What Motivated A Florida Gunman To Open Fire On Latino Exchange Students?

Feb. 26, 2009: A 60-year-old former Republican Party campaign volunteer opens fire on a gathering of Chilena exchange students in an apartment complex in Miramar Beach, Fla., after telling a neighbor he wanted to start a "revolution" against Latino immigrants.

It's fairly astonishing, really, how little coverage the horrendous shooting rampage in Florida earlier this week has gotten in the American press: Someone walks up to a townhouse meeting room full of Chilean college students and opens fire on them -- after having warned neighbors earlier not to have any immigrants in her home, and asking one of them if they wanted to join him in his "revolution."

thumb_RacineBalbontin_349fc.JPG Two kids (including Racine Balbontin, 22, left) dead, five hospitalized. This is just a mundane story? Well, it's a major, front-page news story in Chile, at least, and in much of the rest of Latin America.

Northwest Florida Daily News reports:

Cooperative Radio reporter Stephanie Hunt spoke to the Daily News via phone from Santiago, Chile, Friday morning. She said Chilean Government Minister Francisco Vidal called the crime "macabre" and "brutal."

Hunt said Chile's Deputy Consul General is working to get family members to the United States so they can be with the injured students and bring back the bodies of those who didn't survive. Families traveled from all over Chile Thursday to Santiago to meet with officials in an attempt to expedite the process of getting passports and visas.

Although the case is sensitive because it involves foreign nationals and 14 victims total, The Walton County Sheriff's Office released some new information.

"It was a tremendously horrific scene," said Sheriff Mike Adkinson. "Even the survivors are victims."

Adkinson said the shooting happened about 1:45 a.m. when Dannie Baker, 60, approached Unit 12 in the Summer Lakes townhome complex and opened fire through a window. When he was done, Adkinson said, he went back to his home at Unit 25.

thumb_mediumDannie Baker_bdb0b.JPG We're gradually learning more about the shooter, Dannie Baker -- but a heap of questions remain unanswered. It appears that he used to campaign for Republicans, but they dropped him when he sent some e-mails in 2007 that apparently frightened them.

According to one news story:

Not much is known about Baker or his lifestyle yet, according to the Sheriff's Office.

He was a volunteer at the Walton County Republican Headquarters during the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2004.

"He volunteered the same time I did," said Pat Magee, a member of the Walton County Republican Executive Committee. "I was shocked. The person I knew would have never done anything bad to anyone."

Magee said Baker answered phones and did general office work during the campaign. Although she didn't remember much about his personal life, she said he had mentioned he was from Alabama and had attended Auburn University.

Jim Anders, another member of the Republican Executive Committee, said Baker was very active during the 2004 election but added that he was very eccentric. He said Baker traveled to Atlanta once a year to assist in some sort of music ministry there.

Baker did not volunteer during last year's election, but local Republicans said they began to receive disturbing e-mails from him about national political issues, said Anders.

"Dannie had some emotional problems, it seemed," said Anders, who added that that many e-mails were "radical" and "inappropriate."

The e-mails were so disturbing they were reported to the Sheriff's Office, the Republican volunteers said.

The Sheriff's Office said the e-mails did not target any individuals, but would not reveal any more details about them.

A followup profile sheds some more light:

Meanwhile, Baker remains a mystery to those who have met him locally.

He has a registered nonprofit organization in Florida called Perfect Heart Ministry. The mission statement in the articles of incorporation filed in 2000 say the corporation is "organized for church ministry of promoting the Gospel through Christian music in the State of Florida."

Baker is listed as the incorporator. Two others, Trina and Jason Myers, formerly of Freeport, are listed as being on the board of directors. Calls to more recent phone numbers for the couple have gone unreturned.

Attorney Bart Fleet said he didn't realize he'd met Baker until the Daily News called him recently to ask about the corporation. Fleet's office is listed as the registered agent for the ministry and had helped Baker file documents with the state.

Fleet said he hasn't spoken to Baker since the fall of 2001.

"I'm probably a registered agent for thousands of corporations that we have set up over the past years," Fleet explained. "I don't remember anything about him other than this. We basically set up his corporation and filed his paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service."

When Baker volunteered with the local Republican Party headquarters during the 2004 election campaign, other volunteers remembered that he traveled to Atlanta once a year to help with the Atlanta Fest Christian music festival. But festival organizers said there are so many volunteers that no one remembered Baker specifically.

One person who met Baker on several occasions said she didn't know much about his past, but that he made her feel "cautious and uneasy."

Cheryl Rhoads cleans the town home directly across from where Baker lived at Summer Lake in Miramar Beach.

"He must have been sitting at his window, looking out all the time," Rhoads said.

She said it didn't matter if it was 6 a.m. or 2:30 p.m., Baker would ring the doorbell after she arrived at her job.

"He wouldn't wait to be invited in," Rhoads said. "He would just come in when you opened the door."

Rhoads said sometimes Baker would ask her how much she would charge to clean his home and sometimes he only wanted to talk about religion. He even gave her a copy of his book "Man's Perfection before God."

