At 72, Lionel Newborn has had his share of tragedy. His wife died 11 months before his son and a friend were shot to death in 1998 by a group of skinheads.
Fifteen years later, with the once-stalled murder case now moving forward in federal court, the retired power plant supervisor said he’s not letting it consume his life.
“I put this on God 15 years ago, and he’s been carrying it since then,” Newborn said. “I refuse to allow it to be a determining factor in whether or not I’m going to enjoy my life.”
Newborn said he hasn’t read a word in the newspaper about the slayings of his son, Lin Newborn, 25, and Daniel Shersty, 21, since the man who led the attack, neo-nazi leader John “Polar Bear” Butler, was convicted in District Court in 2000.
But that doesn’t mean Newborn isn’t looking for justice for the others alleged to have participated in the two deaths, he said.
Authorities consider the killings hate crimes because the younger Newborn, who was black, and Shersty, who was white, were members of a rival skinhead group that opposed racial prejudice.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department informed two of the three defendants in the federal murder case — Ross Hack, 41, and his sister Melissa Hack, 37 — that it will not seek the death penalty against them. The third defendant, Leland Jones, 33, was only 17 at the time of the slayings and is not eligible for the death penalty.
The decision not to ask for capital punishment was made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. in a one-page directive filed in federal court after 19 months of vetting up the chain of command in the Justice Department.
Senior U.S. District Judge Philip Pro set an Oct. 17 status hearing to discuss moving the case to trial. No date has been set yet.
Newborn said he’s fine with the decision and expects the three defendants will get a fair trial and an appropriate punishment if convicted. The case is being prosecuted jointly by the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Defense lawyer Brent Bryson said prosecutors did the right thing.
“The Justice Department and U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden made the correct decision that there was overwhelming mitigating evidence that the death penalty should not be sought, and now we’ll move forward,” Bryson said.
In February 2012, a federal grand jury indicted the three defendants, who were associated with “racist neo-Nazi” groups, on first-degree murder and firearms charges. They all are now in federal custody.
Melissa Hack is Butler’s former girlfriend. She had a baby weeks before she was indicted.
Butler, the leader of the Independent Nazi Skins at the time of the slayings, was sentenced to life behind bars in the Nevada prison system. He was originally given a death sentence, but it was overturned.
The murder investigation remained open after Butler’s Dec. 29, 2000, conviction, but Las Vegas police had trouble gathering enough evidence to charge more people. Eventually, the FBI took a prominent role in the investigation because the killings occurred on federal land.
At the time of last year’s indictment, Kevin Favreau, then special agent in charge of the local FBI office, praised his agents and Las Vegas police for their persistence in not giving up on the case.
Authorities alleged Hack helped lure Newborn and Shersty to a remote desert site on federal land near Powerline Road and Centennial Parkway between July 3 and July 4, 1998, where they were ambushed and fatally shot. The two men were expecting to party.
A federal prosecutor described the slayings in court last year as “very gruesome.” Three weapons, a shotgun and two handguns, were used to kill Newborn and Shersty, the prosecutor said.
Ross Hack was in prison in Arizona when the murder indictment was unsealed here.
A Los Angeles federal judge sentenced him to three years in prison in 2009 for lying on his passport application while under investigation in the double murder case. He came under scrutiny in January 2008 after he was identified as an organizer of a white supremacist rally in Las Vegas where an individual was assaulted and nearly killed.
His sister was charged in July 2010 with lying to investigators about the slayings, but the federal case was dismissed last year after the murder charges were filed.
Prosecutors argued last year that Melissa Hack had a long criminal record since the slayings, including a felony drug conviction and probation revocations. She was involved in a chase with Henderson police during which shots were fired at the officers.
All three defendants pleaded not guilty, and Hack’s father, Jacob Hack, filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI in July, alleging agents violated his civil rights and smeared his name during the murder investigation. He was not charged in the case.
Newborn said he recalls FBI agents coming to him last year to let him know they were considering the death penalty in his son’s slaying.
He said he didn’t push for the ultimate punishment and probably won’t attend the murder trial.
Since the loss of his wife and son, Newborn said, the years have been good to him.
He has done his best to enjoy retirement by traveling and helping raise his grandson, who is now in high school.
The grandson was only 2 at the time of his father’s death and never really got to know him, Newborn said.
“I talked to him about his father whenever he has questions,” Newborn explained. “You have to deal with it.”
As for the memories of the tragedy he has faced, he added: “You just have to go on with your life.”
Contact reporter Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Follow him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.