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Southern Nevada may not have foliage tours and apple-picking excursions, but autumn here brings a full calendar of arts and culture to keep us busy. Find a guide to this year’s season here, along with book reviews, interviews, profiles, and a true-crime tale from the annals of punk rock.View as a flipbook or download the PDF on Issuu>>

True Crime: A Social Injustice

Lin Newborn poses in a punk jacket and Daniel Shersty in his Air Force uniform
Pj Perez
Lin "Spit" Newborn, left, and Daniel Shersty

Lin ‘Spit’ Newborn and Daniel Shersty were murdered 25 years ago. Their legacies still reverberate through Las Vegas

Warning: This story recounts a racially motivated murder.

LESLIE LEGERE doesn’t remember who called her on the morning of Saturday, July 4, 1998. Maybe it was her friend Lisa, who lived across from Cafe Espresso Roma on Maryland Parkway, one of the several UNLV-area coffeehouses where LeGere and her friends did much of their socializing. But she hasn’t forgotten the words she heard from the other end of the line that would change her life forever: “Dan had been found. Spit was missing.”

Daniel Shersty and Lin “Spit” Newborn (who often referred to himself in full as Idyll Kylljoi Spitler Kyllclown) were supposed to be attending a sort-of punk rock Independence Day picnic at Sunset Park that afternoon. The previous day, LeGere stopped by Tribal Body Piercing, the Maryland Parkway shop where Newborn worked as a piercer, to see if he had any plans for the eve of the holiday. Newborn was tied up with a client, but Shersty was there, helping watch the shop, as he often did.

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“Dan (Shersty) let me know they were going to a party with some girls they had met at the shop,” says LeGere, who sang in Newborn’s politically charged noise-punk band, Life of Lies. “That was the last time I ever saw Dan.”

Shersty, a white U.S. Air Force service member, and Newborn, a Black punk rocker, both self-identified as Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs). They shared a passion for anti-racist activism, but for Newborn, this mission wasn’t some moral exercise in righteousness — it was a battle for survival. He often spoke of being the target of harassment and attacks by white supremacist skinheads, proclaiming during one of his band’s performances, “I’ve been stomped by Nazis, chased by Nazis, I’ve been beat up by Nazis, I kicked a couple of Nazi asses.”

Those girls with whom Shersty and Newborn said they had dates turned out to be Mandie Abels and Melissa Hack, the girlfriends of Ross Hack (Melissa’s brother) and John “Polar Bear” Butler — an alleged leader of the Independent Nazi Skinheads (INS). And the desert destination on the northwest edge of the Las Vegas Valley they drove to after midnight in Shersty’s black Chevrolet Cavalier turned out not to be a meetup for a party but an ambush.

Butler, Ross Hack, and two others — Leland Jones and Daniel Hartung — were waiting at the designated location. Shortly after Shersty and Newborn arrived with Abels and Melissa Hack, gunshots started going off. Shersty was killed almost immediately, having been shot at close range (possibly trying to protect his friend) and bludgeoned, up against the front of his car. Newborn tried to escape, and, despite suffering a shot to the back of his head, he was still able to run some distance into the desert. After being chased and shot at through the darkness, he was finally finished by a shotgun blast.

Newborn had just turned 24 that May. Shersty was 20, only a month away from his 21st birthday.

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THE MERE IDEA of an “anti-racist skinhead” may be perplexing to those whose only familiarity with skinheads is media portrayals such as the one in the 1998 film American History X. But not all skinheads hold neo-Nazi or racist views — many, far from them.

Skinhead culture has its roots in the 1960s among the working-class youth of England. These are often referred to as “traditional Skins” or “trads” for short. They were notably multicultural, aesthetically inspired by mod fashion and Jamaican “rude boys” — including, initially, an association with reggae and ska music and solidarity with working-class immigrant communities. They kept their hair cropped tight and appearance crisp and clean in contrast to middle-class “long hairs.” The only hints of violent tendencies were usually limited to football hooliganism.

