Jurors learned about the cultures of two opposing skinhead groups Wednesday during the start of a federal murder trial that centers on the 1998 shooting deaths of two Las Vegas men.
Lin “Spit” Newborn, 25, and Daniel Shersty, 21, were killed because they “opposed the kind of racial hatred” espoused by the two defendants in the case, said Patricia Sumner, a prosecutor with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The defendants, Ross Hack and Leland Jones, were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the slayings.
Prosecutors have theorized that Newborn, who was black, and Shersty, who was white, were killed because they were members of a skinhead group that opposed racial prejudice.
“The evidence will show that defendant Ross Hack and defendant Leland Jones plotted and carried out the cold-blooded, execution-style murders of those two unsuspecting men,” Sumner said during her opening statement.
Hack was 27 at the time of the killings, and Jones was 17, she said.
Jurors heard testimony Wednesday from members of both skinhead groups. Witnesses said both groups sport shaved or partially shaved heads and typically wear boots and flight jackets. Patches and tattoos help discern their political views.
Hack came up with the plan to kill Newborn, a skinhead leader who believed in racial equality, and ordered Shersty’s killing after learning he planned to join Newborn, the prosecutor said.
Newborn worked at a body-piercing salon. Shersty, his friend, was an airman at Nellis Air Force Base, where he serviced fighter jets.
Mandie Abels, who helped lure the victims to the desert, testified for several hours Wednesday. She explained her role in the killings on federal land in northwest Las Vegas, near Powerline Road and Centennial Parkway, where Newborn and Shersty were ambushed in the early morning hours of July 4, 1998.
The 36-year-old secretly pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in 2012 and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Senior U.S. District Judge Philip Pro sentenced her that year to 15 years in prison, but he kept the case sealed for two more years.
The witness, wearing ankle chains and a black dress suit, identified Hack, now 42, as her ex-boyfriend.
Abels said both she and Hack were skinheads who supported “white power.” She said Hack was a member of a band called “Stronghold” that played skinhead music with “white power lyrics.”
Abels recalled attending a “hatefest” in Florida with Hack, whose band was playing at the event, in May 1998. She also recalled her then-boyfriend holding meetings at his North Las Vegas home, where she lived at the time, in the summer of 1998.
Abels said she was not allowed to attend the meetings, but Hack eventually sent her and his sister, Melissa Hack, to the body-piercing shop where Newborn worked to “invite him out to a party in the desert.”
The witness said she knew the plan involved killing Newborn, a prominent figure in a group known as SHARP, or Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.
“There was a strong hatred between the two groups,” Abels said.
She said Newborn accepted the invitation, but he also decided to bring along his friend Shersty.
The witness said she met with John “Polar Bear” Butler, Jones, Daniel Hartung and Melissa Hack at Ross Hack’s home on the night of July 3, 1998, to discuss the shooting.
Abels said she and Melissa Hack went to a grocery store with Newborn and Shersty to buy beer before heading to the desert, where the four other men were waiting, the witness said.
After brief introductions, “gunshots started going off,” Abels testified.
She recalled Shersty, who had been shot in the chest, falling back against the front of a car. She told the jury he looked up at her and said, “Somebody just end it.”
Hartung then approached with a “longer gun” and struck him in the face with its butt, she said. Shersty said nothing after that, Abels testified.
At the same time, the witness said, “Ross was shooting out in the desert toward Lin Newborn.” Meanwhile, Abels said, she heard Melissa Hack screaming, “Shoot the n——-.”
During her opening statement, Sumner said Ross Hack shot Newborn in the back of the head with a handgun, but the wound failed to incapacitate the victim.
“Spit was able to run, and run he did,” the prosecutor said. “He ran for his life.”
Sumner said Butler followed after Newborn with a shotgun to finish him off.
After leaving the area, Abels testified, she and Ross Hack worried about shell casings left at the crime scene. She said they returned to the scene around daybreak, but she panicked at the sight of Shersty’s body and told Ross Hack to get back in the car.
The witness said the pair then rounded up Butler and Melissa Hack and told them to finish cleaning up the evidence. Back at the scene, Sumner said, they were spotted near the body by three all-terrain vehicle riders, who recorded their license plate number and contacted police.
Abels said Ross Hack fled to Germany on Aug., 5, 1998, and she followed him five days later. However, Abels returned to the United States in late September 1998.
“We were fighting a lot,” she said. “I was drinking a lot.”
She said Ross Hack remained in Europe for about a decade. He was arrested in March 2008 in a passport fraud case after returning to the United States.
Ross Hack later pleaded guilty to a felony charge of making a false statement on a passport application, and a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him in December 2009 to three years in prison.
He was on the verge of being released when a federal grand jury in Las Vegas indicted him and Jones in 2012.
Melissa Hack was also indicted. She pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit murder and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors against her co-defendants.
Melissa Hack is the ex-girlfriend of Butler, a neo-Nazi who was convicted in Clark County District Court in the double-murder case. Butler, who is serving a life sentence with no chance for parole, is expected to testify during the federal trial.
Jones’ attorney, James Hartsell, said the government has no physical evidence linking his client to the crime scene.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Kennedy, who represents Ross Hack, said the same.
“He didn’t plan it, he didn’t participate, and he’s not guilty,” Kennedy said during his opening statement.
Kennedy said the murder case against Ross Hack is based on lies told by those who made “corrupt deals” with the government in hopes of gaining their freedom.
“Not one of these people can tell a coherent story, because they’re all lies,” he told the jury.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Find her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.