Local News

Temple gunman's extremism grew in military

Posted August 9, 2012 3:46 p.m. EDT
Updated August 9, 2012 9:52 p.m. EDT

— Wade Michael Page's white-supremacist leanings coalesced during his six years in the Army, including time at Fort Bragg, according to a researcher who knew the man who killed six people when he opened fire inside a religious temple over the weekend.

Pete Simi, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Thursday that he spent nearly three years studying a group of neo-Nazi skinheads in southern California a decade ago and came to know Page very well.

"He was very approachable," said Simi, co-author of "American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate." "He seemed interested in sharing how he came to have the beliefs he did."

Authorities said Page, 40, walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shortly before Sunday morning services and opened fire with a 9-millimeter pistol. He later ambushed a police officer attending to one of the victims, and authorities said he shot himself in the head after exchanging gunfire with other police officers.

The FBI, which is overseeing the investigation, hasn't yet determined a motive for the attack.

Page told Simi that he had some interaction with skinheads as a youth in Colorado, but he never identified himself with the movement until he was in the military. There, he met like-minded soldiers and began reading supremacist literature.

While serving in a psychological operations unit at Fort Bragg, Simi said Page got to know Pvt. James Burmeister, who was convicted of targeting a black couple on a Fayetteville street and killing them in December 1995.

The Army said Burmeister and another soldier convicted of the murders, Malcolm Wright, were skinheads, and the military began an intensive investigation of extremist groups in the ranks.

Page told Simi that the white-power movement "wasn't rampant" in the Army but added that he "didn't have to conceal it" from superiors.

"He learned from his experience in the military that the deck was stacked against whites," Simi said, noting that Page felt black troops got promoted more quickly and were disciplined less harshly than whites.

"He began to feel like all society was structured and organized like that as well," Simi said.

Page was less-than-honorably discharged in 1998 for patterns of misconduct that included getting drunk on duty. Simi said he doesn't believe Page's beliefs played a role in his discharge.

After leaving the Army, Page headed west to play in a supremacist band, and he continued in the white-power rock scene after returning to North Carolina, playing in bands called End Apathy and Definite Hate.

Simi attended some of the concerts with Page, noting they often featured brawls or stabbings among the mostly male audiences.

Page talked about violence during his interviews with Simi – he appears in "American Swastika" under a pseudonym – but the author said he never got the sense that he was more prone than anyone else to carrying out something like the temple shooting.

"People involved in these groups talk about violence," he said. "It's a regular part of the rhetoric."