But like many subcultures, divisions formed over time. An England-first, anti-immigrant sentiment developed, and by the time the skinhead scene made it to the U.S. in the early 1980s, it brought with it both its traditional, multicultural, working-class origins and its neofascist, racist ideologies as well — the latter finding alignment with and support from American white power groups such as the White Aryan Resistance.

The seminal 1980s Las Vegas punk band Fuck, Shit, Piss (known more commonly as FSP) exemplifies this split in ideologies. Led by then-teenage Johnny “Bangs” Bangerter, who Chapman University sociology professor Peter Simi describes as a former “peace punk,” the band was always radical, inspired by the anti-establishment sentiments of heroes such as the Dead Kennedys. But as Bangerter became more influenced by far-right, anti-government ideologies, tensions formed within the band, culminating in a 1987 show where Bangerter showed up bearing a swastika armband, which caused a minor riot and led to the breakup of FSP.

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Bangerter became a leader of a group known as Christian Identity Skinheads but relocated to Utah following a series of “race riots” in the early 1990s, with several of his followers joining him to establish a whites-only commune in Zion National Park. Others stayed behind or took their place in the white power pecking order.

“Once roots are there, new groups take their place,” says Simi, whose experiences embedded with white power groups informed the book he co-authored with UNLV sociology professor Robert Futrell, American Swastika.

Harry Fagel, a Las Vegas poet and retired Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department captain, remembers neo-Nazis “starting shit” at punk rock shows when he was growing up in the valley. This recollection is shared by many young music lovers who grew up in Las Vegas in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I remember there always being a Nazi presence, whether it be shows (or) parties,” LeGere says. “Any time there was any type of gathering, there always seemed to be at least a few neo-Nazis in the bunch at that time.”

Fagel says he was exposed to even more overt organized hate after he started attending college at UNLV.

“I went to see a Jewish Defense League speaker, me and the president of Black Students Association,” Fagel says. “And when we came out, there was a ton of skinhead Nazi punks in the street, and they were screaming, ‘Death to the Jews’ and all this other shit. It was awful.”

Racist skinhead groups grew bolder as their numbers swelled. As Heidi Beirich, cofounder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, recalls, “The skinhead problem was massive in the ’90s and the early 2000s. Back then, that was the most violent part of the white supremacist scene.”

But even as the presence and activities of neo-Nazi groups increased, so did those who rose up to combat hate both ideologically and in physicality.


LIN NEWBORN wasn’t a Las Vegas native — he was born in Pomona, California, and moved to the Vegas area with his parents in the late 1980s. But even as an adolescent, Newborn was already developing a keen awareness of the injustice surrounding him in the world.

“Lin was on a mission from day one,” Newborn’s father Lionel Newborn said during one of the murder trials. “He thought everyone should be able to get along and live together. He just didn’t understand why people couldn’t get along.”

Margaret Newborn, Lin’s older sister — whom he almost exclusively called “Bunky” — remembers having long talks with her brother and being in awe of not only his intelligence, but also what she called “a whole world movement” brewing in his mind.

“From a very young age, Lin was a people person,” Margaret says. “I mean a lover of people. He was always the type that, you knew if somebody needed something, he would offer to help. He was that type of person. He was outspoken, but not loud. You knew where he stood.”

When musician Brandon Sledge first met Newborn, he says, “We really didn’t like each other.” But despite that auspicious start, Sledge ended up moving in with Newborn and his girlfriend at the time in a less-than desirable area of North Las Vegas, where the pair ended up “bonding over fearing for our lives,” as Sledge tells it. They formed a band not long after called Life of Lies, often driving out to their guitarist’s house in Boulder City to rehearse and record.

Life of Lies’ music could be challenging to a casual listener. According to LeGere, they were heavily influenced by bands associated with Crass Records — the small label formed by the English anarcho-punk band Crass. Discordant guitars, shifting rhythms and shouted lyrics provided the gristle to serve up Life of Lies’ anti-establishment messages.

“Life of Lies was always very political because of Spit and Brandon (Sledge),” LeGere says. “They were very outwardly spoken about their beliefs and didn’t ever hold back on that.”

Sledge says that while his rage wasn’t motivated by anything in particular (he admits that like “most pissed-off kids,” his ire was “scattered and vague”), Newborn’s venom was sharply focused on racism and the forces that perpetrated such ideologies.

