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Know the West

Sleepy St. George wakes up to hate crimes

  Dave Hamilton and Claude Schneider were asleep on Sept. 23 when Utah's St. George Fire Department called to say their bookstore was on fire. Somebody had doused the building with gasoline and lit a match, say St. George police.

"This was a hate crime," says Schneider. "Hamilton and I are gay, and there is no other occasion for the ugliness."

Police have found no suspects, but Hamilton blames the Army of Israel, one of the Rocky Mountain militias. Militia leader John Bangerton left Las Vegas for St. George a few years ago in order to drive gays, Jews and blacks out of his native Utah, Hamilton says. Since then, the militia has infiltrated a meeting of the college gay and lesbian organization and burned a cross on a black family's front lawn, he says.

Town leaders have ignored the growing terror, says Hamilton, because they fear that any mention of militias will stifle the recent boom in tourism and second-home purchases.

Hamilton and Schneider are recent transplants themselves: Their Seattle-style Agave Bookstore, opened last year, has become a well-loved establishment for other newcomers. After the fire more than 200 loyal patrons offered to help repair $75,000 worth of damages.

"We couldn't leave. We have the best social life in town," says Schneider. When asked whether theirs was a lifestyle move, he says, "Oh yeah, because St. George is crime-free."

* Heather Abel