We are reprinting this article of 20 years ago not only to commemorate the life of Joseph Santos Ileto, killed by an avowed white supremacist, but also as a reminder to Filipino Americans that in this current wave of racism and hatred against minorities, no one is immune.
Ileto bent over and attempted to run away. The man shot him a few times more in the back until he fell face down to the ground. The man then got into his car, a stolen Toyota Camry, and drove away, leaving behind the mortally wounded Ileto.
The gunman, later identified as Buford O. Furrow, a 37-year-old avowed white supremacist from Washington State, parked the getaway car, with the gun and bullets, at a Los Angeles hotel. He then took a taxicab to Las Vegas, where he turned himself in to authorities on August 11, 1999 the day after the shooting.
Furrow killed Ileto hours after shooting at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California at which he wounded a 68-year-old receptionist, a 16-year-old counselor and three young boys.
Twist of Fate
The shooting outraged the nation and spurred calls for tougher laws against hate crimes. It sent shock waves within the Filipino American community and stirred memories of a time in California when Filipino farm workers were targeted by white lynch mobs in the 1920s.
Ileto, 39, lived with his brother in Chino Hills. On the day he was killed, he was working as a fill-in at the Chatsworth post office. He covered other carriers’ routes as a substitute. The day before he was killed, he got a call at 6:30 in the morning for an assignment that by fate would lead him onto the path of Furrow.
As pieced together from interviews, press reports and an affidavit filed by Postal Inspector Michael P. Delany with the Judicial District Court in Los Angeles, this is how it happened.
Ileto was halfway through his route at about 11:55 a.m. when Furrow, aboard a late-model Toyota he had stolen after the shooting spree at the Jewish Center, came upon him.
Ileto had just finished putting the mail inside the mailbox at 9944 Valley Circle Boulevard in Chatsworth and was standing near his parked postal truck. Furrow got out of his car, and approached Ileto with the request to mail a letter.
In his statement to authorities, Furrow said Ileto was a good “target of opportunity” to kill because he was “non-white” and worked for the federal government. He thought the postal worker was either Hispanic or Asian. Furrow pumped nine of the gun’s 10 bullets into Ileto. Authorities later recovered the gun and found one bullet in the chamber and none in the magazine.
Delany, a team leader in the Major Crimes team of the Postal Inspection Service, says that when he found Ileto, the postal carrier was lying in a pool of his own blood at the driveway.
“I saw four bullet holes to the chest area,” says Delany in his statement to the court. A coroner investigator, Lisa Branson, informed him Ileto also sustained a bullet wound to the back of his head.
Dr. Juan Carillo, who performed the autopsy, determined that Ileto died of multiple gunshot wounds. Five of the nine shots were fatal, according to Carillo.
Witnesses say they saw Ileto fall and heard shots being fired, but didn’t see the assailant. In a perverse way, Burrow helped solve the crime when, with a tinge of bravado, he admitted to the shooting at his surrender to authorities.
Furrow was charged with one count of murder, five counts of attempted murder and one count of carjacking. He remains in custody in Los Angeles County. No bail was recommended. If convicted, he could get the death penalty.
“Joseph, or Jojo or Joe, as we called him, was cut down in the prime of his life by a white supremacist,” says the Ileto family statement read in vigils around the country. “In the past year, five Asian Pacific Americans have been killed in hate-motivated shootings. Joseph was the most recent. We commit ourselves to do everything to make sure Joseph is also the last.”
“It happened then, it can happen again,” warns Jon Melegrito, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) as he urged the community to be more vigilant against racism. “The fatal slaying of Joseph Ileto makes the point that there are forces today who are still bent on engendering a climate of fear, mistrust and hate.”
From New York to Washington, D.C.; from San Francisco to Seattle and Los Angeles; from Chicago to Dallas, Filipino Americans held protest rallies, vigil and marches in memory of victims of hate crimes and to call on the U.S. Congress to pass legislation mandating stiffer penalties against hate crimes.
In Washington, D.C., NaFFAA and Filipino civil rights activists joined leaders from African American, Latino, Jewish, labor and gay and lesbian communities in a press conference at the National Press Club to draw attention to the growing violence against people of color and those with different creeds or sexual orientations.