“He had been dealing with it his whole life,” Sledge says. “I mean, he had already been shot once by the time I met him. So that all came through in the music.”

At Life of Lies’ first gig with LeGere — who’d joined as a second vocalist — a desert show at the Caves opening for Citizen Fish, Newborn rallied against white supremacists and at the very notions of power, setting on fire an American flag in protest, which — even at a punk rock show in the middle of the desert — “made everybody mad,” according to LeGere.

It wasn’t just racism and the establishment against which Newborn railed. In the middle of Life of Lies’ first — and only — gig at the historic Huntridge Theater, Newborn destroyed a television on stage as part of the performance of their song “Television Children.” The band was permanently eighty-sixed from the all-ages venue.

“So many people just bleed their face into television,” Newborn said of the song’s inspiration during an interview filmed for the 1996 local music documentary, Lost Vegas. “Instead of going out and talking to somebody about what’s going on in the world, they’d rather have it displayed to them on a television. It’s just totally false. It’s bull.”

Music venues weren’t the only locations where Newborn made his voice and message heard — he was also a regular at various poetry readings around Las Vegas, particularly those held in the coffee shops that dominated the scene on Maryland Parkway in the 1990s. His pointed invectives often drew a sharp contrast to the usual introspective or tongue-in-cheek poetry of his comrades-in-verse.

Leslie LeGere sits for a documentary
Pj Perez
Leslie LeGere, who sang in Life of Lies with Lin Newborn

“Spit was a great poet,” LeGere says. “His activism, beliefs, and life experiences really shone through.”

Fagel, another Maryland Parkway coffeehouse regular, who wrote and performed street-level poetry partially inspired by his experience as a beat cop patrolling the area around UNLV, remembers Newborn’s poetry as “visceral street stuff.”

“He was very much an anti-racist person and didn’t understand the hate thing,” Fagel says. “He was really counter to that in his conversations, (his) poetry. He looked tough, like he could handle his business, but he had a really big heart for all the kids in the neighborhood.”

Golden Sun Shyne, now a makeup artist for film and television, was a preteen when she first started hanging out in places like Cafe Espresso Roma and Cafe Copioh on Maryland Parkway. She remembers first bonding with Spit over mutual musical tastes and their shared experience as Black punk rockers in an otherwise homogeneous white scene.

“He came out of nowhere,” Shyne says. “It felt like he just dropped from heaven.”

Shyne says that Newborn, who affectionately called her “Cub,” often acted as a big brother figure, trying to protect her from dangers she wasn’t aware of. “He would shoo me,” she says — telling her to leave desert punk rock shows when he sensed violence was possible. Even though he wasn’t much older than many of the teenagers in the scene who looked up to him, Newborn still cut an almost paternal figure.

“He was a very legit guy who just cared about his family, about the little kids out on the street,” Fagel says of Newborn. “They worshiped the ground Spit walked on.”


BRANDON HODGES moved to Las Vegas in 1996 after graduating high school, drawn by Sin City’s status at the time as a mecca for all things punk rock — at least relative to the sparse offerings of his small Arizona town. But it was through a very different Vegas institution that he met Dan Shersty.

“We had a friend from Arizona who was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base,” Hodges says. “We would just drive onto the base and go to parties at the barracks. As someone who was underage, what else are you going to do on a Tuesday night rather than just driving to Nellis and (hanging) out with your friends?”

Shersty, who worked on helicopters at Nellis, became part of Hodges’ snowboarding crew. They got to know each other well during long drives to Brian Head Resort in Utah. Hodges remembers Shersty as “very serious and earnest, but also (having) a good sense of humor.”

“Dan wanted to change the world,” Hodges says.

In addition to desert punk shows and mountain snowboarding, Hodges was also drawn to the bohemian coffee shops along Maryland Parkway. He ended up getting a job at a record store near the university, and it was his immersion in that scene that led to meeting Newborn.

