Penalty to Be Decided Today in Hate Murder
A judge is scheduled to decide today whether white supremacist Gunner Lindberg, 24, should receive the death penalty for the slaying of Thien Minh Ly, a Vietnamese American student leader, nearly two years ago on a Tustin tennis court.
If Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald goes along with the jury’s recommendation for the death penalty, it would be the first time that an Orange County defendant has been condemned under California’s hate laws, which allow extra punishment for crimes motivated by racial intolerance.
A second defendant, Domenic M. Christopher, 18, already has been sentenced to 25 years to life in the case.
As troubling as Ly’s killing was, the murder resonated beyond a small sphere of family and friends, beyond the realm of the police officers who investigated the case and beyond the lives of the two young men convicted of the crime.
It is one in a series of violent acts across the nation in recent years that some experts say has emanated from an atmosphere of racial intolerance spread by the Internet, fax and mail by small groups of white supremacists who believe they are engaged in a holy war to defend the white race.
While there are no direct links, the experts say such groups foster an environment in which individuals feel encouraged to commit acts of racial violence.
“The hate group exists to provide the ideological justification for violence,” according to “A Policymakers Guide to Hate Crimes,” a federal Justice Department report released in March to law enforcement agencies.
“Instead of asking members to commit specific acts of violence--and risk the legal repercussions--these groups merely get out their message. Invariably, someone else, perhaps someone only tangentially connected to a hate group, will commit the offense,” the guide states.
Lindberg was familiar with the message of hate groups and wanted to create white supremacist gangs in Missouri and Orange County, according to testimony and evidence presented at his trial. He had corresponded with a Canadian neo-Nazi organization and U.S. organizations with long histories of racial intolerance.
Lindberg declined to be interviewed, asking in a letter, “What do I have to gain?”
But court records and his own letters paint a portrait of a troubled person with a history not only of racism but also violence and antisocial behavior.
As a teenager, Lindberg--who was living with his mother and stepfather, a U.S. serviceman--was thrown off Okinawa by Japanese authorities after he crashed a stolen car.
He later served most of a five-year sentence in a Missouri prison for shooting an 11-year-old with a BB gun. He also was linked to violence against minorities on three occasions, including an attack on a Vietnamese American inmate in Orange County Jail while he was awaiting trial in the Ly case.
Records show that Lindberg came to Orange County in 1995 to live with a distant relative while on the run from assault charges in Missouri.
Investigators discovered letters by Lindberg, some of which were introduced in the trial, that reveal a hatred for nonwhites and a growing interest in the white supremacist movement.
In one letter to a cousin, Lindberg claims to have run a Missouri prison chapter of the White Aryan Resistance, a hate group that white supremacist Tom Metzger directs from Fallbrook in San Diego County. Prison officials could not confirm the claim.
Investigators also found letters to Lindberg from Brig. Gen. Gordon “Jack” Mohr, a legendary figure in the far right who for decades spread a gospel of white supremacy and ran a self-styled prison ministry from his home in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Lindberg also collected pamphlets from and corresponded with such neo-Nazi groups as the European-American Alliance in Milwaukee and the Nationalist Party of Canada.
And, tucked inside a Bible, investigators found a handwritten list of addresses for the Ku Klux Klan, the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People and the German American National Political Action Committee. Hans Schmidt, founder of the former Santa Monica group, jumped bail in Germany last year during trial on charges that he distributed illegal anti-Semitic letters and brochures.
Tustin Police Det. Thomas Tarpley, who investigated the Ly murder, said Lindberg’s stint in the Missouri prison seemed to have cemented his beliefs.
“He’s told people he started getting racial in prison,” Tarpley said. “He idolized Metzger and was proud of running this group [in prison]. It seems to me that prison was a real defining thing for him.”
Metzger, in a telephone interview from his electronics-repair shop in Fallbrook, said that while he did not know Lindberg, it was possible they had corresponded. He disputed Lindberg’s claim of running a White Aryan Resistance group in a Missouri prison.
“We don’t have a membership organization, so that’s impossible,” Metzger said.
Whatever Lindberg’s inspiration might have been, the jury and the investigators were convinced that his motive for murder was racial hatred.
Tarpley cites the brutality of the attack on Ly, which he said initially perplexed investigators who thought they were investigating a robbery-murder.
“To me, it was almost a personal-type murder because there were so many stab wounds,” Tarpley said, adding that, as Lindberg’s racist beliefs emerged, “it became clear why there was so much passion. There were 24 stab wounds to the body, then the two gaping wounds to the neck. He placed a sign on that body.
“It wasn’t just a matter of killing. He was sending out a message. He looked at this person as subhuman.”