COWAN, Tenn. (AP) - A 26-year-old volunteer firefighter trying to distance himself from a white-supremacist group was found beaten to death last month in a cornfield in foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, and three fellow members of the group are due in court this week to answer to murder charges.
Corey Matthews, a father of two young girls, was targeted by other members of the Aryan Nations over a dispute, Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller has said, and Matthews "stepped outside of the bounds of their beliefs." Police haven't elaborated on what caused the dispute, nor have family members explained why they think he was trying to leave the group.
Three members of Aryan Nations are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on murder charges, while a fourth suspect affiliated with another white supremacist gang is on the run.
Investigators found Matthews' badly beaten body on March 24 about a mile from his house in Cowan, a small town that sprung up in the 1850s as a railroad stop between Chattanooga and Nashville.
A cousin said Matthews was trying to separate himself from the Aryan Nations when he was killed, but that she didn't know further details on what steps he took to leave.
Jordan Miller said relatives knew that Matthews was a member of the Aryan Nations, and he joined because he had friends in the group. She said family members didn't know the suspects and she had never seen them with her cousin.
"We think he was trying to get out," said Miller, 21.
Aside from firefighting, Matthews was good at working on cars and mixed martial arts, Miller said.
"He could do anything he wanted to do," Miller said.
On April 8, a grand jury indicted four men from neighboring Coffee County on first-degree murder and felony murder charges. Two of them, 39-year-old Todd Eugene Dalton and 26-year-old John Corey Lanier, were taken into custody following the indictment. Coty Keith Holmes, 25, was later captured in the Florida Panhandle.
The oldest of the suspects, 46-year-old David Gordon Jenkins, is still on the run, and authorities have been looking for him in Kentucky, New York and Tennessee. All four have criminal records, but Jenkins' is the most extensive, with charges dating back to 1985 including assault, drug trafficking, resisting arrest and robbery.
An attorney for Holmes said he intends to plead not guilty, but the other suspects did not have attorneys listed.
The suspects and victim were linked by their affiliation with white supremacist groups, authorities say. The sheriff said investigators believe that the suspects may not have intended to kill Matthews, but their meeting that evening "went afoul."
While the victim and three suspects in custody had ties to the Aryan Nations, Jenkins was associated with the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison-based gang known for violence and criminal operations, said Franklin County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Chris Guess. Guess said members of prison gangs often continue to work for the operation even after their release.
Investigators believe that Jenkins was trying to join the Aryan Nations organization, said Deputy U.S. Marshal Paul Salayko.
"We don't know if this was some kind of task that he was required to perform to get on with the Aryan Nations," Salayko said.
An expert on hate groups said the Aryan Nations is a neo-Nazi organization that was largely dissolved after it lost a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and its leader died in 2004.
"There are few little remnants of the Aryan Nations left, wannabe groups that say they are the successors," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the center.
He said he's never heard of anyone being attacked for leaving the Aryan Nations.
However, the Aryan Brotherhood is considered "blood in, blood out" prison gang, whose principal trade is methamphetamine. He said that means in order to join, members are often required to hurt or kill someone at the command of a group leader.
"And you can't get out," Potok said. "The only way to get out is by dying."
Potok said the Aryan Brotherhood is fundamentally a gang with a thin ideological overlay, while Aryan Nations was known for deeper beliefs. He said the two groups would not normally fight among themselves and are generally considered allies within in the prison system.
White supremacist prison gangs recently made the news when former Colorado inmate Evan Spencer Ebel died in a shootout with police in Texas. Ebel, who has ties to the white supremacist 211 Crew, is believed to have killed Colorado's corrections director on March 19.
Matthews' cousin, Miller, said the family is still trying to figure out what happened and that police have increased patrols around them. The family erected two crosses at the edge of the cornfield that have been signed by relatives. Matthews' prized Nissan truck with oversized wheels and firefighter tags is parked behind Miller's house.
Miller said she last saw him earlier on the day he went missing with his 3-year-old daughter, Natalee.
"I saw him that day around 4 o'clock," Miller said. "He was with Natalee and he was as happy as he could be."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)