly loyal to Farrakhan that many wonder if he continues to speak for Farrakhan. He says only that they remain in contact but adds, “We don’t have the closeness that we had. We don’t have the communication that we used to.”
Muhammad had come to Riverside to make the second of two speeches in the Los Angeles area over the weekend.
The shooting Sunday night occurred despite tight security inside the UC Riverside auditorium during his two-hour speech. The 500 members of the audience were searched as they entered the room. In addition to two city police officers, about 50 members of the Fruit of Islam--the security arm of the Nation of Islam--were present.
Muhammad drew cheers during his speech when he described whites as satanic and Jews as oppressors. In a speech Saturday in Los Angeles, Muhammad referred to Jews as “bagel-eating” and “hook-nosed” and contended that “the black holocaust is 100 times worse than any other holocaust.”
Police and university spokesmen said that security personnel were caught by surprise when Muhammad left the podium and said he would continue to field questions outside. Muhammad said he was going outdoors because he had been told--apparently in error--that the sponsoring organization had to vacate the gymnasium or pay additional costs.
“There were no other events scheduled (later that day in the gymnasium),” said UC Riverside spokesman Jack Chappell. “There was no reason they couldn’t have stayed longer. There was no compelling reason for them to have left. There was no time limit.”
University officials acknowledged that they were apprehensive about Muhammad’s speech on campus, sponsored by the African Student Alliance, but said that to have blocked the talk would have been a denial of free speech.
When he came outside, Muhammad, 43, was hit in both legs by shots fired from a 9-millimeter handgun. A bodyguard, Varnardo Puckett, 34, of Pomona, remains hospitalized with three wounds. Caliph Sadiq, 33, of Upland was shot in the upper right back. Terrell D. Strait, 20, of Pomona was shot in the left shoulder and stomach. Steve L. Washington received a minor gunshot injury, and Thomas L. Harri was grazed on the back by a gunshot.
By Monday afternoon, Muhammad had gotten out of his hospital bed and was walking around his room, according to Nation of Islam security guards who declined to identify themselves.
“He is fine. His spirits are fine,” said a woman who identified herself as Muhammad’s sister at Riverside Community Hospital on Monday afternoon. “He’s just tired. Doing his father’s work makes him tired,” said the woman, who would not give her name but was sitting in a room beside Muhammad’s 9-year-old son, Farrakhan, in the hospital’s intensive care wing.
One visitor said Khallid Muhammad was grateful for the bodyguards who took bullets for him: “He said, ‘If it wasn’t for (them) I wouldn’t be here.’ ”
While Fruit of Islam members guarded his hospital room, Muhammad received a steady stream of visitors, including his son and other family members. He also reportedly talked to Louis Farrakhan on the telephone.
As of late Monday, the Nation of Islam had released no statement regarding the shooting.
Bess was severely beaten by a crowd of people who witnessed the shooting. Authorities said he suffered a fractured shoulder, multiple abrasions and some lost teeth. He remained hospitalized.
Riverside police reported Monday that they confiscated not only the handgun allegedly used in the shooting, but also found a backpack containing two other guns and a hunting rifle in Bess’ car, which was parked nearby.
Bess, sources said, had been involved in internal disputes with Nation of Islam officials, including one who was a close friend of Muhammad and was near the scene of the shooting.
One knowledgeable source told The Times that Bess was removed about three years ago from his post as minister of a mosque in Seattle by a former Nation of Islam minister and official, Wazir Muhammad.
Bess “apparently had serious personality conflicts with many of the members of this particular mosque,” said the source. “There were many complaints from within the mosque.” At the time Bess was suspended, Wazir Muhammad was Western regional representative for the Nation of Islam, responsible for the area west of the Mississippi River.
A resident of Los Angeles, Wazir Muhammad was said to be with Khallid Muhammad during the speech but not at his side when the shooting took place.
“Everybody knows that Wazir and Khallid are the best of friends,” the source said. Wazir Muhammad succeeded Khallid Muhammad as minister of Mosque 27 in Los Angeles and is now West Coast bureau chief of the Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper.
Khallid Muhammad, in his role as a traveling national spokesman, was acquainted with Bess, the source said.
But contributing to the mystery surrounding the shooting are indications that Bess may have shared many of the views of the man he allegedly shot.
An open letter to Mayor Norm Rice of Seattle published in a local paper four years ago and signed by a James E. Bess, criticized the city’s black mayor for denouncing Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan after a speech by Farrakhan in Seattle. “Mr. Mayor,” the letter stated, “never again let Jews twist your arm to denounce a good man--Minister Louis Farrakhan.”
The alleged gunman is himself a shooting victim and has appeared frequently on public-access television as a preacher of his own variant of Islam, according to an Associated Press account.
On Nov. 19, 1988, it was reported, Bess was hit by two bullets in a gang shootout as he was making a call in a telephone booth outside a convenience store in the crime-plagued High Point neighborhood of Seattle.
Bess has no arrest record in his hometown, said Police Sgt. Ed Striedinger, a homicide detective at the time of the episode.
The father of eight, Bess also is known as Abdul Haqq Mohammad and goes by Brother James X and Brother James X Bess on his TV shows that, according to one viewer, have both promoted and departed from Farrakhan’s points of view.
One Seattle resident, Syid Suni Askia, a self-described mainstream Muslim and not a follower of Farrakhan, was familiar with Bess and his television show. “For whatever reasons, (Bess) and the main body (of the Nation of Islam) had a falling out,” said Askia. “So he had a self-styled ministry, speaking for himself. But he still saw himself as a loyal supporter of Farrakhan.”
His broadcasts, aired two days a week, have been advertised in the Facts, a weekly black community newspaper, under the heading “Hear and See, Min. Farrakhan, a Living Witness of ‘Jesus.’ ”
Topics for the shows have included “Farrakhan: The Special Spokesman,” “Farrakhan: The Torchlight for America,” “Farrakhan: ‘God’s Man on the Straight Path’ ” and “Farrakhan Speaks.”
Bess once headed the local branch of the Nation of Islam but split from the organization of Louis Farrakhan a few years ago, Askia said.
“It’s public knowledge that he was at odds with the people” running the Nation of Islam, Askia said.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Monday that by shooting Muhammad, his enemies make him a martyr. “What they do, is they confer on a person like Muhammad the status of a martyr and that would be very unfortunate, very unfortunate, because basically his message is one of hate,” Hier said.
Times staff writers John Balzar, Frank Clifford, Chip Johnson, Susan Moffat and Larry Stammer contributed to this story.