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Gary Younge
On Monday a judge's husband and mother died. On Tuesday white supremacists gloated

Her address is not listed in the phone book. But you will find it posted in the chat forum on Stormfront.org, which boasts "White Pride, World Wide". It was placed there on January 8 2003 - the day that Matt Hale, a white supremacist, was charged with attempting to have Ms Lefkow murdered.

Not long before, another white supremacist contributor calling himself Whiteghost, wrote: "I understand the guidelines, and will respect them (no suggestion of anything illegal), but perhaps the passive resistance avenues have been exhausted at this point."

On Monday night Ms Lefkow returned home to find her husband, Michael, and mother, Donna Grace Humphrey, murdered in the basement, each with single gunshot wounds to the head. Police have few definite leads but so far they have focused their investigations on an increasingly fractured and desperate white supremacist movement.

By Tuesday the followers of race hate groups began to openly display their joy on internet chatrooms. "While I certainly understand that we are not supposed to be advocating illegal activities, there is nothing illegal or harmful in being happy about this incident," wrote "Palatine Creator", on the Vanguard New Network which champions "uncensored news for whites". "I can barely contain my glee."

A white supremacist radio host, Hal Turner, wrote on his website: "White people are tired of being pushed around by the government. We are slow to anger, but when we reach our limit, it isn't pretty"

Ms Lefkow became a white supremacist hate figure after the World Church of the Creator, run by Hale, became embroiled in a trademark case with another church of the same name in Oregon. Ms Lefkow ruled in Hale's favour but was then overruled by an appeals court, which ordered Hale to change the group's name.

Ms Lefkow imposed a $200,000 (£104,000) fine after Hale carried on using the name (it is now more widely known as the Creativity Movement), sparking such rage that Hale tried to have her killed. It is unlikely that Hale, who ran the organisation from his parents' house using the Israeli flag as a door mat and calling himself Pontifex Maximus, is directly involved in the murders.

He is awaiting sentencing for trying to hire someone to murder Ms Lefkow and is in prison under special measures designed for suspected terrorists. Hale's contacts with the outside world are limited to fortnightly visits from his parents who are allowed to spend an hour each with him in the presence of an FBI officer. He sent a message through his mother condemning the murders as a "heinous crime".

He said: "There is simply no way that any supporter of mine would commit such a heinous crime. I totally condemn it, and I want the perpetrator caught and prosecuted. I only hope they sincerely wish to apprehend the animal instead of railroading the innocent. Only an idiot would think that I would do this. My sentencing date is April 6."

None the less, police attention has centred around his family and followers. Police have interviewed his brother, a female friend and his parents who live in East Peoria, Illinois. "It's obvious they're trying to link Matt," his mother, Evelyn Hutcheson, told the New York Times. She said the police asked her: "Does he have a code? Did he tell me something in code? Which is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

Hal Turner, who has continually lam basted Ms Lefkow, has also been questioned about the murders. He is routinely visited by the FBI twice a month but this time, he said, it was different. "There was an urgency to their approach. No small talk, no casual conversation, very direct, very businesslike, and rather stern."

Mark Potok, of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Centre which monitors race hate groups, said: "It's quite likely that either a follower or an admirer of Matt Hale is involved. This group was always more of a cult of personality around Matt Hale. Now he is in prison it is now more like a decapitated monster. The leaders are no longer in control."

The heads of other extreme rightwing sects are either dying, in disgrace or in prison, causing despondency and confusion among their supporters. "In recent years the white supremacist movement has suffered serious setbacks," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at the progressive thinktank, Political Research Associates. "People then get angry and disappointed and violence can be their response."

Chicago, which does not have a particular reputation for hard right or skinhead activity, was stunned by the news. "It's Chicago so at first when you hear that a judge has been killed you're shocked but you think there might be other reasons," says Jean Burke, who was born in the city. "But when you found out who it was it was unbelievable. We recognised her face and we knew where it might have come from."

The police have issued two photofit pictures of men seen in a car near the murder scene earlier on Monday. Meanwhile the case has gained national importance as two members of Congress called on Thursday for increased financing to protect federal judges and their families.

Hale is in fact not the only person to threaten Ms Lefkow's life. Daniel Salley, who shot a Chicago police officer, launched a vicious verbal attack on her in court last year that ended with the words. "You can run but you can't hide. You reap what you have sown." Salley is still in prison.

Whoever did it, says Ms Lefkow, 61, knew what they were doing: "I don't know whether it has anything to do with Matt Hale or any of his followers, but I do believe it was a hit - not a random thing. I do ... because of the circumstances."

Mr Lefkow, 64, was on crutches after surgery on his achilles tendon; Ms Lefkow's mother, Mrs Humphrey, 89, used a walking frame. Their murder has been described as execution style. "They didn't have a chance," Ms Lefkow told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It was just cold-blooded. Who would do this? I'm just furious."

With all of her immediate family under 24-hour police protection, Ms Lefkow is not yet sure whether she will move back into the house. But she is determined to go back to work. "Nobody is going to intimidate me off my duty," she said.

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