Ring of Fire

A Valley man has pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree murder and kidnapping in connection with the brutal murder of another man.

On December 9, Jeremy Johnson, one of four Valley skinheads who was facing capital murder charges, agreed to pleas on the lesser crimes in exchange for his testimony against fellow skinheads Patrick Bearup, Sean Gaines and Jessica Nelson in the February 2002 murder of Mark Mathes. Sentencing has been set for February.

Johnson's statement, police reports, court records, witness interviews and other materials obtained by New Times reveal a night of torture and murder that typifies skinhead culture at its most violent. New details about the murder and its aftermath depict a twisted version of morality in which something as insignificant as a $100 ring holds more value than human life -- which strangely enough seemed as true of the victim's family as it was of his killers.

Police say that when Nelson and Bearup returned the ring they had cut from Mathes' finger to his sister-in-law and told her he was dead, she sent it to the jeweler and had it cleaned and reset. No police or missing persons reports were ever filed.

On September 11, when Detective Paul Dalton presented the recovered ring to Nelson during an interrogation following her arrest, Nelson didn't appear rattled, remorseful or scared. Instead, the skinny 28-year-old sat back in her chair and laughed, police reports say.

What the four had allegedly done that night would eventually lead them to charges of capital murder, but despite the enormity of the consequences if news of the murder got out, keeping it secret was difficult. As horrific as the events of that night were, these kinds of stories are like merit badges in skinhead circles.

Weeks after the murder, the victim's brother threw a party to celebrate the release of skinhead leader Josh Fiedler (Nelson's boyfriend) from prison. Bruce Mathes also invited his brother's killers.

One partygoer, Gaines' former fiancée, told police Bearup and Gaines were showing partygoers dark splotches on the concrete patio they claimed was still stained with Mathes' blood.

The story began to spread as Gaines, Johnson and Bearup repeated the loosely kept secret to girlfriends, some of whom upon becoming ex-girlfriends would relate what they had heard to law enforcement. Still, it would be a year before Mathes' remains were found, and 18 months before those police say were responsible were arrested.

What happened that night in February began with the beating of the 40-year-old Mathes with a baseball bat, fists and the butt of a shotgun at his Phoenix home. Police say the four skinheads then placed his bloodied body in the trunk of a car and drove him to a remote area near Crown King called Swastika Mine. They then stripped him, cut off his finger, shot him in the head and dumped his body over an embankment ("Problem Skins," September 18).

Johnson admitted his role in the murder upon his arrest on September 10, but his confession was just one more piece to a puzzle local law enforcement agencies have been trying to solve since they heard the first story about a body in the desert in June of 2002.

Particularly disturbing are statements made by the victim's brother and sister-in-law, Bruce and Cecilia Mathes, who never contacted police when Mark disappeared that day in February even though they both suspected he'd been killed, according to police interviews.

Cecilia and Bruce Mathes could not be reached for comment for this story.

Cecilia Mathes told police she met Jessica Nelson through Nelson's boyfriend, Fiedler, at a tattoo shop where he worked before he went to prison. That fall, Nelson and her 8-year-old son needed a place to stay and moved into the Matheses' home. Soon after Nelson moved in, Bruce's brother Mark moved to Phoenix from Washington state and lived with them as well.

In February 2002, Nelson let it be known that she suspected Mark of stealing money from her purse. Bruce says he knew Nelson was angry, but only suspected his brother was in for an ass kicking.

Curiously, police and court records show, Bruce's main concern was not his brother's safety, but a ring he had given Mark for Christmas, a gold band with a garnet and two small diamonds worth around $100.

Bruce said he told her he didn't want to see it pawned to repay the debt owed to Nelson and asked that she return it.

And Nelson allegedly went to great ends to do just that.

Before Mark was shot, as he lay badly beaten and bleeding, Johnson says Nelson attempted to remove the ring. When Mathes' finger proved too swollen to slip it off easily, Nelson tried cutting off his finger with a knife. That's when Bearup produced a pair of wire clippers, and they used them to snip the finger off as the man screamed, Johnson told police.

Bearup has denied involvement in the murder. "I am innocent and I only want to get home to my wife and twins," he wrote earlier this month in a letter to New Times.

The day after the murder, Cecilia Mathes told police she was outside smoking on her patio while her husband slept. Nelson and Bearup appeared and Cecilia says Nelson pulled the bloodied and bent ring from a coat pocket and gave it to her. Nelson told her that no one would ever find Mark's body, and that they had blown his face off. She took the ring to the jeweler's for repair.

It would be three months before anyone would care that Mathes was dead. That's when Elizabeth Hall decided to tell police about the specks of his blood that were still in her trunk. Hall was Jeremy Johnson's girlfriend until she broke up with him in April 2002 and subsequently moved to California. It was her car that Johnson was driving that night.

Hall eventually decided to contact a relative in law enforcement and tell what she knew of the night her boyfriend came home bloodied and upset and confessed he and three others had killed someone.

Hall wrote it all down in cheerleader-neat handwriting on Cox Communication stationery, titling her account "A Story of Complete Terror as Heard and Seen by Elizabeth Hall."

Hall would be one of several former girlfriends who would eventually tell police similar stories.

Hall, who is believed to be living in California, could not be reached for comment for this story.

In addition to Hall's version of that night's events, police also took statements from a girl who told police she began dating Gaines just after she turned 15 and had aborted his baby. She said Nelson had warned her never to admit to the pregnancy for fear Gaines would get in trouble for impregnating an underage girl.

The night of the murder, the girl told police Gaines entered the bedroom agitated and covered in blood and confessed to killing a man and dumping him in the desert. "He still had blood on him, the car still had blood in it. It was disgusting," the girl told detectives.

Kelly Coffman had also heard her then-boyfriend Patrick Bearup occasionally boasting about the killing. She described conversations in which Bearup was "bitching" about how no one had thought to bag the trunk before placing the body inside, and "laughing" about cutting off Mathes' finger.

But Coffman, who police believe helped start the barroom brawl at River City Pockets pool hall that led to the murder of Cole Bailey, never bothered to inform the police of what she had heard until it might be worth something to her. Coffman traded her knowledge of Bearup's involvement in the Mathes murder with prosecutors for a reduced sentence; she had been charged with aggravated assault, on a bartender, in connection with the Cole Bailey case.

Although Bearup (and his father, Maricopa County sheriff's deputy Tom Bearup, who is running for sheriff against Joe Arpaio) claims he had left the skinhead movement, material recovered when a search warrant was served on his home at the time of his arrest suggests otherwise. Police seized Nazi videos, five computers, several bulletproof vests, an SS ring and white supremacist tee shirts, boots and braces. They also discovered a secret room in Bearup's closet hidden behind a false wall with a security camera monitor and a loaded Glock 9 mm with several clips.

"I'll tell you this," Bearup told Detective Paul Dalton after he was arrested. "I've never killed anyone, I've never claimed to kill anyone."

Dalton excused himself for a moment and left the room, as he did with Nelson. He returned and showed Bearup Mathes' ring.

Bearup quit talking and -- in what is perhaps the only moment of wisdom in this story -- he asked to speak to his attorney.

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