Many Portlanders, even those who've lived here for decades, know little about the murder of Mulugeta Seraw. But in the wee hours of a Sunday morning in November 1988, an Ethiopian immigrant was killed—and the city's self-image as a tolerant place was shattered.
On Nov. 13, 1988, at the intersection of Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street, two groups arrived at the apartment building where Mulugeta Seraw, 28, an Ethiopian immigrant, lived. It just so happened that an adjacent apartment building was where Nick Heise, a racist skinhead, lived.
The two men lived so close to each other that, "had they wanted to," Elinor Langer writes in A Hundred Little Hitlers, "Mulugeta Seraw and Nick Heise could have rigged up an old-fashioned tin-can telephone on a wire between their two units."
On that evening, Kenneth Mieske, 23, a member of the skinhead group East Side White Pride, and fellow skinheads Kyle Brewster and Steven Strasser were leaving Heise's apartment after a night of heavy drinking and distributing white-supremacist recruitment fliers in downtown Portland.
Ken Mieske, 23 years old at the time, was the frontman of a local death metal band, and was known by many in the scene as Ken Death.
Kyle Brewster, 19 at the time, was a recently crowned Grant High School homecoming king and bicycle messenger.
Steven Strasser, 20 at the time of his arrest, was a street kid and one of the earliest recruits to the Portland skinhead movement.
Seraw and his friends, also Ethiopian, were idling in a friend's car, just having returned from a party. They were waiting for a parking spot to open up in front of the apartment complex.
At about 1:30 am, a brawl broke out. As Langer describes it, Strasser, Brewster and Mieske pulled up in front of the parked car Seraw and his friends were in and began hollering at them to move.
Tilahule Antneh, a friend of Seraw's who was also attacked, then told an Oregonian reporter that Mieske, Brewster and Strasser—heads shaved and clad in olive-colored military jackets and work boots—"just opened the door and immediately they came."
"The women inside the [skinheads'] car [the men's girlfriends] were shouting. They were saying, 'Let's kill him. Kick him,''' Antneh said. "They [the men] never said anything. They just jumped us."
According to witnesses who recounted the events to Langer and others, Seraw tried to break up the fight. While Seraw struggled with Brewster, Mieske hit him from behind with a baseball bat—then kept hitting him while Brewster and Strasser kicked him with their steel-toed boots.
All three men were sent to prison for Seraw's murder, pleading guilty and never facing trial. But the case took on national significance two years later, when Morris Dees, founder of a civil rights watchdog group called the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued a California white supremacist, Tom Metzger, in civil court—and won a landmark judgment.
Metzger is the neo-Nazi founder of the White Aryan Resistance, or WAR. The night Seraw was killed, Mieske and other East Side White Pride members had been roaming Portland handing out fliers for the Aryan Youth Movement, a branch of Metzger's WAR.
"Metzger had become the Pied Piper of the skinheads," recalls James McElroy, the SPLC lawyer who led the legal battle. "He saw them as the foot soldiers of the race war. To take him down was important—and sent a message to other groups who were organizing."
The civil suit made an unusual argument: that Metzger had "vicarious liability" for Seraw's death, because by sending an agent to Portland to teach skinheads how to assault people, he took actions he knew could kill someone.
After a trial lasting six days, Metzger was found liable for indoctrinating Portland skinheads with racist and violent ideology. A jury ruled Metzger had to pay $12.5 million in damages to Seraw's family.
Metzger had nowhere near that much money. But McElroy collected more than $100,000. "The biggest asset we got was Metzger's house," McElroy says. "We sold it to a nice Hispanic family, which I thought was poetic justice."
Where are they now?
Ken Mieske, after being sentenced to life in prison for murder, died of hepatitis C in the Oregon State Penitentiary in 2011 at the age of 45. "He never showed any remorse that I knew during his lifetime," Dees, the SPLC founder, told The Oregonian. "I hoped he would have done this before he passed away, but apparently he was hardcore to the end."
Kyle Brewster, now 48, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. He completed his sentence in 2002, only to find himself back in prison for a stint six years later, in 2008, after assaulting a police officer in Umatilla County. A social media account bearing his name resurfaced last year—to claim he voted for Donald Trump.
Steven Strasser, now 50, completed his prison sentence in 1999 and was released. Unlike Brewster and Mieske, he quit the white supremacist movement while in prison. His whereabouts are unknown.
Tom Metzger's neo-Nazi group was driven to bankruptcy by the damages it was forced to pay Seraw's family. Metzger, now 80, still maintains a WAR website and produces a neo-Nazi radio show. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Morris Dees, now 81, is still the Southern Poverty Law Center's chief trial lawyer. In 1991, he published an autobiography, A Lawyer's Journey, and under his watch, the group continues to identify and monitor hate groups in the United States. The SPLC has written extensively about right-wing extremists marching in Portland—including a group called the Proud Boys.
Mulugeta Seraw was survived by a son, Henock, living in Ethiopia. McElroy later adopted him. Henock Seraw is now a commercial airline pilot. "His father came here, like so many immigrants, to get an education and to make a better life for himself and his family," McElroy says. "His son got to fulfill that dream."
The nonprofit WW Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.