“The first time I met Spit (Newborn), it was probably outside of Cafe Copioh, where we would all hang out in the parking lot,” says Hodges, who considered Shersty “the crossover” between the two scenes he was a part of — the Maryland Parkway counterculture scene and the Nellis Air Force Base crew.

Eventually, Shersty’s desire to “change the world” cemented into a passion for the anti-racist movement. Both he and Newborn had become intimately involved in the Las Vegas Unity Skins, and the pair cofounded a local chapter of Anti-Racist Action (ARA), a national network of left-leaning activists formed in Minneapolis in the late 1980s that had reached a peak of about 1,500 members nationally by the mid-1990s.

“Back then, it seemed like every major city had a chapter or group of ARA,” Hodges says.

Newborn had already been instrumental in getting anti-racists organized and active in Las Vegas for many years — a growing need because of the rising presence of racist skinheads in the scene. As LeGere notes, there wasn’t a “strong (traditional) skinhead presence yet in Las Vegas. We were always outnumbered by Nazis.”

Although groups such as ARA and Las Vegas Unity Skins helped provide an alternative alliance for young skinheads who otherwise may have fallen under the influence of white power groups — indeed, Newborn in particular was known for helping to “deprogram” racist skins — the neo-Nazi groups weren’t exactly sitting on the sidelines.

“After the Huntridge reopened (in 1996), it seemed like there was increased violence at shows,” Hodges says. “And so, it seemed like when the violence got stronger, the ARA presence became stronger.”

Although he admits, “It did seem like most of the fights involved the racist skinheads,” Hodges is careful not to pin all of the cause for the violence at local concerts on tensions between racist and anti-racist factions.

“Was it racist skinheads or was it just youthful testosterone?” Hodges asks. “The violence would happen regardless of there being politics involved. You’re at an aggressive music show and people are slam dancing and there’s inevitably fights.”

But when Life of Lies, with Newborn on vocals, was asked to open for popular English skinhead band The Business at the Elks Lodge in Henderson, there was no question of the reason for increased tensions.

“We were very excited to open up for them, but we were also very cautious,” LeGere says. “They had a huge skinhead following, and we knew that. So, we didn’t know what to expect. At the show, there were several neo-Nazis that showed up.”

LeGere says that as soon as they finished their set and got off the stage, the band had to split up in different cars to avoid anyone following them back to Newborn’s apartment.

In the year leading to Newborn and Shersty’s murders, Hodges recalls, the skinhead violence started “bleeding outside of being at shows and getting into fights” and evolving into “showing up in parking lots just randomly.”

“There were definitely a few people that I know who got attacked,” Hodges says.

By the summer of 1998, Newborn and Shersty were much more deeply involved with ARA and their anti-racism activism — while Life of Lies found itself on an unplanned hiatus.

“We had lost our drummer,” LeGere says. “Our guitarist, James, had gone away to college. Everyone was kind of doing their own thing at that point, so we weren’t really playing out.”

Golden Shyne, by then approaching adulthood, says that, in the days before the murders, Newborn’s tone intensified, his attitude toward her shifting from “big brother” to “more father-ish.” Shyne had just graduated high school — from the same vocational technical institute Newborn had attended years earlier — and was looking forward to her first summer of relative freedom. But she remembers hanging out around Tribal Body Piercing and Newborn insisting she go home.

“In that last week, he was less tolerable of this kid being around,” Shyne says.


DAN SHERSTY'S BODY was found just after 8 a.m. on the morning of July 4, 1998, when a trio of ATV riders stumbled upon Butler, his friend Joey Justin, and Melissa Hack returning to the scene of the crime to recover any traces of evidence from the mayhem the night before. Butler’s crew hastily told the ATV riders to call the police and drove off, attempting to hide their identities from the riders. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police quickly arrived on the scene, but it would take another two days before detectives would return to the desert to find Newborn’s body.

“The police were confused,” Margaret Newborn says. “When they found (Shersty’s) car, they found it was actually Lin’s jacket in the back of the car. Because of the style of clothing that they wear, they thought they were a different type of people. Then they looked at the stickers they had and realized that they weren’t looking for another typical white skinhead. They realized they were looking for someone else.”

