One soldier apparently has told police that he and his buddies set out with a semiautomatic weapon hunting for black people. No, said another, they merely wanted to harass drug dealers and prostitutes.
Whatever their intention, when the hunt was over early Thursday, two black people were dead in Fayetteville, N.C., shot without provocation by white soldiers from Ft. Bragg, according to authorities.
The two Army privates were charged Friday with first-degree murder. A third soldier was charged with conspiracy to commit felony first-degree murder.
Police, who found Nazi and white supremacist materials in a room rented by one suspect, said that the shootings were a racial hate crime, the victims chosen at random.
"They were just two innocent people walking down the street," said Lt. Richard Bryant of the Fayetteville Police Department.
Killed were Michael James, 36, and Jackie Burden, 27, who were both shot in the head at close range.
When police searched a trailer where 20-year-old Pvt. James Norman Burmeister II rented a room, they found a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol that they believe is the murder weapon.
They also found a virtual gallery of neo-Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia and a video that depicts random murder.
"We found among his belongings copies of Resistance magazine and 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich' and a videotape, 'Natural Born Killers,' " Bryant said.
Police also found a Nazi flag and many other German banners. "One wall was covered with German flags," Bryant added.
The other suspects charged Friday were 21-year-old Pvt. Malcolm Wright and Sgt. Randy Lee Meadows Jr., also 21. All three suspects are with the 82nd Airborne Division. Burmeister and Wright were charged with murder.
A spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, alleged Friday that Ft. Bragg is a hotbed of white supremacist activity and noted that Thursday was the anniversary of the death of Robert Jay Mathews, leader of a neo-Nazi terrorist group who was killed in a 1984 shootout with FBI agents in Washington state.
Police said Thursday's shooting in Fayetteville occurred at 12:13 a.m.
"It might be a coincidence, but . . . if it is, it's a big one," said Brian Levin, the center's associate director of legal affairs.
Based on statements from the soldiers, police said they have determined that the suspects were not affiliated with any supremacist organization. "They told us they weren't," Bryant said. "We felt that they were pretty honest about that."
According to police, the men set out Wednesday night in a vehicle belonging to Meadows in their hunt for victims. "We got conflicting stories" on what kind of prey the men were stalking, Bryant said. "We have been told on one hand that they went out targeting black people. Then we have been told they went to harass drug dealers and prostitutes."
He declined to say which suspect gave which story.
After the shooting, Burmeister and Wright fled on foot, according to police. Meadows was at the scene when police arrived. He told them that he had waited in the vehicle and had gotten out to investigate when he heard gunshots.
The shooting occurred three blocks from police headquarters.
Based on information from Meadows, police said they then went to Burmeister's trailer, where they arrested him and Wright.
The attack took place in a black neighborhood that in the past had been plagued by drug dealing, but Bryant said stepped-up police foot patrols had "really cleaned it up pretty much." He said no evidence of drugs was found at the scene.
The arrests, coming less than two months after an Army sergeant opened fire on more than 1,300 soldiers who were warming up for a predawn run, further tarnishes the reputation of the sprawling base.
In addition, soldiers stationed at Ft. Bragg have been connected over the years with neo-Nazi hate groups in plots to steal Army munitions--including powerful explosives, antitank rockets, hand grenades and automatic rifles. In one 1986 case, three members of a hate group were arrested in Fayetteville and charged with plotting to use stolen Army explosives to blow up the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 1991, Michael Tubbs, a Special Forces sergeant, was convicted of stockpiling Army weapons with the apparent intention of supplying them to hate groups.
The post was among those cited in a U.S. General Accounting Office study in 1986 that found millions of dollars worth of munitions had been stolen from military bases.
A Ft. Bragg spokeswoman said Friday that all of those incidents were unrelated and denied that the base has had a problem with personnel joining hate groups or participating in racial violence.
"We really consider these isolated incidents," Spc. Shannon Rasmussen said.
But Levin said that while the Southern Poverty Law Center was investigating a North Carolina-based supremacist group in the 1980s, it found Ft. Bragg personnel to be active participants. "The White Patriot party recruited active-duty military personnel at Ft. Bragg," he said.
Further, he said, the white supremacist magazine found in the suspect's room is published quarterly at the base by a clandestine group of 35 to 80 active-duty Special Forces soldiers. He said the magazine is dedicated to opposing civil rights laws and equal opportunity.