In New York, businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis led Filipino community leaders and other activists in a vigil and memorial service at a Manhattan church to protest the shootings. In Los Angeles, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the invited speakers at a rally that followed a march to a downtown church.
“Hate crimes are a cancer on our society requiring a collective response,” says the Filipino Civil Rights Advocates’ (FilCRA) Lilian Galedo from San Francisco. “Our community must educate itself about the sources of hatred in our midst, and work in coalition with the larger civil rights community to strengthen protection against the acts of hate groups.”
The outpouring of sympathy has touched the Ileto family. At Ileto’s funeral, hundreds packed a chapel in Whittier, California, where family members remembered him as a devoted son and co-workers paid tribute to his generosity and humor. “We lost a friend, a good worker,” Minh Ky, a fellow mail carrier, told a reporter. “We will miss him.”
A convoy of letter carriers in their blue and white trucks presented the family with letters from people all over the world and with greeting cards from residents along Ileto’s route. They also handed Ileto’s mother, Lilian, his navy blue mail satchel. She could only murmur her thanks: “We appreciate what you have done for us. Thank you.”
Call for Gun Laws
Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat whose district includes the post office Ileto was working for at the time of his death, spoke of the need for tougher gun laws and against hate crimes. “A criminal came to Los Angeles with hate in his heart, enough for all of us,” he said. Sherman read statements of condolences from President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
“The papers talk about Joseph Santos Ileto as the slain postal worker,” says the Ileto family in a statement. “To us and all those whose lives he touched, he was so much more. Jojo had a big heart.”
They recalled how as a young boy in the Philippines, he walked five kilometers from school to home because he had given his bus money to a friend in need. His fellow postal workers say they could always count on him to give anyone a ride to the train station.
The family remembered how he was a tower of strength when their father died recently, and how he was always on hand to help his mother and sisters. He even pitched in to help a brother buy a house.
“We will miss his laughter and his generosity,” they say.
Ben Ileto, Ileto’s uncle who lives in New York, says his nephew liked to stay in the background, would probably feel uncomfortable to be honored as a hero, if he were alive. “He didn’t do anything,” explains Ben Ileto. “He just died. It could have been you. It could have been me.”
He says his nephew was an opportunity target: “He was non-white. But instead of us calling him a hero, we should consider his slaying as a wake-up call to all Filipino Americans. We aren’t united (as a community) so we are an easy prey to the bigots among us.”
Ileto was the latest Filipino American victim of a hate crime. Two years ago, Derrick Lizardo, a student at Syracuse University, was among a group of Asian Americans and their friends who were attacked by Caucasian patrons at a Denny’s Restaurant. Prosecutors declined to press charges, but a civil lawsuit is pending.
According to the FilCRA, earlier this year, a Filipina was badly beaten while in the custody of the police in Sacramento. Of course, the most famous Filipino victim of white male rage was Fermin Tobera, who was murdered during a race riot in Watsonville, California in the 1930s.
Although Filipino Americans don’t appear to be singled out by hate groups, Asian Americans are increasingly becoming targets of racial violence. This year alone, five Asian Americans have died at the hands of racist elements. Last October, Kanu Patel, 28, and Mukesh Patek, 35, were allegedly slain and their bodies doused with gasoline at a Dunkin Donuts restaurant they were working in Maryland. Their attacker, identified as Trone Ashford, reportedly taunted the two for their poor English. In April, a Japanese American grocer, Naoki Kamijima, was killed in Crystal Lake, Illinois, by someone looking for minorities to shoot. And on July 4, Indiana University student Won Joon Yoon, 26, was killed in front of a Korean church—one of the victims of white supremacist Nathaniel Smith, who went on a shooting spree, targeting Jews, Latinos and Asians.
“We’re very concerned about the growing tide of hate and the unwillingness of our elected officials to address it,” says Karen Narasaki of the National Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC). “Congress is fighting over giving tax breaks to the wealthy, while refusing to sufficiently fund civil rights enforcement, education and anti-bias programs.”
While the Ileto shooting drew national media coverage, Narasaki says that the Kamijima killing in Illinois and the slaying of the two Indian Americans in Maryland were largely ignored by the press. “The media seem unable to believe that there is anti-Asian bias at work and have tended to ignore or underplay the hate crimes involving Asian Pacific Americans,” she says.
