March 9th, 2005 Brandon Hartley, Paul Koberstein | Special Section Stories
 

1988

     
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The Bigot Brigade

BY BRANDON HARTLEY

Ken "Death" Mieske of East Side White Pride was convicted in the brutal killing of Mulugeta Seraw.It all started with a honking car horn on Southeast 31st Avenue.

What began as a late-night argument over a car that was blocking traffic suddenly escalated when a gang of skinheads confronted the three black men sitting inside. Minutes later, Mulugeta Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, was lying a pool of his own blood, bludgeoned to death at the hands of a thug named Ken "Death" Mieske and two of his cronies.

With a few swings of a bat that November night, Mieske crushed Seraw's skull and, along with it, Portland's illusion of racial harmony. Skinhead gangs such as the East Side White Pride had caused trouble for several years, but never on such a brutal scale.

The three skinheads were arrested and charged with murder. The city cried for justice, but the ensuing criminal trail ended in an anti-climactic whimper as each suspect plea-bargained with prosecutors.

But the story wasn't over. On behalf of Seraw's family, civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees filed a civil lawsuit against Tom Metzger, a California TV repairman and leader of a fledgling group called White Aryan Resistance, arguing that Metzger had fanned the flames of ESWP's racial hatred and was ultimately responsible for the murder.

The day before opening arguments, 1,500 protesters stormed through Portland carrying rainbow-colored ribbons. The trial made national headlines as Mayor Bud Clark dubbed October "Justice, Harmony and Equity Month." The message from the community and the prosecution was clear: Like a Machiavellian Pied Piper, Metzger had led these three young skinheads down a dark path. His fingerprints may as well have been on the bat along with theirs.

Dees' star witness was Dave Mazzella, a former protégé of Metzger's, who claimed the Californian had sent him north to incite racist violence. Metzger, who acted as his own attorney, denied it. The jury's verdict was announced to a packed courtroom. Metzger was held liable for Seraw's death and ordered to pay $12.5 million to Seraw's family.

More than a decade later, author Elinor Langer shone new light on these tragic events in her book A Hundred Little Hitlers. Relying on 10 years of research, Langer claimed that the attack was less a premeditated hate crime than a drunken street brawl that went too far.

"It was a spontaneous eruption," she argues. "The death of Mulugeta Seraw did not need an 'outside agitator' to explain it."

The book drew criticism from the likes of The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly and the lawyers involved, but Langer puts forth a strong argument that the incident was more complicated than Dees made it seem to the jury. In the opening pages of Hitlers, she describes the fatal evening and suggests that ESWP was more interested in hunting for parties and girlfriends than targets for racial hatred.

Years later, Portland's inner-city anxieties have drifted away from white-power gangs and toward trigger-happy cops and gentrification. Since Seraw's murder, groups such as the Tualatin Valley Skins, which announced, then called off, a white-power rally in Southwest Portland's Gabriel Park, have struggled to gain a foothold.

Nonetheless, the skinhead philosophy lives on. "There's still groups operating in Oregon," says Randy Blazak, a Portland State University professor who tracks groups like Volksfront, which recruit inductees through the Oregon prison system. "Volksfront has chapters up and down the I-5 corridor. They're trying to become more political, but their membership is filled with violent people."

Brickbats and Mortarboards

BY PAUL KOBERSTEIN

In 1988, the faculty at Portland State University agreed on just one thing: President Natale Sicuro had to go.

When Sicuro came to PSU in 1986 from Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, he vowed to "magically" reverse the school's "inferiority complex." He called on civic leaders to create a "plan for the '90s." He remodeled the president's mansion, planted flowers around campus and picked a fight with the school newspaper, the Vanguard.

The Vanguard criticized the remodeling costs, so Sicuro fired the paper's faculty adviser and threatened to revoke its charter. Editor Bennett Hall called it "a hatchet job to get back at us for stories we were doing." The attempt at censorship backfired as The Oregonian and Willamette Week began doing their own stories.

In February 1988, Sicuro was under fire from faculty for diverting student funds to cover a deficit in the athletic department. A month later, an accountant with the PSU Foundation-a nonprofit associated with the university-revealed that Sicuro had siphoned away money for scholarships to pay for fundraising expenses, such as $5,013 for wine deliveries to his home.

That summer, a audit ordered by the secretary of state revealed that $170,000 in state money had gone improperly into the foundation's bank accounts. "What we're talking about is the foundation isn't their bank," said an auditor. "The state treasurer is their bank." Other allegations charged that Sicuro had directed the foundation to under-report his income to the IRS.

In October 1988, with almost the entire faculty calling for his head, Sicuro and the state cut a deal allowing for his exit without accusing him of any wrongdoing. Sicuro later became president of Roger Williams College in Bristol, R.I., and was last reported heading for retirement mecca Palm Desert, Calif., with his missus in 1993.


* Mayor Bud Clark orders an investigation into charges that Police Chief Richard Walker (Clark's fourth) slapped female officer Rikki Venemon during a dispute in the Justice Center parking garage. After a long bout of amnesia regarding the episode, Walker later acknowledges and apologizes for the slap, and the City Council agrees to pay Venemon $7,500.

* Acclaimed poet and short-story writer Raymond Carver, an Oregon native, dies of cancer at age 50.

* The 8-year-old daughter of Eldridge Broussard Jr., founder of the Ecclesia Athletic Association, is found beaten to death; four association members are charged in the killing. Broussard makes a tearful appearance on Oprah to defend the group, but state investigators find another 53 children have been abused at homes operated by the association.

* Mayor Bud Clark is reelected to a second term, defeating a field of candidates that includes two former police chiefs.

* If they're good enough for Star Search A local horn-playing rock outfit called Crazy 8s, once named a "band to watch" by Rolling Stone, records a live double-LP in Eugene. Crazy 8s entered the pop-music lexicon after a 1985 performance on Ed McMahon's talent show.

* Downtown watering hole the Veritable Quandary appears to be a casualty of the yuppie era. "Gone is the healthy mix of sailors, artists, politicians, businessmen, students and gurus, replaced by stockbrokers and young banker types," laments WW.

* Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), frustrated with GOP sabotage on campaign-finance reform, orders the Senate's sergeant-at-arms to arrest absent Republican senators and force them to return to the chamber. The sergeant and his deputies track down Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood at 3 am and carry him, feet first, back to the Senate floor, thereby registering a quorum-but Byrd's motion fails anyway.

* In a fit of homophobia, Oregon voters overturn Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's executive order banning discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation.

* The city erupts in protest when the Blazers trade all-time leading scorer Jim Paxson to the Boston Celtics for an even slower guard named Jerry Sichting. A first-round draft pick in 1979, Paxson played nine years in Portland and scored 10,003 points; Sichting chipped in just 1,083 points in three seasons.

* The area's first Blockbuster Video opens at the intersection of Southwest Cedar Hills Boulevard and Walker Road. "Blockbuster seems to have everything!" WW raves.


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