Friends were baffled that Newborn was not found sooner. Some of them, including Hodges, ventured out to the publicly reported location of the crime to see if they could find him themselves, to no avail. According to court transcripts, even Newborn’s father, Lionel, went with them on one such excursion. On reflection, he said in court, “I should have never even been there.”

“They found Spit in the same general area a couple of days later,” Hodges says. “Like, they didn’t have search dogs and helicopters? I mean, I don’t know.”

Few of the details of what had truly happened out by Powerline Road near Rome Boulevard were known at the time. Early reports in the local media at the time included quotes from friends and ARA members that Shersty and Newborn’s killings were likely the result of a premeditated plot to lure them to their deaths. Police officials would only say the deaths were likely tied to the ongoing skirmishes between racist and anti-racist skinheads — the result of bad blood between two gangs.

“I attempted to provide some guidance,” says Fagel, who was still a relatively young patrolman at the time. “They tried to say (Newborn) was in a gang — I said that was not true. The gang unit was very fervent on this. It seemed like they had bad info at the time. That kid was in my purview. They colored it wrong. He got ganked by some absolute evil haters. He was murdered for being Black, literally. And it should have been the crime of the century.”

Margaret Newborn sits for a documentary
Pj Perez
Margaret Newborn, Lin's sister

But it didn’t take the authorities too long, as Margaret Newborn put it, to get “on the right track.” Metro gang unit detectives found Butler on July 14 standing by a vehicle with Justin. Butler fled, and in the course of the chase — which eventually resulted in an arrest — an officer recovered a .32-caliber handgun that was later matched to two of the bullets recovered from Shersty’s body. Police still couldn’t link the .38 caliber bullet recovered from Newborn’s body to a specific weapon. But at least they had some physical evidence and a suspect in custody.

At that point, Metro was also looking into other suspects, including Ross Hack. Police searched Hack’s home in late July, but six days later, he fled to Germany. Abels followed him out of the country but returned on her own to the U.S. within a few months. It didn’t matter — she wasn’t even on the authorities’ radar at that time.

Butler, meanwhile, was in possession of a stolen vehicle (and methamphetamine) when he was taken into custody — and inside that vehicle, police found a letter addressed to Butler from an inmate in Ely State Prison, in which he was told “I want the punk Spit to know he can be reached out and touched.” Butler was formally booked for the two murders that September.

While he was awaiting trial in the Clark County Detention Center, he confided in a cellmate that he’d committed the July 4 murders, even detailing the events of that night. The testimony of that witness at Butler’s December 1998 preliminary hearing helped nail the case shut, at least for “Polar Bear.” Not so for any of his co-conspirators — yet.


SHERSTY'S FUNERAL was held at Nellis Air Force Base. Hodges recalls the scene being “emotionally charged,” with the service attended by both his fellow airmen from the base and — in an allowed violation of Air Force protocol — a coalition of artists, musicians, and activists.

“The way I remember it,” Hodges says, “it was like you had all these artists and musicians and punk rockers and activists sitting on one side with piercings and dyed hair, and then on the other side, you had all the airmen. We obviously had the same friend. It was just two worlds colliding.”

Newborn’s funeral was an entirely different scene — and a much more public one. Those who attended recall hundreds of people turning up at Davis Funeral Home and Memorial Park on the southeast side of Las Vegas, reflecting the outsized impact Newborn had in his short life on the community that he fought to make more harmonious.

Sierra Sky, a mutual friend of Newborn’s and Shyne’s who first encountered Life of Lies at their infamous Huntridge appearance, remembers the funeral home’s chapel being a standing-room-only affair, with people spilling outside. As she sat on the floor with her then-infant daughter and some friends, Sky says, she listened to Lionel Newborn express shock at the sheer number of people who were in attendance. “I had no idea my son had so many friends,”
she recalls him saying.

“There were so many people,” Margaret Newborn says, echoing her father’s sentiments. “It was amazing. We had no idea the reach that Lin had. I did speak to some people, and they were from out of the country, not just out of state, not just from the East Coast.”

Of course, the funeral was also a potential powder keg. Some feared that racist skinheads might show up at the service or the burial and try to cause trouble. Several people remember there being a palpable sense of danger.

