Her grandparents were victims of the KKK, now her letters are a lifeline for a repentant synagogue bomber

On the first day of class, on one of the United States' most diverse campuses, the assignment came as something of a shock.

Write to a former neo-Nazi who had firebombed a synagogue, the instructor told his students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Near the front of the class of criminal justice students, Stacy Nelson stirred in her seat.

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The African-American senior had been hesitant to take a course on hate crimes when the subject seemed all too real. At the time, the country was nearing the end of a divisive and racially charged presidential election campaign. Reports of hate crimes were on the rise.

The teacher, Kevin Fornshill, a former US Park Police detective, saw the assignment as an experiment. Could students studying hate crimes learn from someone who had actually committed one?

Sean Gillespie had been incarcerated at a high-security prison in Colorado for more than a decade, including eight years in solitary confinement.

At 21, Nelson was the same age as Gillespie was when he went to prison. She'd grown up in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. Decades earlier, her grandparents had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan - a frightening incident that her grandmother had never forgotten or forgiven.

Now the criminal justice major wondered what to write to a man who had tried to ignite a "racial holy war," a man who'd boasted of attacking black people with a baseball bat.
"Dear Mr Gillespie," her letter began ...

The Molotov cocktail did little more than scorch the synagogue's brick exterior, but the April 1, 2004, attack shook the congregation at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City.

Some panicked families pulled their children out of the synagogue's preschool.

Two weeks later, a tip led the FBI to a Burger King in Russellville, Arkansas, and to a pale-skinned employee with a shaven head named Sean Gillespie.

He'd been a member of the Aryan Nations, a white-supremacist group headquartered in rural Idaho. When the compound was closed in 2001, he joined the army. After his views got him discharged, he had embarked on a hate-fuelled cross-country crime tour that included a stop in Oklahoma City.

Before FBI agents could read him his rights, Gillespie told them they could search his truck. Inside, they found a video camera with a recording of him staring into the camera as he sat in the truck near the synagogue.

"I am going to firebomb it with a Molotov cocktail," he said in the video. "I will film it for your viewing enjoyment, my kindred. White power."

Moments later, flames erupted on-screen.

"Damn, I thought I had erased that," Gillespie said when confronted with the video, an agent later testified.

Gillespie confessed. The plan had been to firebomb a Jewish person's house, he said. He had found a Jewish-sounding name in the phone book but got lost on his way to the address and attacked the synagogue instead.

Stacy Nelson found she had much in common with the racist she wrote to. Photo / Washington Post
Stacy Nelson found she had much in common with the racist she wrote to. Photo / Washington Post

He wrote a letter of apology to the synagogue from his ell. But Gillespie also bragged about his crimes in phone calls, ending conversations by saying "88," white-supremacist code for "Heil Hitler" ("H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet).

Doubting Gillespie's remorse, prosecutors refused to offer him a plea agreement. While awaiting sentencing, he wrote a second letter to the synagogue.

"To the Zionist scum," it began. "This letter is to thank you for the lies and your testimony against me." At the end of the letter, next to a swastika, he wrote "six million more"- a reference to the Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The letters dominated Gillespie's sentencing hearing. Prosecutors called his initial apology a "song and dance".

Some of the most moving testimony came from Barry Cohen, the rabbi at Temple B'nai Israel, who called for Gillespie to receive counselling away from the influence of other racists.

US District Judge Robin Cauthron sentenced Gillespie to 39 years in prison. Before he was led out of the court, he raised an arm in a Nazi salute.

The George Mason students were white and black, Asian and Hispanic, Muslim and Hindu, gay and straight. All had had their own encounters with hatred and their own questions for Gillespie.

A Boston Marathon bombing survivor wanted to know the origin of Gillespie's extremism.
A Latina, writing the day after Donald Trump's election, wondered if racial harmony was realistic.

Nelson's letter began with her family's story. One night in the 1950s, she wrote, her grandparents were on a date when they were attacked by the Klan.

"My grandpa had to fight the group of guys trying to rape my grandmother," she wrote.

"He got beat up pretty bad but luckily he was able to scare them off. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here today."

The incident had turned her grandmother against whites, Nelson wrote.

"I think it's sad that my grandma has put herself in a little box, separated from the rest of the world."

Gillespie's reply arrived a few weeks later. Nelson's hands shook as she opened it.

"I too have had things in my past that were traumatic enough to cause me to hate others," he wrote.

After his trial, Gillespie remained an avid neo-Nazi. White supremacists across the country considered him a prisoner of war and sent him letters and gifts. He accumulated racist tattoos including a Nazi symbol on his chin and black Doc Marten boots - a skinhead calling card - on each side of his face, like mutton-chop sideburns.

Everything changed in 2008, when he was put in solitary confinement for stabbing another inmate, he told Nelson.

"It was there that I changed my views on race," he wrote. "I started to question my past and realised that I did not like what I had become."

After three years of being surrounded by white supremacists, the isolation was liberating.

In therapy, he traced the roots of his racism back to sex abuse by an Asian babysitter.

Stuck in his cell for 23 hours a day, Gillespie pushed himself to change.

"I used to hate seeing inter-racial relationships on TV," he wrote. "I would cuss my television or change the channel. So I forced myself to watch this."

He also began to read black authors. In fact, he told Nelson, he had just finished Stride Toward Freedom, the Rev. Martin Luther King jnr's memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott.

"So I can just imagine the traumatic atmosphere that your grandmother experienced," he wrote.

Of all Nelson's questions, there was only one Gillespie had difficulty answering: Was he happy?

Solitary confinement had helped him change, he replied, but also left him deeply depressed. He had attempted suicide several times.

Writing to students was one of the few reasons he had to live, Gillespie said.

"It does give me a sense of happiness that I am no longer full of senseless hate." Nelson couldn't read the letter straight through. It took her two days to finish it.

"It's weird to find yourself identifying with someone who once had so much hostility towards people who look like you," she told the Washington Post.

Other students had similar experiences. One hesitated to write to Gillespie out of fear that he would come after her, only to end up convinced he had changed.

"Sean won a lot of people over," Fornshill said.

That includes Temple B'nai Israel. In 2014, after several letters of apology from Gillespie, the synagogue forgave him for the firebomb attack.

- Washington Post