- Matt Morris
As he awaits trial in Vermont's Northwest State Correctional Facility, William Schenk may face more trouble than he realizes. Schenk already knows that for allegedly leaving Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers at the homes of two Burlington women — a Mexican American and an African American — he could be sent to prison for more than four years.
But Schenk could also be getting kicked out of the KKK for violating the organization's flier-distribution protocols, the group's purported leader told Seven Days.
"He's not sanctioned to target anyone," said Charles Denton, the self-identified imperial wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in a phone interview from his Georgia home. "We don't allow people to go out and target. If I find out that he went out and picked out a black person and a brown person and put a flier on the door intentionally to intimidate, I would kick him out in a heartbeat."
Many were surprised by Schenk's arrest and the revelation of a KKK presence — however limited — in organic, solar-energized and kale-chomping Vermont. But the state is home to a few hate groups, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation's leading authority on the subject. The center says three such groups currently operate in Vermont: a neo-Nazi chapter of Aryan Nations LA; a white supremacist "church" called the Creativity Alliance; and the skinhead Aryan Strikeforce.
There's no Vermont chapter of the KKK, but Schenk, 21, told police that the group had tasked him with finding recruits in the Green Mountain State. He said he'd been successful doing so in North Carolina.
Seven Days visited the website mentioned on the fliers distributed in Burlington and submitted a general inquiry via an email link on the site. Denton, who also goes by the alias Cole Thornton, called the next day. He said he could confirm part of Schenk's story.
He said Schenk has been in the KKK for about one year as a designated recruiter — known as a "kleagle," a contraction of "klan" and "eagle."
Schenk, who has also lived in Ohio and Plattsburgh, N.Y., was in Vermont of his own accord, for personal reasons, Denton said. While here, he had requested and received approval from the nearest chapter of Denton's KKK group, in Maine, to distribute recruitment fliers in Vermont. But he was not allowed to specifically target anyone. The white supremacist organization tightly regulates flier distribution, Denton insisted, and none of the half dozen preapproved designs in circulation run afoul of any federal law. The organization has rules — some of which Denton shared with Seven Days — governing door-to-door solicitations.
"He was not sent up there on a mission to recruit — he was given the OK to recruit," Denton said, making the distinction. "I wish I did have resources to give people money to recruit full time. That would be wonderful. We don't pay somebody to go traveling around. This is all voluntary."
Vermont's hate groups each have a handful of members, Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Mark Potok told Vermont Public Radio earlier this month. "While Vermont struggles with racism, as virtually every place in the country does, the scene is very small," Potok said. He said that the state's last active chapter of the KKK, a group in Putney, disbanded seven or eight years ago.
Hate groups must have been "known to be active" in the past year to make the SPLC's list, according to its site, based on research gathered by law enforcement, media reports and original source material. Websites that appear to be the work of a lone person don't qualify.
Authorities say none of Vermont's hate groups have caused much trouble, at least publicly.
"We have not had any experience with them," Vermont State Police spokesman Scott Waterman said of the groups. "They haven't committed a crime. Unless they violate the law, we wouldn't interact with them."
The Creativity Alliance is an international organization and has a Vermont chapter, which the SPLC places in Middlebury. Seven Days reached out via an email address posted on the alliance's website.
In an email response to questions from Seven Days, Creativity Alliance leader Cailen Cambeul, who says he is located in Australia, declined to discuss the activities or the size of the Middlebury chapter. Broadly, the organization, set up as a church that admits only whites, teaches that it is at war with nonwhites.
"To be blunt about it, we wish for America, Australia and Europe to be ethnically cleansed of their nonwhite populations," Cambeul said in an email. "We have no wish to commit genocide." What they want, he said, is to send the members of what he called the "inferior mud races" to other lands.
The leader of the Creativity Alliance's Middlebury chapter has previously been identified on the organization's website as Patrick Tracy, or, as he was apparently known in the organization, Reverend Pat.
The only public record of Tracy getting into trouble in Vermont dates back to November 2011. According to Middlebury police records, officers found him visibly intoxicated on Main Street, drinking from an open alcohol container and affixing stickers with racist messages on local homes, businesses and car doors.
Tracy, now 41, was charged with a misdemeanor open-container violation. Somehow, the charge is still pending four years later, according to police records. Middlebury police said they could not explain the delay in the judicial process.
Tracy could not be located for comment at the address police records list for him, and messages left at the Vermont phone number Cambeul provided for the Middlebury chapter were not returned. A voicemail recording did not provide a name or information about the organization.
Leaders of the Aryan groups that the SPLC says operate in Vermont did not respond to requests for comment that Seven Days left on email addresses provided on their websites.
The SPLC estimates that KKK groups around the country have between 5,000 and 8,000 members in several different organizations, including Denton's, that use the Klan name. According to the Anti-Defamation League, which also tracks hate groups, Denton took command of two eastern KKK groups that merged in 2007.
Denton said the KKK has been trying to expand its presence in Vermont and elsewhere over the past few months as part of its regular recruitment. While Vermonters were focused on the Burlington incident, media in New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, Alabama and Tennessee were all reporting about local residents finding KKK recruiting fliers at their homes. Many of the fliers were identical to those found in Burlington, which read, "Join the Klan and Save our Land."
"I'm actively recruiting all over the country and in Europe," Denton said.
The application process varies by chapter. The Klan claims it is rigorous and that members pay dues.
Schenk told police that there were no other Klan recruiters in Vermont. The Burlington fliers, though, were not unprecedented. A few weeks before they appeared, residents in South Burlington found KKK recruitment business cards scattered inside an apartment complex on Quarry Hill Road.
No one reported the business cards to authorities, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said. Burlington police found out about them while investigating Schenk.
Del Pozo said investigators believe Schenk was responsible for those, too. But in that case, del Pozo said, the law did not appear to have been broken, because the cards didn't seem to be specifically targeting anyone.
Denton said the KKK is aware that its members can get into trouble for passing out fliers. To avoid it, officials instruct designated kleagles not to use mailboxes — which are protected by federal law — and to instead jam fliers into doors or leave them on porches. They warn against distributing at schools and churches, and caution that upscale shopping centers tend to have more vigilant security.
"If anyone tells you they don't want a flier, don't argue, just move on," read the guidelines Denton emailed Seven Days. "If you are ever ordered to stop: If you are on private property, leave. Don't argue."
When interviewed by police, Schenk was adamant that he had distributed around 50 fliers in a Burlington neighborhood and had not, as police and prosecutors allege, targeted the two women, according to court documents.
Denton believes that version. Why, he asked, would someone on a recruiting trip leave only two fliers, and with people who obviously would have no interest in joining?
He contended that Schenk is being prosecuted only because of community pressure, including a large rally on Church Street in the days after the incident.
Del Pozo said in an interview that police have twice canvassed the neighborhood where Schenk said he had recruited and found no one else who received fliers — leading authorities to believe the women were targeted.
According to Denton, the KKK tries to do business quietly these days, with little public presence. Denton said he doesn't even like to wear his hood in public anymore. He admitted that when wearing one, "It's hard to see."
The KKK has shied away from public rallies. Instead, they are determined to win new followers one house at a time, even in liberal cities where they would seem to have little chance of success. According to Denton, "Somebody two houses down the street might welcome us with open arms."