“There were all sorts of rumors about what was going on,” Hodges says. “There was a rumor going around that there was a bomb threat called in. I don’t know if that actually happened or not.”

Shyne, who also attended the funeral, says that the air of potential threat was too much for her. She didn’t end up staying long. “It felt like anything could happen at any moment,” she says.

Thankfully, the fears turned out to be unfounded. Margaret Newborn remembers, “It was all love.” The funeral remained peaceful likely, in part, because of the proactive presence of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers — including Fagel.

“Because of the threats we’d heard, my boss felt it was prudent that we had uniformed officers there,” Fagel says. “I was allowed to attend on-duty in uniform. I was trying to help. (Newborn) knew me as a policeman, a protector, and a servant.”

Fagel’s presence did not go unnoticed by Newborn’s friends.

“Officer Fagel showing up and paying his respects just showed how much he understood the importance that Spit had to the culture,” Hodges says, “but also the loss (to) the community.”

After the funeral, Fagel wrote a poem in honor of Newborn, which was subsequently published in his first poetry collection, Street Talk. Although Fagel says he no longer performs the poem, it reflects his still-seething feelings about what had happened to his friend.

“It’s hard to think about,” Fagel says. “That young man didn’t have to die for that. It makes me upset even now, to be taken out of your place of safety, to think that you’re going to a party with friends and girls, and you’re killed — and have the guy still alive who did it? It was just so wrong.”


THE MURDERS of Newborn and Shersty reverberated throughout the Vegas underground scene. Things had already been getting tense for a while. Poet and artist John Emmons was shot behind Cafe Copioh in late 1994. Dancer Ginger Rios disappeared from a Maryland Parkway spy craft store in 1997, her body found months later in the Arizona desert. Heroin use ran rampant, ruining young lives — some permanently. For many local artists and musicians, even those unaffiliated with ARA or Unity Skins, Newborn and Shersty’s murders were the last straw.

“Spit had been one of these pivotal linchpins for this community,” says Meagan Angus, a Las Vegas native and active member of the Maryland Parkway coffeehouse scene. “The idea that an archetype could be snuffed out so easily freaked me out. It freaked out a lot of other people.”

Angus moved to Seattle not long after the murders, part of an exodus during the late 1990s and early 2000s that included many of her friends and acquaintances from the scene, including Keith Haubrich, a percussionist who first encountered Newborn at the Underground record store on Twain Avenue before they became regulars at area poetry readings. For Haubrich, the “dispiriting aspect of friends being murdered” was just another nail in the coffin of a scene whose touchstones — such as the beloved independent record store Benway Bop and KUNV 91.5 FM’s “Rock Avenue” programming — were rapidly disappearing.

“I never felt like Vegas was the place I’d want to grow old in, start a family in,” Haubrich says. “I knew I did not want to stay in Vegas.”

For those who were much closer to Shersty and Newborn, however, their killings were more than just representations of a cultural movement in decline. They had a more direct impact on their existence — emotionally and physically.

“There was a lot of paranoia,” Hodges says. “You didn’t know who to trust. I was fired from one job because the owner of the establishment was afraid that the violence would target his business. I left Las Vegas around six months after the murders. I just didn’t want to look over my shoulder everywhere I went.”

That sentiment was echoed by LeGere, whose last few years living in Las Vegas before relocating to Chicago in 2003 left her feeling like she “didn’t want to be out.

“I personally felt like I didn’t want to be seen. I just wanted to lay low,” LeGere says. “A lot of people, I think, felt that if something like this can happen, then no one’s safe anymore.”

Shyne says the death of Newborn, in particular, left her feeling like “the only one like me left.” After the murders, she says, she was spit at and called the N-word by a female skinhead during a show at the Huntridge Theater. Suddenly, the scene in which she’d felt refuge and comfort for so long now left her feeling “very alone.”

And Margaret Newborn, who was no stranger to casual racism merely for having grown up Black in America, experienced a new level of terror from people who otherwise, she says, she “would know nothing about.

