When you first hear the saga of John Daly, you tend to think someone's pulling your leg. A former skinhead, left for dead in the waters of Daytona Beach, wanted by the "organization" back home and now living in Ashkelon, the 35-year-old Daly doesn't look the part. Tall and slim, soft-spoken and articulate and sprinkling conversations with "Yes, ma'am's," Daly's journey defies belief. And yet he has the photos and documents to prove it, and when he describes some of the incidents, he paces back and forth and rubs the top of his head.
John Daly was born to Jewish parents in South Carolina, the second of four sons. His paternal great-grandmother had converted to Catholicism to prevent her children "from experiencing the horrors of being a Jew." Upon her conversion, her parents sat shiva and never acknowledged her again. His grandmother married an Irishman named Daly.
As an adult, John's father returned to his Jewish roots and although not observant, did mark Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. "When we moved to Ocala [Florida] when I was 14, one of the first things my mom did was join the only synagogue there, which was Reform. Usually, though, my parents would drive down to Tampa for services led by a wonderful, elderly Orthodox rabbi, Theodore Brod, who also prepared me for my bar mitzvah," Daly tells Metro. "My dad spent years going to him for private lessons in Jewish history, customs and tradition from the time I made aliya to when the rabbi died two years ago. My dad, who passed away in April 2008, is buried in the Ashkelon cemetery."
Until he was 15, John Daly's life was nothing out of the ordinary. Then he began high school and found himself a member of a local group of "skinheads." Skinheads originated as a reaction to the hippy movement in the UK in the '60s. Their dress generally consists of jeans and combat boots, shaved heads or very close-cropped haircuts. In Britain, the skinhead movement was made up of children from blue-collar, nationalistic families. But in the US, skinheads come from a wide array of socioeconomic backgrounds. As with any gang, many are products of broken homes, finding a kind of surrogate family in the "organization." Heavy beer drinking is their preferred recreational activity, especially, according to John Daly, "before going out to look for a fight." Tattoos of emblems of white supremacy and Nazism are par for the course.
Neo-Nazi skinheads showed up on the US scene in the mid-80s, and their numbers have steadily risen. According to a 2006 report of the Anti-Defamation League, "Racist skinhead activity occurs in every state of the country, even where organized groups are not present." That "activity" is violence, often vicious, carried out against Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, and immigrants.
However, not all skinheads are racist. "When most people hear the word 'skinhead' they automatically think of swastikas and such, but that wasn't the case with these guys. They were kids from a blue-collar background who have a strong sense of patriotism. This is the basic core of the movement. Say the word 'skinhead' and the first thing that comes to mind is Nazis. But there are different types of skinheads that most people don't know about: there are non-racist (SHARPs - Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), black, Jewish, even gay Skins," Daly points out.
"We moved to Ocala and I went to the local high school where, if you weren't on a sports team or hadn't been in the same elementary school class as the other kids, you were a nobody," he explains. "I felt the need to be accepted and got involved in an anti-racist group - M.C.A.R. - Marion Country Against Racism. We didn't do much of anything except hang out together and talk about what was going on with the racist skins in larger cities, glad we didn't have them in our town." Daly said that he had met the skinheads through mutual friends. "I was 16 and I thought it was cool hanging out with the tough guys in school, thinking it was just a social group. The guys even knew I was Jewish but it didn't bother anyone. It was all cool."
One night, two of Daly's friends went to Orlando, where they were approached by local racist skinheads and forced to join their group under threat of a beating. They were then ordered to give the racist skinheads the names and addresses of people they knew in Ocala so they, too, could be recruited. One of the names was Daly's.
Several days later, there was a knock on the door of the Daly home. When John opened the door, he saw three neo-Nazi skinheads, complete with swastika tattoos. Afraid to let them in, where they'd see the family's menora and other Judaica, he got in their car and went off with them. He knew that if they came into his house and saw the "Jewish stuff," they'd kill him. In the car, the three youths took turns telling him stories about how certain individuals had been mysteriously hurt trying to escape them. All had been hospitalized. The driver then turned to Daly, put out his hand and said, "Welcome aboard."
John Daly, a nice Jewish kid from a nice Jewish home, was now officially a Neo-Nazi skinhead.
