Local Hero

"The skinhead path leaves a trail of broken trust, lost comrades, and a little love and a lot of betrayal along the way. [...] For the very unfortunate ones it ends behind bars for one reason or another. For these people there is no chance to ever make something of life. And while the "fresh cuts" out there will be gone in a few months or a few years, [those in prison] will still be looking through bars and thinking about what's become ancient history to everyone else."

-- excerpt from a letter to New Times from Samuel Compton, one of two skinheads facing capital murder charges in the October 16, 2002, beating death of Cole Bailey Jr.

On an otherwise lazy Sunday in March at Cortez Park in Glendale, the playground echoes with hushed whispers and staccato glances. Despite the hope of spring, tension fills the air. Everyone, especially the playground mothers, keeps one eye on a group of skinheads under a gazebo in the corner. Basking in the shelter of Nazi flags, 25-year-old Joshua Fiedler puffs on a cigarette while his guests sip beer and blast white-power music. The "Aryan Barbecue" was his idea, and the fliers he circulated have attracted quite a crowd.

The mood at the park shifted hours before when a muscle-bound skin in full dress (khaki Dickies, tall black work boots, and red braces over a wife-beater) strolled into the park -- his gait a clenched fist, badass, short-guy strut designed to draw attention. Two black fishermen forgot their lines for a moment and watched the skin stop, raise his fist in an SS salute and shout "RaHoWa" (skinhead shorthand for "Racial Holy War") to friends lurking in the shade. The fishermen watched him march over to his friends and grip forearms in a warrior's handshake. Then they reeled in their bait.

The battle the assembled skinheads are fighting is not one of race or holiness -- it's one of image, a concerted effort to counteract the shaved heads and evil deeds that have been popping up on the evening news. For once, skins are gathered in the hope of creating a positive white-power photo op.

It's also a show of force the Valley hasn't seen since the early 1990s. The last time this many skins were on public display was a decade ago, marching down Central Avenue shouting "White Power" and demonstrating in front of a Jewish business chanting "six million more."

Todd Gerrish, a gang investigator with the state Department of Corrections who has been monitoring Valley skinheads both in and out of prison since 1987, says young leaders like Fiedler are part of a recent upsurge in white supremacist recruitment and activity. "We're seeing growing numbers [of skinheads], and they're establishing themselves as more of a presence with the younger crowd, the 18- to 21-year-old group that is more prone to violent activity," Gerrish says. "They're currently cycling themselves [upward] based on some young guys with violent tendencies who have assumed leadership roles."

Soon a satellite truck pulls into the parking lot, and the skinheads trade the beers they've been sipping for white trash bags. By the time the cameras and reporters reach them, most are dutifully plucking juice boxes, cigarette butts and rotting fruit from the grass around their picnic area while some slink back into the trees and out of camera range.

"We're here for the community," Joshua Fiedler earnestly tells Channel 15 as a cameraman rushes to film him filling his trash bag.

Circumstances and not much else separate Fiedler and his crew from the skins who are awaiting trial for stomping Cole Bailey Jr.'s head into the sidewalk last October. The accused are Fiedler's friends, his brothers. "Any of us could have been there that night," he admits.

Law enforcement sources say Bailey's murder is a symptom of an increasing tendency toward violence, and a growing public presence as skinhead crews become bolder and better organized. A national resurgence in extremist activity as well as the increasingly darkening complexion of Arizona's population adds fuel to a fire tended by aggressive and appealing leaders.

In the past, an incident like Bailey's murder and the ensuing heat from law enforcement and the media would be enough to drive skinhead crews underground.

But Fiedler's a different breed of skinhead. Charismatic and controversial, Fiedler looks good for the television cameras. But he also has an extensive rap sheet and a posse of violent felons to bolster his legitimacy among his peers.

An easy leader and an adept self-promoter, Fiedler has ruffled feathers among his brother skinheads in recent months. His approach to the media and vocal disdain for "knuckleheads" whose criminal activity makes the evening news has his incarcerated brethren and their supporters questioning his loyalty and devotion to the movement. Fellow skins are critical of his posturing. They say he values image more than tradition and that he has turned his back on his brothers.

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Susy Buchanan