“Within the first year of his murder, I was receiving correspondence from — we’ll call them haters,” Newborn says. “I had never experienced anything like that before. It was really, really scary. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot of them are just mouthpieces. But I know that some of them will or want to act on that hate.”


AT JOHN BUTLER'S MURDER TRIAL, his friend Joey Justin testified that when he, Butler, and Melissa Hack encountered the ATV riders on the morning of July 4, they were, indeed, picking up incriminating evidence that had been left behind the night before. However, Butler’s attorneys claimed that their client was only aiding Ross Hack and Daniel Hartung, and that they — not Butler — planned and carried out the murders.

The jury was not convinced. They found Butler guilty of both murders and recommended the death penalty. He was formally sentenced to death in March 2003.

“I had always been a supporter of the death penalty up to that point,” LeGere says. “And I realized that no matter how much I hated this person for what they had done, they had a family and they had parents that maybe cared about them the way that I cared about Spit. I couldn’t handle knowing that I would put them through that kind of grief, the grief that I was feeling for my friend.”

Butler appealed his sentence almost immediately, based on what his legal team perceived as procedural errors in the sentencing phase of his trials — including a claim that the trial court erred in allowing the state to introduce evidence about his INS gang affiliation. In 2004, the case went to the Nevada Supreme Court, which ultimately agreed with Butler, upholding his two convictions for first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon, but vacating the death penalty sentence and remanding the case for a new sentencing trial. After a new penalty hearing, Butler’s sentence was reduced to life without the possibility of parole.

“I am disappointed that John Butler’s death sentence got overturned for a couple of reasons,” Margaret Newborn says. “One is because there’s no need for a person that can do such a thing. There’s no need. But also, I am not ashamed to say that I wanted to see him die. I wanted to see him executed. And when that all changed, I was robbed of that.”

Even after Butler’s fate was finally sealed, the murder investigation remained open. But the hope of nabbing anyone else for their involvement in the murders seemed thin. In 2008, Ross Hack returned to the United States and was arrested in a passport fraud case, ultimately convicted and sentenced in 2009 to three years in a federal prison. This put him in the sights of the grand jury investigation that the U.S. Department of Justice was running — the murders happened on Bureau of Land Management land, which falls under federal jurisdiction.

Butler, who failed to appeal his conviction again in 2010, started talking to federal investigators. This led authorities to start sniffing around other suspects again, including Leland Jones. And with the help of Ross Hack, the FBI finally had tracked down the “unknown woman” who’d aided Melissa Hack in luring Newborn and Shersty to their deaths — even if she wasn’t exactly an ideal informant.

“Mandie Abels was just a hot mess with her drug addictions and other problems,” says Kathleen Bliss, who was at the time the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case. “The FBI agents started working on her to try to see if they could get some information out of her because she was there at the time of the murders. She actually cooperated and gave statements.”

And then in the summer of 2011, Bliss received a lucky break in the form of Daniel Hartung showing up at her downtown Las Vegas office, riddled with guilt, to confess his involvement in the murder plot. They met with defense attorney Karen Winckler, and Hartung agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and testify at trial. Prosecutors also got Abels to do the same, and she was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“It was just a matter of tenacity and piecing together information and getting some good luck,” Bliss says.

Then, that luck began to run out. In February 2012, Ross Hack, Leland Jones, and Melissa Hack were indicted on murder and firearms charges. Although Melissa Hack also ended up going the same route as Abels, pleading guilty to conspiracy and cooperating with federal prosecutors for a reduced sentence, Hartung was killed in an automobile accident in April 2012 — which meant his statements could not be used at trial because the defendants would have been deprived of their constitutional right to cross-examine.

Harry Fagel sits in a coffee shop
Jeff Scheid
Jeff Scheid Photography
Former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Captain Harry Fagel

Nonetheless, Melissa Hack, Abels, and Butler all testified at the August 2014 grand jury trial of Ross Hack and Jones. Despite their corroborating stories that detailed the events of July 3 and 4, 1998, defense attorneys convinced the jury that without physical evidence, they could not convict. Both Ross Hack and Jones were acquitted.

