FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - By day, the two soldiers wore standard-issue Army fatigues bearing what is known as the "All American" patch of the elite 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg.
By night, they donned the black boots and white laces, red suspenders, flight jackets and chains that make up an unofficial uniform signifying white power and became part of a subculture of white-supremacist skinheads. They hung out at private underground nightclubs that catered to this fringe.
Such were the lives of Army privates James Norman Burmeister II, 20, and Malcolm Wright, 21, the two main suspects in the deadly, racially motivated shooting of a black man and woman last Thursday that has shocked this Army town and numbed police. Officers described the men as unremorseful, even smug.
A third suspect, soldier Randy Lee Meadows Jr., 21, who is considered to be less strident in his views than his two companions, has been charged with driving the car that the killers used. He is cooperating with investigators, sources said.
Police say they were at bar
Police sources said that in the hours leading up to the slaying, the threesome was drinking at a popular local strip bar, the Cue and Ale.
The discovery of a large Nazi flag draped on the wall of a room rented by Burmeister in a mobile home near the base, as well as a gallery of white supremacist literature and pamphlets on Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, has prompted the 82nd Airborne to begin
an internal investigation into whether extremist organizations exist within its ranks, military officials said.
Participation by soldiers in such groups is prohibited under Army regulations and punishable by expulsion.
Human-rights watchdog groups said that there long has been widespread white-supremacist activity at Fort Bragg. The Southern Poverty Law Center, while probing a far-right group in North Carolina in the late 1980s, discovered that a number of soldiers from Fort Bragg had been recruited to be participants.
"There is a large skinhead presence in this town because of the types of people stationed at Fort Bragg," said Bob Smynter, owner of the private underground bar Purgatory, which is the main night spot for skinheads and other white supremacists here. "This is not a normal town."
"There is nothing to indicate that we have a major race problem in the 82nd Airborne," said Maj. Rivers Johnson, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne. "But we'll have to reserve judgment until the chain of command has completed evaluations within their units."
Law-enforcement authorities said the suspects in last week's slayings are not affiliated with a larger white-supremacist organization or movement, but that at least Burmeister and Wright appear to be deeply embedded in the informal network of skinheads and other extremists that is active at the base.
Most of the supremacist activity revolves around a circuit of private underground clubs where extremists drink and listen to thumping punk, ska and other music that is popular among skinheads. Burmeister and Wright, regulars at Purgatory, were often seen in skinhead garb. Acquaintances said that Burmeister sometimes wore a swastika patch on the sleeve of his black leather bomber jacket.
Smynter said the two soldiers appeared to be part of the more racist faction of skinheads who, for instance, would not come to the club on nights that ska was the featured music because they considered it similar to Jamaican reggae.
"Most of the real racial skinheads would come for the punk, which these guys mostly did," Smynter said. "I knew these guys were hard core, but I didn't realize just how much."
A bouncer at Purgatory, Kerry Dissinger, recalled a conversation he had with Burmeister two weeks ago at the club during which the soldier sneered at the head bouncer, who was Korean, and spoke in derogatory terms about Asians. "Let's just say his basic point was that he didn't like Oriental people very much," Dissinger said.
Several club owners said that Burmeister and Wright were among a large number of skinheads who were banned from certain bars in town because they frequently got into fights with people who did not agree with their views.
Comrades knew of racist views
Members of Burmeister's unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Wright was less vehement than Burmeister. They said that Burmeister was very public about his racist views and moved from the barracks to a mobile home seven months ago because he could not get along with his fellow soldiers. Both in the barracks and at nightclubs, he had been known to rail against blacks and the "cancer" of equal-employment opportunities.
"Before he moved out, he had several run-ins with other soldiers because he was quite voluble about his racism and was not shy to use" a racial slur, said a member of Burmeister's unit who asked not to be identified. "He could be quite vitriolic; it was quite ugly at times."
But while condemning the murders, some Fort Bragg soldiers said they espoused the suspects' supremacist views. "The mixing of races is dead wrong, whether it's in the Army or anywhere else," a private, who would only identify himself as Lance, said while walking into the private Neo Nightclub, which is known as a popular venue for some extremists. "Popping that black couple was wrong, but praising a Nazi flag is not."
Law-enforcement sources said that Burmeister rented his mobile-home room from a couple who described themselves publicly as white separatists. The couple was away on a trip when Burmeister and Wright were arrested at the home Thursday morning. While his landlords were out of town, Burmeister apparently sawed off the barrel of a shotgun belonging to the husband, who is also a soldier at Fort Bragg, the sources said. Police have seized the weapon. Authorities also found a 9mm handgun in the mobile home that they believe was the weapon used in the slayings.
Michael James, 36, and his friend, Jackie Burden, 27, were fatally shot as they strolled down an unlit street in their neighborhood near downtown early Thursday morning.
According to police sources, Burmeister and Wright apparently picked James and Burden at random and approached the couple on foot.