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The sheriff of Franklin County, Tenn., says he and his investigators have learned a lot about hate groups since they began investigating a March killing thought to be the work of white supremacists.
But what he has learned about the Aryan Nations and similar groups is not anything he really ever wanted to know.
"Before this homicide we knew these groups existed, and we'd seen different ones in jail. ... But society in rural areas, I think, wants to discount it and say they're wanna-bes. But we know the Aryan group is active," said Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller.
Not only are such groups active, they're growing across the country. The extremism many thought was a thing of the past is gaining new ground, according to intelligence collected and compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2012, the Montgomery, Ala.-based group counted 33 hate groups in Tennessee, 53 in Georgia and 30 in Alabama.
Across the Southeast, the group counted 355 hate groups, and nationally the number of hard-core hate groups is just over 1,000, according to Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"There's an enormous growth," Potok said, adding that much of it has occurred since the election of America's first black president.
"What that election represents [to extremists] is the idea that white people in America are losing their majority. By 2043, whites will be a minority in the country," he said, referring to U.S. Census projections.
Fuller described the Aryan Nations as "a spin-off of Ku Klux Klan."
"They dislike blacks, Hispanics and Jews. I would consider them a hate group, yes," the sheriff said.
Investigating the March 24 slaying of Cowan, Tenn., resident Corey N. Matthews, the sheriff said officers realized there are more members of the group than they had thought in Franklin, Grundy, Coffee, Warren, Lincoln and Moore counties.
Four men have been charged in Matthews' death, and three have been apprehended. John Corey Lanier, 26; Todd E. Dalton, 39; and Coty Keith Holmes, 25, all of Coffee County, Tenn., are in custody. David Gordon Jenkins, 46, of Manchester, Tenn., is at large and has been added to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Top 10 Most Wanted list.
Fuller said all -- including the victim -- were Aryan Nations members.
The death was the result of a dispute over gang "doctrine," according to investigators.
Fuller would not elaborate about the case, but he was clear about what the group claims to stand for.
"Google them and look at the rules they claim to live by. What they project and what they live by are two different worlds apart," he said. "They want to project they live by the [Christian] cross. In reality, they do not."
He said all the group members he and other law enforcement officers have come to know joined in jail or prison.
Last month, another Southern Poverty Law Center hate group expert, Heidi Beirich, spoke at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She said the number of hate groups in the United States rose 69 percent in the last decade.
In Tennessee, the groups ranged from Nazi to Klan to anti-Muslim and anti-gay.
Beirich and Potok said there also has been a rise in what Potok calls "patriot" and "militia" groups -- conspiracy-minded, anti-government groups.
The 1,360 patriot groups in 2012 was up about 7 percent from the 1,274 active in 2011, he said.
"And that was only the latest growth spurt in the patriot movement, which generally believes that the federal government is conspiring to take Americans' guns and destroy their liberties as it paves the way for a global 'one-world government,'" Potok said.
From just 149 organizations in 2008, the number of patriot groups shot up to 512 in 2009, jumped again to 824 in 2010, and then to 1,274 in 2011, he wrote in a recent report.
The jumps reflect people's discomfort with change of any kind: the recession, the civil rights movement, even women getting to vote, he said.
"We are living in the very real backlash [of recent change]. It shows how much anger there is," he said. "It will subside, but we're going through a real bad period."
Potok said the conspiracy talk of the so-called patriots incites the hate groups, so it is important that the falsehoods of those conspiracy theories be challenged.
"The liars have to be called out -- especially if they [the spinners] are preachers or leaders or pundits," he said. "Because it is not innocuous. ... They have the effect of poisoning democracy."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...