Daly lived in constant fear that his secret would come out. Whenever Jews came up in conversation, he would change the subject, saying, "Sadly, there's no shortage of minorities." Most of the time, he and his cohorts would just hang out, drink and fight "rednecks." Daly had a sharp tongue and would verbally go after people, scaring them off with threats. This earned him a reputation as a good fighter and kept him from having to use his fists.
Soon, his parents noticed that Daly was withdrawn and acting differently. But pulling away from the family was his way of protecting them. "The logic of my 16-year-old mind told me that when [the skinheads] killed me, and I was sure they would eventually, it'd be easier for my parents to deal with it if I had already withdrawn from the family and wasn't as close to them as before. I couldn't go to the police because there were some cops who were skinhead sympathizers and would help them out if they got in trouble. There simply was nowhere for me to go for help. If I just got up and walked away from the group, they'd come and find me and beat me, burn me, shoot me, stab me. We all knew about a guy in Arizona who had been crucified, so getting beaten up was the least of my fears. It was common for these guys to show their power over anyone they felt deserved it and call it 'practice.' And besides, how dare I (or anyone else) walk out on them?" he recalls.
After a year and a half, Daly was the only skinhead in his group who was still in high school and had no tattoos. "I managed to get away with that by telling them that without any outside signs of my affiliation, I would be more 'respectable' and could be used as a good front," he says.
Over time, John rose through the ranks of the Skinhead Organization of the American Front, a national skinhead organization with chapters all over the US, and caught the attention of some of the national leaders. Meanwhile, a local girl began dating the Chairman of the Eastern States Division, which comprised all the skinheads living from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. The girl - who had the words "American Front" tattooed on her neck - was the ex-wife of a friend of Daly's, and knew John was Jewish.
One morning, Daly got a phone call from the organization. They told him they wanted to "get their tattoo back," their way of ordering him to kill her. Instead, he decided to warn her and she, unbeknownst to Daly, went to Richie Meyers, a gang leader in Orlando slated to take over David Lynch's No. 2 position in the Eastern States Division. She relayed to Meyers, who had a reputation for being particularly bloodthirsty, what Daly had told her and - more importantly - that John Daly was Jewish.
A week later, Daly was summoned to an Officer's Meeting in Daytona. This order was nothing out of the ordinary; Daly, an officer in the organization, had attended similar meetings in the past and was not the least suspicious. What he didn't know was that it was a summons to his own murder. The original plan had been to shoot him, but two weeks earlier, the group had shot another member over a different offense and had gotten away with it by convincing the police it was an accident. Since they couldn't pull off another shooting, they needed to find another way to kill Daly. John, not knowing he had been "outed," arrived at the meeting place, where he immediately realized he was in trouble. "I thought there'd be a fight from the way they were talking, but I had no idea I was the target to be beaten to death. I was taken to an isolated spot on the beach where I was beaten in and out of consciousness, hearing the words, 'Die, Jew boy. Die' while I was being kicked by their weapons of choice: combat boots and fists. Then I was dragged into the water and held down, my fingers all broken from trying to protect my head from their blows. After a few minutes, they thought I was dead and went back to the shore. These guys were being groomed to be the next generation of skinhead leaders." One of the assailants, Fran Mercuri, was at the time the Florida leader for WAR (White Aryan Resistance), a violent hate group led by white supremacist Tom Metzger.
"As they were walking back towards their car, one guy turned and saw me trying to get out of the water. The guys were angry; they were furious that this Jew boy had the nerve to still be breathing. I was in a state of shock, but they came back to me and held me under water. This time, to be sure, one sat on my back as I was under the water while another held my throat. Eventually, I couldn't hold my breath any longer and inhaled the salt water."
Daly notes that the skinheads later testified that they had stood and watched him to make sure they had finished the job. He remained underwater; as the waves came in, his lungs would fill up with water; when they rolled back out, his lungs would empty. He doesn't know how long it was before he came to and found himself on the beach. "I had the sensation that I had died, lying in that water, and it's a feeling that I'll never forget. Somehow, I made it to my car and drove the 80 miles home. It was real late at night and everyone was sleeping. I showered and went to bed. The next morning my mom woke me up and saw my face and upper torso all bruised. She asked me what had happened, but fear kept me from answering."