Over the past five years, NAPALC has published an annual “audit” of anti-Asian crimes. In 1997, the latest year of the audit, 481 anti-Asian incidents were reported—a 10-percent drop from 1996, but still higher than the numbers from 1993 to 1995.
Racist Violence Persists
Narasaki says an analysis of the specific hate crimes for 1997 couldn’t be made because 70 percent of the reported incidents were described as “unknown.” She says, however, that the data indicates that Asian Pacific Americans continue to suffer the most violence in their homes and in housing projects. In San Francisco, Vietnamese families were reportedly terrorized and subjected to racial slurs to force them out of some of the city’s housing projects.
As provided for by the Hate Crime Act of 1990, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) tallies hate-related incidents nationwide every year. For 1997, the FBI reported 8,049 cases. Since 1991, more than 50,000 cases have been reported, yet the Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting these cases, have brought only 17 cases to court.
A “hate crime” is defined as a violent action directed at someone on account of “race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.” Speech, no matter how hateful, isn’t necessarily a hate crime, unless combined with physical violence or the threat of physical violence. For instance, Ku Klux Klan members can rally and advocate the separation of the races, and their action is protected. They could even march in their despised white hoods or burn a cross, but it won’t be a hate crime.
What worries civil rights activists is the increasing incidence of so-called “lone wolves,” individuals with racist leanings who take it upon themselves to kill minorities, Jews or gay people in hopes of igniting a race war. Furrow said he shot at the Jewish center as a “wake-up call for Americans to kill Jews.” Although he’s an official of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations, one of several white supremacist groups flourishing in the West, investigators say, so far, Furrow seemed to have acted alone.
“He was a good soldier,” says Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler. “He was very respected among us.”
However, a New York Times story implied Furrow may have received financial assistance in planning his crime.
Hate Crime Laws Needed
The growing violent acts of racist individuals is spurring advocates in the ethnic communities to call for legislation to put more teeth to current statutes covering hate crimes. The laws allow judges to impose stiffer sentences against crimes intended to spread fear among a group of people.
Two hate crime bills are now being considered before the U.S. Senate. One bill, sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, would largely leave it to the states to prosecute hate crimes, although the federal government may provide assistance if asked.
The other bill, authored by Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, would expand the federal jurisdiction over investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. It also expands coverage to include protection to the disabled, gays and lesbians.
Protection wouldn’t be limited to official acts, such as jury duty, voting, or attending public school—as they are now—but would include daily activities, including protection in your own home.
The Senate passed the Kennedy bill in July, and it’s now before the House Judiciary Committee for review before being presented to Congress. Asian American activists favor this bill, but it’s held unlikely to be adopted in its current form. Conservative Republicans frown at expanding federal powers and tend to favor more state control. In addition, there’s a segment in the Republican Party that believes hate crime laws elevate minorities to a status higher than everyone else. All crimes of violence are motivated by hate, they argue; therefore, protection must extend to everyone, regardless of race or gender. Since laws provide for that now, hate crime legislation is no longer needed, they say.
But for the Ileto family, passing a tough hate crime law will somehow ensure that somehow Jojo didn’t die in vain.
“When Joseph was shot, our entire nation was attacked,” says the family. “America stands for equal justice and freedom for all. We can’t allow white supremacists to tear apart our dream, the American Dream.”
They say that more guns to defend ourselves isn’t the answer. “Teaching our children tolerance and respect for others is. Monitoring and stopping hate groups at their source is. Passing a national hate crimes act that will reaffirm our stance against racism is.”
They say that in the memory of Ileto, the nation must reach out and invoke the Filipino spirit of bayanihan. “We can only overcome racism and intolerance when we learn to treat each other with respect and dignity,” their statement says. “Now is the time for our nation to come together. Celebrate bayanihan.”
Joseph Ileto’s killer was convicted in 2003. The Ileto family, with the help of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), set up the Joseph Ileto Hate Crimes Prevention Fellowship to assist other Asian victims of hate crimes.
First published in Filipinas Magazine, October, 1999.
Bert Eljera has written for the Los Angeles Times, Stockton Record, Asian Week, Florida Times-Union, Vero Beach Press Journal, Filipinas Magazine and Filipino Guardian.
More articles from Bert B. Eljera