Ken Mieske, a racist skinhead whose 1988 baseball bat killing of an African-American man in Southeast Portland shocked and galvanized the city, and led to a civil trial that riveted the nation, died Tuesday, reportedly of complications from hepatitis C. He was 45 and was serving his sentence at Oregon State Penitentiary.
Mulugeta Seraw was a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and student at Portland State University with a young son who, along with friends, encountered Mieske on Southeast 31st Avenue on the evening of Nov. 12, 1988. Mieske was a native Portlander who played in area death-metal bands. In 1984, he had prophetically adopted the nickname "Ken Death" and had already served a prison sentence for burglary by the time he ran into Seraw.
That night, emboldened by drink, Mieske and two buddies, Kyle Brewster and Steven Strasser, escalated a street fight with Seraw and two friends into murder when Mieske grabbed a baseball bat and swung it repeatedly at Seraw's skull, splitting it in two.
Mieske and the others were quickly arrested and charged; Mieske pleaded guilty to murder, and the other two pleaded to manslaughter.
Willamette Week covered the events exhaustively, with good reason. Wrote WW reporter John Schrag:
"In Portland, the list of momentous singular events over the past three decades is a short one.
The Blazers vanquishing the 'Sixers in the Coliseum in '77 was a cultural coming of age. Mayor Bud Clark's dethroning of Frank Ivancie five years later marked a political sea change. The birth of Pioneer Courthouse Square in 1984 gave the city a public living room. The 1985 choking death of a black security guard by white cops awakened a slumbering resentment toward the city's pale power structure.
But none can compare with the reverberations of that bat."
The shock of the crime itself was exceeded by the terror of its back story and an extraordinary civil lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
While in prison four years earlier, Mieske had been indoctrinated into the Christian Identity movement, which believes non-Caucasian people have no souls. And one month before the Seraw murder, Mieske, who was by then loosely associated with a group called East Side White Pride, was visited by Dave Mazzella. Mazzella later told police he had come to Portland to recruit on behalf of Tom Metzger, a TV repairman, a one-time candidate for governor of California, and the founder of the White Aryan Resistance, a white supremacist group.
Mazzella told authorities Metzger had sent him north to incite Portland skinheads. The jury believed Mazzella, found Metzger responsible for encouraging Mieske and others to commit violence, and awarded Seraw's family millions of dollars (most of which they were unable to collect).
The civil suit helped the city heal, in part because it allowed Portlanders the luxury of thinking that the only way one of them could be guilty of such a crime was if he were incited by outsiders.
But the truth was murkier.
In her exhaustively researched book A Hundred Little Hitlers, Portlander Elinor Langer argued that the case against Metzger was informed more by passion than reason. She concluded that the ties between Metzger and Mieske were thin and that the death resulted from a street fight with racial overtones, not from a premeditated racial attack.
One last bizarre footnote: In 1987, one year before Seraw was murdered, a little known filmmaker named Gus Van Sant made a three-minute movie about Mieske on the occasion of his release from prison for burglary. A rumination on women and prison, narrated by Mieske , it was called “Ken Death Gets Out of Jail.”