When Simon Sheppard and Stephen Whittle stepped off a plane at LAX in July 2008 -- a couple of jet-lagged Brits on the lam from the United Kingdom -- they looked for the first uniformed U.S. official they could find. Unfortunately for them, they found one.
They thought they had found safe harbor from the English court that three days earlier had convicted them of hate-related writings originating on their website. Rather than wait for sentencing -- expected to range from a year or two for Whittle to perhaps five years or more for Sheppard -- the men skipped bail and hopped a plane in Dublin, believing that U.S. free-speech traditions and the visa waivers they secured at an Irish airport would shield them.
Sheppard says he approached a U.S. official in Los Angeles, showed him the visa waiver and said in effect, “I’m sorry to be a nuisance, but we want to claim political asylum in the United States.”
Eleven months later, Sheppard, 52, and Whittle, 42, remain in U.S. custody, spending their days in orange jumpsuits in the Santa Ana City Jail and awaiting a return to England and likely jail sentences. Since arriving in America, they haven’t spent a single day as free men.
“We thought they’d hold us for a day or so,” Sheppard said through a Plexiglas window in a jail interview. “We couldn’t see how they wouldn’t grant us asylum. The things we supposedly had done in Britain aren’t illegal in America.”
As it turned out, that was beside the point.
The men, known as the “heretical two” to supporters, aren’t in U.S. custody because of their world views. Nor have they committed any crime in America. Their lengthy detention is largely the product of the asylum-seeking process that Sheppard and Whittle brought on themselves when they entered the country. They and their original attorney acknowledge that motions they filed helped prolong the case.
That concession, however, is somewhat lost on the men, convinced that their ongoing incarceration has as much to do with threats to the 1st Amendment as to the laborious nature of the asylum process.
“We came to the beacon of free speech in the Western world,” Sheppard said, “which turned out to be a complete fantasy.”
U.S. officials won’t discuss the men’s case, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice in Orange County said their visa waivers became invalid once they indicated to officers at LAX that they intended to try to stay in the United States. She said that U.S. authorities learned early on about the men’s legal situation in Britain and that it was a factor in their lengthy detention.
Brits are no strangers to irony, and Sheppard and Whittle are well aware of its presence in their situation. “All they had to do,” says attorney Bruce Leichty, who represented them early in the case, “was get off the plane in LAX and walk off into the free world.”
Leichty, who no longer represents the men, said that U.S. officials should have told them to find an asylum attorney and that the visa waivers granted at a U.S. Port of Entry in Dublin should have protected them from incarceration.
A federal immigration judge in Los Angeles disagreed. In October, Judge Rose Peters sided with a government attorney who argued that officials acted properly in detaining the men for further questioning after they sought asylum.
Sheppard and Whittle were convicted in England for a string of essays and other published material on Sheppard’s heretical.com website, which uses a server based in Torrance. Sheppard was convicted on 11 counts, Whittle on five. In January, Sheppard was retried in absentia and convicted on five more charges.
Their online entries follow the well-traveled path of other nationalist polemicists, with particular emphasis on decrying the influence and power of Jews in the world.
“People are entitled to hold racist and extreme opinions which others may find unpleasant and obnoxious,” Mari Reid, a lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service’s Counter Terrorism Division in England said in a prepared statement earlier this year about the case.
“What they are not allowed to do is to publish or distribute those opinions to the public in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner either intending to stir up racial hatred or in circumstances where it is likely racial hatred will be stirred up.”
The vast majority of the material in this case concerned Jewish people, Reid said, “but there was also material relating to black, Asian and non-white people generally, all described in derogatory terms using offensive language.”
Because of the right-wing nature of much of their material, Sheppard and Whittle believe Britain’s Labor government has targeted them for prosecution. That belief formed part of the basis for their asylum request.
Sheppard, who sold computer equipment before he bolted to America, said he considers himself more of a scientist interested in human behavior. Whittle, a freelance writer, describes himself as an “anti-Marxist” satirist who doesn’t subscribe to all of the traditional extreme right-wing positions, such as enmity toward gays or working women.
Sheppard said whatever anger he has is mostly directed at British authorities. His feelings about America, he says, are not so much anger “as sadness and disappointment, as we were led to believe that we would be sympathetically received here by virtue of its tradition of free speech.”
That miscalculation aside, the men don’t know when they will be returned to Britain, and U.S. authorities won’t say.
In denying asylum, Peters ruled that the men hadn’t shown they had been persecuted in the past or likely to face future persecution.
Sheppard and Whittle had hoped their story would attract media attention, but that never materialized.
“I think it has very wide ramifications,” Leichty says of their convictions. “I don’t share their views or the way they communicate their views, but I certainly don’t think we should be incarcerating people for what they did.”
Sheppard said he and Whittle are merely waiting for a middle-of-the-night wake-up and a quick trip to the airport.
“We’re not cowed and we’re not repentant,” Sheppard says. “We have the right even to make mistakes. We could be wrong, it’s not inconceivable. We have a right to be wrong. All we’re doing is speaking our minds.”
Whittle says he isn’t keen on making a career out of being a political prisoner in England. “Simon is from Yorkshire,” he says. “People from Yorkshire are strong-willed. I’m not from Yorkshire. He sticks to his guns. I don’t have his willpower and tenacity.”
After 11 months in custody, Whittle is not sure anymore that he and Sheppard would have remained free even if they had quietly gone through customs, left LAX and found a lawyer to handle their asylum request. “Once they became aware of who we were and that we came to the U.S. to flee,” Whittle says, “we would have ended up in detention.”
That is how it played out. Coming to America has been a bust.
“We’ve never seen California but through bars,” Whittle says.