A Miami Herald writer also profiled the case. A local blogger, the Keyboard Detective dug up plenty more on Baker, including some input from someone who claims to have known him:

In general, Dannie has been a mentally ill person for a long time (it's not important for how long). His health has been deteriorating dramatically since 2003 I would say. While in 2003 he was still quite OK although I have seen dramatic mood swings and outbursts of agression mainly against weaker persons, usually girls in his house who were also WAT students.

It's also apparent his attorneys fully intend to explore the mental-illness component of the shootings.

However, it's a cop-out to simply ascribe this to his illness and let it go at that. Because there is a pattern of "isolated incidents" in which mentally ill people select their victims based on eliminationist scapegoating rhetoric from right-wing ideologues.

I've written about this previously:

Part of the problem is that we actually have seen this happen time after time after time: A mentally unstable person is inspired by hateful right-wing rhetoric to act out violently -- and yet because of that mental state, the matter is dismissed as idiosyncratic, just another "isolated incident." And over the months and years, these "isolated incidents" mount one after another.

But simply ascribing these acts to mental illness is a cop-out. It fails to account for the gross irresponsibility of the people who employed the rhetoric that inspired the violent action in the first place, and their resulting moral culpability.

The clearest illustration of this is a case that occurred here in Seattle in the mid-1980s:

People who study the far right have known many of these people over the years: Gordon Kahl. Robert Matthews. Tim McVeigh.

One of the most memorable of these, for me, was a man named David Lewis Rice.

On Christmas Eve 1985, Charles and Annie Goldmark were at home with their sons Derek, 12, and Colin, 10, preparing for a holiday dinner when the doorbell rang. It was Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed transient, posing as a taxicab driver delivering a package. He brandished a toy gun and forced his way into their home, then set about using chloroform to render all four Goldmarks unconscious. He then proceeded to kill them slowly, using a steam iron and a knife that he used to insert into at least one of the victim's brains. Annie was pronounced dead on the spot, Colin pronounced dead on arrival, while Charles died there a short while later; Derek finally succumbed 37 days later.

But Rice wasn't just a deranged loony -- though he probably fit that description too. He also was a deranged loony who had been set into action by the malicious lies of a group of right-wing haters, whose venom became his inspiration, as the HistoryLink piece explains:

David Rice, a former steel worker from Colorado, joined an extremist group in Washington called the Duck Club. Although the Duck Club was almost defunct, the Seattle chapter still functioned. The group convinced Rice that Charles Goldmark was Jewish and a Communist. (Charles Goldmark's parents, John and Sally Goldmark, had won a highly publicized libel case in 1964 when they were accused of being Communists.)

The Goldmark case is a centerpiece of James Aho's study of the far right, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy (which I've discussed previously). Aho goes into more detail about what drove Rice, as well as the circumstances surrounding his decision to kill:

Conversion (resocialization) ... occurs not through brainwashing of passive victims or through obsessive self-conversion. It takes place through active efforts of the disciple, sometimes indifferent to ideology or theology as such, to solidify and preserve social ties with his mentors.

... Ed Fasel [fictitious name] was head of the local Duck Club chapter. It was from Ed that Rice received the tragic misinformation that Charles and Annie Goldmark were leading Seattle Communists. In the course of discussions concerning local subversives and crooks who were presumably frustrating Rice's efforts to secure a job, Fasel, mistaking Charles for his father John, related to Rice that the Goldmarks had been investigated and that Charles was "regional director of the American Communist Party." Rice took this to mean that Charles was the "highest obtainable target I could reach, the greatest value informationally." After handcuffing the Goldmarks, Rice intended to interrogate them about the next person in the conspiratorial hierarchy, possibly to preempt at the last moment the impending invasion of alien troops [a conspiracy theory to which Rice subscribed].

What occasioned Fasel to dredge up a name associated with an event that had occurred two decades previously in another part of the state? In a Seattle Port Commission election during the summer of 1985, one of the candidates was Jim Wright, a Republican. Wright's campaign manager was none other than Ashley Holden, a defendant in the Goldmark trial. [Holden had been a leading torchbearer in the McCarthyite "Red fever" that swept Washington state in the late 1940s and '50s, and had been one of the people who falsely accused the Goldmarks in print of being part of the Communist Party.] Upon discovering this unusual link, the Seattle media jumped on it, and the name "Goldmark," with its unfortunate connotations, "got out again," to use one informant's phrase.

In my interview with him, Holden convincingly insisted that he knew nothing of the Duck Club nor any of its members. "I deplored the murder," he said. "There is no question," he went on, parroting local wisdom, "Rice was demented."

I have met some of the old leaders of the Duck Club, including "Fasel" -- whose real name was Homer Brand. They reminded me of Richard Butler: they had a moral stench about them like rotting corpses. Of course, they never faced legal liability for their role in the murders. But they had blood on their hands, just as surely as does the "Libertarian National Socialist Green Party" and whoever else gave Jeff Weise his inspiration.

The problem is that this has happened more than "on occasion" -- rather, there is a history of this kind of violence, and there's a consistent pattern to it. What's most noteworthy is that the violence expands with the increasing use of eliminationist rhetoric. When people look at Dannie Baker's rampage and ask "Why?" -- as so many are -- that history and that pattern are a good place to start looking.

Anyone want to wager that Dannie Baker is not a Lou Dobbs fan?

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