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No One Saw Hate Seething Inside Redding Brothers

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They are quiet, devoutly religious men, and bright as can be. The younger one grew up a bit of a “nerd,” playing chess at recess and bicycling everywhere. The older is nuts about horticulture.

So no one saw this coming, not for Matt and Tyler Williams. No one can quite believe the small-town honor students--who aggressively preached their conservative religious beliefs but toed the line all their lives--may have become cogs in America’s white supremacist machinery.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29, have emerged as prime suspects in the slaying of a gay couple in rural Northern California and are under investigation for a possible role in the torching of three synagogues last month in Sacramento, authorities said.

“Tyler just didn’t have aggressive tendencies,” said Erick Dahl, who attended high school with the younger brother and now is a schoolteacher. “He never seemed like someone who would do something wrong.”

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On Saturday, as federal investigators searched their homes in the Redding area, new details about the brothers and their case began to surface.

Hate literature collected by the pair included pamphlets from the World Church of the Creator, an Illinois-based white supremacist group being scrutinized by investigators in the Sacramento synagogue fires. Authorities say it remains unclear if the pair were members of the organization or whether they simply collected the material.

Last weekend, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a member of the extremist group, went on a shooting rampage in Indiana and Illinois, killing two and wounding seven before turning the gun on himself as police closed in. Calls to the East Peoria, Ill., church Saturday were not returned.

Matt and Tyler Williams were armed with more than propaganda. Authorities said they seized two assault rifles and a shotgun from the brothers’ car when they were apprehended Wednesday. One of the brothers wore a bulletproof vest. Both were armed with 9-millimeter handguns.

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Authorities also seized a notebook containing more than 30 names of people associated with the three Sacramento-area synagogues that were torched, law enforcement officials said. The names were culled from media reports about the blazes, officials said.

News of the arrests stunned people who knew the brothers in Redding, where their family settled a few years ago, and former high school classmates and other acquaintances in the Central Valley farm town of Gridley.

They had no inkling the pair may have been hiding evolving beliefs that veered dangerously into bigotry, let alone crimes of hate.

The brothers, who go by their middle names, were honor students in high school, anything but rabble rousers. The elder one served a stint in the Navy. Neither had ever been arrested before. Redding nursery owner Ed Smith knew Matthew well. Or so he thought. He now feels fooled, betrayed.

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“The guy has got a million-dollar smile. He is as charming as anybody you’d want to see--when he wants to be,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve been used, if indeed he’s been doing this stuff that’s come out.”

Authorities are holding the brothers in Shasta County jail on charges of receiving stolen property after arresting them for allegedly making a purchase with a credit card belonging to one of the slaying victims. The Shasta County Sheriff’s Department is awaiting the results of tests on evidence that could lead to murder charges next week in the gunshot slayings of Gary Matson, 50, and Winfield Scott Mowder, 40.

The couple’s bodies were discovered July 1 in the mobile home they shared on five acres in Happy Valley, a rural enclave near Redding. There was no sign of forced entry and nothing had been taken from inside the home, although Matson’s small station wagon was missing.

Smith said the elder Williams, who worked at his nursery for a few months shortly after the family moved to the area about three years ago, knew the two men through a shared interest in horticulture.

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Matson, a lifelong Redding resident, was a plant expert who had helped establish an arboretum and natural science museum in Redding and founded a weekly farmers market. His longtime companion, Mowder, worked in the plant department at a local hardware store.

Matt Williams met the pair at the farmers market, where he maintained a sales booth in harvest seasons. He also would occasionally purchase cuttings from Matson’s home garden, Smith said.

“They were friends, as far as I could tell,” Smith said. “They certainly seemed amiable. Matthew told me how much he admired Gary for his knowledge of plants.”

Smith said the brothers lived on and off with their parents, who seemed “like gentle people.” The whole family was religious, Smith said, but seemed to bounce among churches in search of one they liked.

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“I knew their religious beliefs were conservative,” Smith said. “They would lay it on you if you let them. I told them I wasn’t interested.”

In Gridley, where the brothers graduated from the local high school, former classmates remembered a bright, religious duo who never caused trouble.

Tyler Williams was dubbed “Shorts” because he often wore bicycling clothing to school, even in nasty weather. He didn’t mix with classmates much after school and was described by one friend as “a bit of a nerd.” He enjoyed playing chess at recess.

He also displayed a measure of wit. In the school’s 1988 yearbook, Tyler bequeathed “my tight black cycling shorts to Franz. My ability to ace any class, I want to go to Vicky and Kellie--I hope you take physics and use it. To Sherry, my ability to fool everyone most of the time (including teachers).”

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Dorothy Shirley, a neighbor of the Williams family in Gridley, said the boys always seemed clean-cut, the family devoutly religious. She would sometimes chat with their father, Ben, while out walking a dog.

“Ben was always talking religion--everything was religion, like he was trying to sway you,” recalled Shirley. “He was always very friendly. But always kind of trying to convert you.”

On Saturday, federal explosives experts cordoned off the area around the Williams parents’ home in Palo Cedro, an enclave of ranchettes east of Redding. Tyler Williams lived with his parents, authorities said. Matthew Williams had moved into a ramshackle rental house closer to Redding, which was also searched Saturday.

Throughout the day, investigators lugged out several bags of evidence. A van from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was parked nearby. Investigators said they also planned to search an area in Oroville, but would not explain why.

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At Temple Beth Israel, the only Jewish congregation in Redding, officials said the synagogue had not received any obvious or overt threats, but law enforcement officials had urged them to beef up security.

Jim Mark, vice president of religious affairs at the synagogue, said several names of prominent Jews in Shasta County were in the notebook discovered in the search of the Williams brothers’ belongings last week. The bulk of the names on the list were members of the Sacramento synagogues. Federal authorities are concerned about the book, though they remain unsure if it was compiled to target anyone for attack.

“Elements of the community are frightened,” Mark said. “Certain elements are bewildered about how this can be happening again. And other figures are very angry about having to be so on guard about this.”

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco, voiced concern that in the swirl of publicity about the synagogue fires, the public would forget “that two people were killed here simply because of who they were.” Though the synagogues will be rebuilt, he said, “We’re never going to be able to rebuild their lives.”

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Authorities estimate the arson fires June 18 in Sacramento caused $1 million in damage, most of it to Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. Knesset Israel Torah Center and Congregation Beth Shalom, two suburban synagogues, were less severely damaged.

Shasta County sheriff’s deputies arrested the Williams brothers at a shopping center Wednesday in Yuba City, more than 100 miles south of Redding. The arrest came just hours after police discovered the vehicle owned by the slain gay couple abandoned in another Central Valley community.

Authorities staked out the shopping center after they discovered that a credit card belonging to the dead couple was being used to make a purchase. They traced the sale and then waited for the merchandise to be picked up. Although heavily armed, the Williams brothers did not resist arrest.

Sheriff’s Department officials said they have not been able to establish a link to a June 20 murder in Happy Valley. James Amos, 69, was discovered shot to death in his home.

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The arrests came as about 300 mourners gathered in a Redding park for a memorial service for Matson and Mowder. Well known in the community, the pair helped raise Matson’s 19-year-old daughter from a marriage that ended in divorce.

“We’re all just terribly, terribly saddened and shocked,” said Diane Hawthorne, a friend of the pair. “Gary wouldn’t hurt a fly. Winfield was one of the dearest people I’ve ever known.”

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Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.

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