Problem Skins

Last week's arrest of four skinheads charged with kidnapping and first-degree murder offered another glimpse into a world where, despite the white supremacist gang's professed beliefs, violence is not limited by the ethnicity of their victims. It appears that anyone who encounters them, whether friend or innocent bystander, is fair game.

Police say a crew of skinheads brutally beat and murdered Mark Mathes, a white man and former roommate of one of the skins. The four suspects -- Jessica Nelson, Patrick Bearup, Sean Gaines and Jeremy Johnson -- are part of the same group of skinheads alleged to have kicked and punched Cole Bailey Jr., another young white man, to death as he waited for a taxi outside a pool hall last fall.

Three of the four are convicted felons and prominent figures in the Valley's skinhead scene. Some held themselves out to be local spokespeople, of a sort, for the skinhead culture they are trying to promote.

In a recent New Times story ("Local Hero," Susy Buchanan, June 19), Nelson and Gaines were surprisingly candid about skinhead activities. They welcomed media attention. Nelson carefully explained the rules for advancement within their ranks, seniority evidenced by the color of a skin's bootlaces. Nelson admitted that she, like others, had earned the right to wear red laces through bloodshed, although she had been knocked back down to white laces at the time as punishment for her methamphetamine use. (Drug use, unlike violence, is frowned upon.)

Gaines, who often flashed a pistol during interviews with the paper, boasted he'd earned his reds by murdering a "nigger." He claimed he was altering his appearance to avoid warrants for his arrest.

Gaines and Nelson are friends of another skinhead, Patrick Bearup, whose father, Tom Bearup, a former Maricopa County sheriff's deputy, has run against Sheriff Joe Arpaio in previous elections and has filed to run for the position again this year.

Nelson, Gaines and Bearup's circle also includes the men who have been charged with capital murder for Cole Bailey's death. In fact, Bearup was shooting pool that night with the two, Chris Whitley and Samuel Compton ("Skinhead Slayer," Susy Buchanan, July 17). He has not been charged in connection with that murder.

The fact that both recent victims of skinhead violence were white "only serves to underscore the threat that hate groups and the individuals who participate in them pose to the entire community," says Bill Straus of the Anti-Defamation League, which closely monitors such groups.

So does the Phoenix Police Department. Phoenix detectives have compiled a detailed narrative recounting the last hours of Mark Mathes' life, based on an extensive investigation begun months earlier when they first learned of the murder through an informant.

Gradually, details of what happened in February 2002 began to emerge, a chilling story corroborated by suspect Jeremy Johnson during interrogation after his arrest on September 10.

The story police tell is one of torture, mutilation and, ultimately, the decision to murder Mathes, handed down by Nelson, and carried out primarily by Gaines, police say.

Johnson told police that after Mathes was beaten to unconsciousness, they placed his body in the trunk of a car and transported him to a remote area where Nelson and Gaines decided to kill the man.

"Sean Gaines then asked Jessica Nelson, What are we going to do with him?' Jessica then responded, You know what we have to do,'" the report reads.

The following chronicle of the evening's events is based on police reports and sources close to the investigation.

Police say it was near 10 p.m. on an evening in late February 2002 when the four skinheads encircled 40-year-old Mathes in the backyard of his Phoenix home. The sky was black as they struck the man with their fists, a baseball bat and the butt of a shotgun.

What provoked the brutal beating, kidnap, mutilation and eventual murder was Jessica Nelson's claim that Mathes had ripped her off.

Nelson, 27, was a matriarch of the skinhead crew she considered her family. When she discovered the missing money, she called Sean Gaines for help. Gaines, 22, is notorious for his violent temper and criminal activities. He did time for car theft and was convicted of felony assault for beating a Hispanic man in the head with a tree branch in 1998. In addition, Gaines was convicted this summer in the assault of a Jewish teenager last October, and arrested for car theft and weapons violations in March. Gaines had bailed out of jail less than a month before his arrest on this murder.

Gaines and Jeremy Johnson, a "fresh cut" relatively new to the skinhead culture, drove to the home to confront Mathes with Bearup following in his own vehicle. Prepared for a fight, Bearup brought a large knife, Johnson carried a baseball bat and Gaines was armed with a 12-gauge shotgun.

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Susy Buchanan