At 40, Julie Sanders is a mother of three from Portland, Ore. But when she was 16, Sanders belonged to a white supremacist group — and one night in 1988, she witnessed a murder. Since then, she's kept the event a secret from most of her friends and family.
Before she sat down to talk about the incident with her friend Randy Blazak at StoryCorps, Sanders says, she had rarely talked about her past at all. She started out by recalling what her life was like in her teen years.
"I was on a search for people who wanted me around. My parents didn't," she says. "And there was nothing about me that felt special. So, when I met these friends, it didn't matter if I was pretty or funny. None of that mattered. They liked me — because I was white.
"Every weekend, we drank and then drove around, looking for a fight. And on nights they didn't have anyone to beat up, I was the target — even being almost choked to death by my boyfriend."
Her boyfriend's name was Ken Mieske. A member of a skinhead gang, he eventually moved in with Sanders, living in her parents' basement.
"One time, six of us all get into the car, and there is another car. And in the car was three black guys. And a fight erupted. My boyfriend grabbed a bat. And I could see from the back seat: the bat being swung; a man falling to the ground — and then everybody running.
"The man died. He was born in Ethiopia and had a son. But we just saw 'black.' "
The man who became a murder victim that night was graduate student Mulugeta Seraw. He was 28 when he was killed outside his apartment in Portland.
In the criminal case that followed, Mieske eventually admitted to murdering Seraw. A separate lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, accusing leaders of the White Aryan Resistance group of instigating the crime. Sanders testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in that case.
"After the murder, I ended up going to a girls' reformatory. And I have spent a lot of years just hiding from it — even, you know, when it would creep up on me in the middle of the night.
"It really didn't seem like a reality until I hit 20 and had my own son.
"And I think that I certainly have raised my kids different. All three of my kids are confident [and] care about other people. You know, my 16-year-old protects a cross-dresser at school. And when my kids do something like that, it really makes me feel like I am kind of changing that cycle.
"But, I just still feel like not a good person," she says. "And I don't forgive myself."
Sanders recently completed a degree in social work. She plans to work with kids who are at risk of joining hate groups.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.