Friday, July 2, 1999 began what promised to be a beautiful holiday weekend in the idyllic town of Skokie, Illinois. Unfortunately, that was the day 21-year-old white supremacist Benjamin Nathaniel Smith began a three-day, two-state killing spree, targeting African-Americans, Jews and Asians —who he viewed as “Mud People,” according to the demented, racist “Church” that he followed.
Smith’s carefully planned acts of violence all depended on his access to weaponry. At first, he didn’t have much luck. He tried to buy two handguns and a shotgun from a licensed dealer but through the Brady law-mandated background check, it was discovered that he was prohibited, as Smith’s ex-girlfriend had taken out a protection order on him. The dealer turned Smith away without a gun.
But Smith was able to turn to classified ads in the local paper, where he found Donald R. Fiessinger, an unlicensed seller in central Illinois who was willing to sell him two pistols with no background check.
Armed with two guns and fueled by racial hatred, Smith began his rampage by wounding nine Orthodox Jews in drive-by shootings in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then drove to the Byrdsong family’s Skokie neighborhood.
“About a block from our house, I saw a blue car turn,” remembers Kelley Byrdsong, then only ten years old. Kelley was on her bicycle . . . her brother, Ricky Jr., was on his skateboard. Her father—an athletic man who was the former head basketball coach at Northwestern University—was jogging alongside.
Then Benjamin Nathaniel Smith began shooting from the window of his Ford Taurus.
Just three blocks from his home, Byrdsong fell to the ground—shot in the back in front of his children. He died four hours later on the operating table at Evanston Hospital.
His assassin was just getting started. He shot an African-American minister, an Asian-American graduate student, and killed Won-Joon Yoon, a 26 year-old Korean doctoral student walking to church on his Indiana University campus. By the end of a weekend that would culminate in his own suicide, Smith left two dead—along with eight wounded.
“Why do we continue to allow this to go on?” asked Ricky’s widow, Sherialyn Byrdsong, Ricky’s widow, who now speaks out regularly against gun violence and for background checks on all gun sales. “If the powers that be really wanted to stop the access to guns that are out there for anyone to get, they could.”