“In the end, the fact that the DOJ failed to make those cases, that the jury rejected them, seems to me a miscarriage of justice, frankly, and kind of shocking,” the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism’s Heidi Beirich says. “I think Melissa Hack was a pretty convincing (eye) witness ... So, what does it take to show who was involved in the situation? It’s kind of amazing that that wasn’t enough to sway the jurors.”

Before testifying at the 2014 grand jury trial, Butler was reported as having been removed from state custody — not an abnormal situation, given he was testifying in a federal murder trial against his co-conspirators. But still today — almost a decade later — his location still shows as “Out of State Confinement” in the result of an inmate search on the Nevada Department of Corrections website.

When asked about Butler’s current location or status, a Nevada Department of Corrections representative would not provide any information, stating only, “Due to inmate confidentiality, you would not be able to get an update.”

Chapman University professor Simi has a theory that Butler worked out a deal to snitch on the Aryan Warriors, a white supremacist prison gang for whom he was considered a “shot caller.” For Margaret Newborn, even the good that may come from such an arrangement does not make up for Butler’s unknown whereabouts.

“And even if that were so, then where is he?” she says. “I mean, even if they’re in prison and they’re under protection, I mean, come on now, what do you say? So, you’re saying the Aryans run the prison. You cannot control where you put someone you know you need.”

Because of Fagel’s long experience as a member of law enforcement, he’s not optimistic about Butler’s current whereabouts.

“I’ve seen the FBI check a guy out of prison and never put him back,” Fagel says. “They literally checked him out and put him in a safe house down in San Diego and then just kind of petered out on watching him and eventually he walked away from that. And that was the end of it. And even the Bureau of Prisons in Nevada, is like, yeah, once an inmate gets removed and they don’t come back, it’s like the system just boots them out eventually. So, I would not be surprised. Hopefully he’s not in the wind.”


EVERY YEAR in the weeks leading up to and on the actual Fourth of July, social media timelines fill with posts commemorating the anniversary of Newborn and Shersty’s murders. Many are from those most closely impacted by their deaths — family, friends, former coworkers.

“To this day I’m still shocked and saddened and just still can’t believe that something like that could happen to such a small, underground portion of the world that I lived in,” says Chad Simmons, an artist and labor activist who documented the Vegas punk scene in the ’80s and ’90s on video tape. “What happened to Spit and Dan, it was a terrible thing, and we will forever mourn them.”

The online remembrances of the murders and their victims aren’t limited to those who knew Newborn and Shersty personally — organizations whose values are aligned with the cause for which the pair fought also spread the word each year. And as a result, every July 4 sees more people unfamiliar with the murders discover what happened. Thurston Moore of pioneering indie rock band Sonic Youth shared the story on his Instagram account in 2021.

“It’s really one of the only examples of anti-racists getting murdered by white
supremacists, certainly at that time,” Beirich says, explaining the outsized impact of the killings. “And it was a pretty serious case: Two people were dragged into the desert, shot and beaten, and murdered for standing up for fairness (and) diversity. And it was scary.”

It’s hard to think about the unintended sacrifice Newborn and Shersty made fighting against racism and for a more united world, considering the turn the country’s taken in the last decade, from the rise of the “alt-right” and groups like the Proud Boys to anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric since 2016 that has correlated with a surge in violent hate crimes across the United States.

“I would like to think that things have changed, but I just don’t know if that’s true anymore,” LeGere says. “Things seem very cyclical. Just the current political climate and the senseless killing that goes on constantly in our country makes it seem sometimes that nothing has changed.”

When Lin Newborn was taken from this world, he left behind not only a legacy of anti-racist activism that inspires countless people to this day, but also a then-two-year-old son, Nicodemus, who Margaret Newborn calls “the spitting image” of her younger brother. Now 27 — an age his father never got to reach — Nicodemus is himself the father of a young son.

“He’s an awesome young man, but he’s deeply affected by what happened with his father,” Margaret says. “He wants to fill his father’s shoes. He wants to honor his father with his daily living. He struggles sometimes with the emotional part of what happened to his father, but he doesn’t let that stop him. It’s just too bad that he didn’t get to know his dad.”