For a fleeting moment, Joshua Fiedler seemed to recognize his captor as Mesa detective Matt Browning slapped the cuffs around his wrists. “Do I know you?” Browning recalled Fiedler asking him.
Browning arrested Fiedler more than a year after he burst into a Mesa home clad in dark clothing, gloves and a ski mask in December 2002. He and his friend pistol-whipped one of the men inside with a semiautomatic handgun, and tied up all the people in the house.
The pair stole 13 guns, two diamond rings, a diving watch, a silver sword, several cases of ammunition and $300 in cash before taking off, according to police reports.
As it turned out, Fiedler’s instincts were right on target.
Browning did know Fiedler. He knew that Fiedler was a leader in a local white supremacist movement and the founder of so-called “skinhead” groups such as the SS Guardians. He recognized Fiedler’s intricate green-and-red tattoo on his throat.
For 12 of Browning’s 16 years on Mesa’s police force, he has lived a double life. To the Mesa Police Department, he was an invaluable asset who went undercover to gather intelligence, and ultimately, to help put away some of the most violent white supremacists in the state.
But to the white supremacists who knew him, Browning was a business owner fed up with the illegal immigration problem.
Fueled by the ever-growing immigration debate in Arizona, Browning said he’s seen these groups rise in activity and membership. Organizations such as the National Alliance try to recruit members, using the issue as a hook. And with the help of the Internet, many of these groups now are better equipped to reach out to new audiences.
A report released last year by the Anti-Defamation League found a rise in white supremacist activity across the country, including in Arizona. Some of that activity was documented in Mesa.
“You don’t go to a meeting in Arizona where they discuss the blacks or the Asians or anyone else. It’s always the Mexicans because that’s what’s in the forefront,” Browning said.
Browning saw his first “skinheads” — police shorthand for white supremacists — in 1989 when the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement paraded down Phoenix’s Central Avenue on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he said. He didn’t think much of them at the time. But that would change after he joined the Mesa Police Department.
At first he specialized in investigating gang activity while he was out patrolling. But his interests shifted to white supremacy and racist skinheads — a topic of which he is the sole expert in his department.
“I got tired of sitting in the parking lot and watching all my partners work the Hispanic stuff,” Browning said. “Because I wasn’t Hispanic, I didn’t fit in those crowds.”
With the support of supervisors, he began attending white-power concerts at the old Nile Theater that used to exist in downtown Mesa. He wore Doc Martens, the type of boots often worn by members of pro-white groups. He joined the National Alliance, Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Imperial Klans of America and the World Church of the Creator. Most of those groups have some active members here in the Valley. From there, he starting getting their e-mails and attending meetings.
With the rise of blogs, message boards and other Web sites, it’s getting easier for these groups to get the word out, he said.
“They’re getting smarter,” Browning said. “They’re using the Internet as a tool.”
Erich Gliebe, chairman of the National Alliance, said the Internet helped bolster membership in his organization. The group’s news Web site gets millions of hits per month, he said. Many visitors are not members, but are simply interested in reading news from a white perspective.
“The hits increase month after month ever since we launched that site in September 2005,” he said.
Younger members also have used mainstream Web sites such as myspace.com to recruit new people, he said.
“I think the Internet is great because we can compete,” Gliebe said. “We’re on a level playing field with the people who control the mainstream media. They can’t censor us. We can say whatever we want.”
The messages of white supremacist groups literally bombarded Browning every day as members of various groups constantly called his cell phone to see if he wanted to go hang out.
“Different people are passionate about different things. ... But then you have outside hobbies that could get you away from that,” Browning said. “When you talk about racists, they have no hobbies to get away from their hate. They wake up in the morning hating, and they go to bed at night hating. And all throughout the day, they hate and hate and hate — and that’s where the violence comes in.”
While not all white supremacists resort to violence, Browning investigated the ones who did. His undercover role took him to meetings all over the state, and many of the high-profile cases he worked had Mesa ties.
In 2004, a Latino man was kicked by two skinheads wearing steel-toed boots outside a bar on Alma School Road after the men made racially charged remarks about Mexicans. Browning said those men have never been apprehended.
The following year, Cory Simpson was slain in Mesa on Christmas Eve. Simpson was a well-known white supremacist in Arizona circles who helped form the Arizona chapter of the Vinlanders Social Club in Mesa before he was stabbed in a front yard on Holmes Avenue, according to reports. His killer remains at large.
But members of some of these groups do not agree with Browning’s assessment of them.
Gliebe said he met Browning at a meeting out in the desert back in 2002. A few years later, Gliebe learned that Browning was really a cop.
“I thought the guy did not seem to be genuine,” Gliebe said. “He looked like an undercover cop. He acted like it, because he didn’t discuss the ideology.”
Gliebe admitted there are skinheads who join or attend meetings of the National Alliance, but he denied that any of the group’s members resort to violence.
Browning said skinhead activity is not often discussed in police intelligence briefings, and he wants to improve law enforcement’s knowledge of it.
Although Browning’s undercover days are over, he and a Phoenix officer founded the Skinhead Intelligence Network. The network allows federal, state and local agencies to meet and share intelligence information about skinhead-related crimes. He hopes this will improve communication.
“Nobody ever talks about this stuff.” he said.
So far, Browning has testified in three cases, and he’s planning to offer his expertise in at least three more.
Fiedler’s case was among those in which Browning offered testimony. Fiedler denied a request by the Tribune for an interview and he is still serving a long prison sentence.
Browning said it gave him great satisfaction to be the guy who cuffed Fiedler, but it wasn’t the highlight of his undercover experience.
“The fun part about it was when he was sentenced,” Browning said. “He’ll still be in prison when I retire, so that’s a good thing.
“It was another one gone — one less skin to worry about in Mesa.”