John's parents rushed him to the hospital, where his wounds were treated and he was diagnosed with aspirated pneumonia caused by the salt water in his lungs. "The medical staff asked what had happened, but after they heard my reply, they doctors said that I was lying - no one could have survived such an ordeal and then, to top it off, drive back home."
He was questioned by the police, who took a statement. They refused Daly's parents' request for protection. A few days later, his phone rang. The caller was one of the seven guys who had tried to kill him. He told Daly that they "knew" he wasn't "talking" to anyone. What had happened, the caller said, had been a "misunderstanding." John's parents reported the phone call, but the police still refused to station a guard outside his hospital room. Finally, his father called the Anti-Defamation League, who arranged for immediate round-the-clock police protection.
One of his attackers turned himself in, thinking that Daly would identify the assailants and he'd be caught anyway. The others chose to hide but were eventually caught, although it took several years to apprehend some of them.
After he was released from the hospital, Daly went to Daytona to give a deposition to the police. A senior officer took him aside and said, "John, go hide. Disappear, but don't tell me where you are. When I need you, I'll call your parents."
"If he knew where I was, he would have to write it in his report. He was aware that there were skinhead sympathizers in the police and he was afraid it would be a cop who would turn me in and get me killed," Daly explains. So he "disappeared," going to stay with his mother's family in Virginia for several months.
Eventually, Daly testified in court against the skinhead who had turned himself in, who received a one-year prison sentence as part of a plea bargain. This sentence was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court, as the skinhead's lawyers wanted to fight the constitutionality of the then-new Hate Crimes Law. They lost. Two of the other defendants pled guilty for attempted murder. In a landmark decision, the Florida Supreme Court upheld their convictions. They were sentenced to 10 years each and released after serving six and seven years of their time. One of the two was Richie Meyers, who now heads a skinhead organization called Confederate Hammer Skins.
Daly's testimony was directly responsible for closing a major US skinhead organization and hampering the growth of another. It infuriated the entire movement, whose members are still after him. He received regular death threats, and would go into hiding, using that time to learn ju jitsu and earning seven black belts in that martial art. To overcome his residual fear of water, he learned to scuba dive. He also collected guns, at one point having 14 firearms in various positions in his home. He spent time with his brothers' friends, feeling he could trust them, but when he got a letter from the Florida Department of Corrections stating that the first skinhead he had sent to prison for attempted murder would be released in 90 days, he knew it was time to leave for good. He called the Jewish Agency in Miami and said, "My name is John Daly. I need to go to Israel as soon as possible."
John had wanted to go to Jerusalem, but there was an immediate opening in the Absorption Center in Ashkelon. He had never heard of the city. Being in a hurry, he went there, arriving on September 2, 1997. He immersed himself in Hebrew language study, soon becoming fluent enough to attend Ashkelon College and get a degree in Sociology and Political Science, while also serving as vice president of the Student Council. He hadn't attended college in the US because the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's intelligence division had warned him not to live in any one place for any extended amount of time.
Since making aliya, Daly has worked at a variety of jobs. He served as program coordinator for Chabad in Ashkelon and worked as the North America marketing director for a national tourism office. Not long ago, skinheads were discovered in Israel. The Israel Police called Daly in for consultation, and they still rely on him to help them decipher tattoos found on suspects. On several occasions, he has returned to the US to lecture on the skinhead movement, meeting with prosecutors, police, educators, schoolchildren, college students and churches. He informs them about how extremist groups like the skinheads operate and how to fight back.
When John goes back to Ocala to visit his family, he doesn't notify anyone. His visits there are short and tense. But he says he feels safe in Israel and loves the country. He knows that he has no other home. He knows the skinheads will "eventually find me if I leave here for a [lengthy] time, no matter where I go. Their arm extends far and wide, thanks to the Internet that lets them network all over the world."
John Daly has his eye on someday serving in the Knesset. "I'm here to stay, and want to be a voice in the government for people who don't have one," he declares. To that end, he has became active in politics, recently campaigning for the Yisraelim Party, whose platform is electoral reform. He chairs the local English Speakers Association and is working on his Masters Degree in Public Policy and Administration at Sapir College. Right now, however, he's busy cleaning his apartment and getting ready to welcome his mother who, by the time this article is published, will have made aliya.