A soldier's roommate sketched a map to take a neo-Nazi group they were in down. What path officials took is a mystery.
By A.C. THOMPSON | ProPublica | Published: November 23, 2018
This ProPublica story was co-published with Frontline PBS.
It was a grisly scene inside Apartment 3722 at the Hamptons, a gated community in Tampa, Florida.
One body lay face up on the floor, wedged between a wall and an air mattress. A handgun was stuffed in a holster on the dead man’s waist. The other body, clad in a black T-shirt and shorts, was slumped back on a futon, a shattered and bloody iPhone on his lap. A police investigator would later write that the two men had been “shot multiple times at close range with an assault rifle.”
There were some obvious clues that this was no ordinary double homicide. Tacked to the wall near the bodies was a large black-and-white flag bearing the insignia of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, Adolf Hitler’s elite paramilitary unit. On a nearby shelf was a black Stahlhelm, the distinctive helmet worn by Nazi soldiers during World War II. There were multiple copies of “Mein Kampf” and a prominent place was reserved for “The Turner Diaries,” the infamous novel of race war in America that has inspired generations of terrorists, among them Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. A framed picture of McVeigh sat on a dresser.
On that night in May 2017, the police quickly took two suspects into custody and developed a rough outline of what had happened. One of the suspects, Devon Arthurs, 18, said the victims were his roommates, and members of a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division. Arthurs said that he’d decided to leave the group, and that he’d killed the men to keep them from carrying out what he said were their plans for violence.
The second suspect detained by police, Brandon Russell, also lived in the apartment. Russell told the authorities he’d just returned home from a weekend of training with the Florida Army National Guard. And then Russell revealed something that should have set off alarms among federal investigators assigned to track the growing threat from armed, violent right-wing extremists. He said, and the police quickly confirmed, that the single-car garage attached to the apartment was full of explosives.
Explosives experts from the Tampa Police Department and the local FBI field office soon found components of a crude pipe bomb as well as radioactive materials. The search turned up ammonium nitrate and nitromethane, the mixture used by McVeigh to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. There were sacks of explosive precursors, including potassium chloride, red iron oxide and potassium nitrate. There were homemade fuses fashioned from brass 5.56 mm rifle cartridges. In a closet, they found two Geiger counters.
And there was a cooler with the name Brandon scrawled on the lid in black marker. Inside, the investigators discovered HMTD — hexamethylene triperoxide diamine — a potent, highly volatile peroxide-based explosive. It has become a favored tool of terrorists both here and abroad, who cook it up in small batches using recipes circulating on the internet and in improvised weapons manuals.
At Tampa police headquarters, investigators put Arthurs and Russell in separate interrogation rooms. They wanted to know about the killings, about the neo-Nazi group and about the explosives.
Arthurs said the apartment had served as a nerve center for Atomwaffen Division, a white supremacist organization of 60 to 70 people that has spoken openly of its hopes of igniting race war in the United States. If the authorities could access the group’s encrypted online chats, Arthurs said, “it’d be easy to track down each member.” The interrogation was videotaped, and a recording was obtained by ProPublica and Frontline.
“The things that they’re planning were horrible. They’re planning bombings and stuff like that on countless people, they’re planning to kill civilian life,” Arthurs said. A detective asked if Atomwaffen had drawn up a list of specific targets. “Power lines, nuclear reactors, synagogues, things like that,” Arthurs replied.
“I’m telling you stuff that the FBI should be hearing,” Arthurs said, adding that he thought lives could be saved.
To this day, it is unclear if the FBI talked with Arthurs or what steps it took to shut down Atomwaffen. The FBI declined repeated requests to discuss the case. But this much is clear: Within months of Arthurs’ warnings, Atomwaffen members or associates had killed three more people.
It is frequently argued that the white men who murder in the name of racial purity are lone wolves, radicalized by the echo chamber of the alt-right internet. No one can reasonably expect authorities to stop a seemingly law-abiding citizen like Dylann Roof, the young man who killed nine black church members in South Carolina.
But the Atomwaffen case seems a fair test of the country’s intelligence abilities. And a close look at it suggests that much more could have been done to investigate an organization one of its founding members, Arthurs, was begging the authorities to shut down and offering his help to do so.
Some experts and former officials see the case as part of a larger pattern, evidence that federal agencies are understaffed and out of position in confronting the threat of white supremacist terrorism even as the FBI’s latest report shows a spike in hate crimes for the third straight year.
That concern intensified after the massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers last month at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. John Cohen and George Selim, former senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security, criticized what they say has been the disinvestment in programs and efforts meant to help protect against the threat of far-right attacks. Task forces have been disbanded, they said, and recent efforts to reconstitute what they termed an “intelligence infrastructure” for domestic terrorism have lagged.
The government’s own data underlines the threat. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report said “far-right extremism” was responsible for 62 of the 85 lethal extremist incidents in the U.S. from the day after 9/11 through 2016, while Islamist extremist violence was responsible for 23 of the incidents. The report said far-right extremism had killed 106 people over those years.
Contacted by ProPublica and Frontline, Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University, said he stood by his public critique.
“We know what the problem is, but every time there’s another one of these attacks all we hear is, ‘Oh, this is shocking, this is horrible, our prayers are with the people, who would have imagined this ever would have happened?’” Cohen said. “No, it’s very imaginable because it’s happening on a regular basis in this country. We’re just not doing enough to stop it.”
The authorities dispatched to the Tampa apartment seemed unprepared to deal with this particular brand of terrorism. The police detectives and FBI agent who interviewed Arthurs and Russell appear to have given little credence to the evidence discovered in the apartment, or to Arthurs’ allegations that the group was plotting terrorist attacks and mass murders.
While Arthurs was taken to the county jail on homicide charges, police and FBI agents released Russell, who claimed that he used the explosives to power model rockets. An officer even drove Russell back to the murder scene so he could retrieve his car.
What happened next could well have been a disaster. Within hours, Russell acquired an AR-15-style assault rifle and a bolt-action hunting rifle. He loaded homemade body armor and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition into his car, and set off for the Florida Keys with another Atomwaffen member. He was eventually arrested by sheriff’s deputies in Monroe County. They were shocked by the weapons and ammunition they found in the car. There was no luggage. No food. Russell didn’t seem prepared for an extended trip, they said.
“When we found all the weapons, we were convinced that we had just stopped a mass shooting,” recalled Deanna Torres, one of the deputies who captured Russell, who would eventually plead guilty to federal explosives charges.
Five former law enforcement agents spoke to ProPublica and Frontline about the handling of Arthurs and Russell. Most said they were baffled by the decision to release Russell.
Tampa police and local prosecutors would not discuss the case.
Atomwaffen didn’t disband in the aftermath of the Tampa arrests. The group continued to recruit new members, staging “hate camps” in at least two states that included weapons training. And the group’s violence went unhindered.
In December 2017, a 17-year-old Atomwaffen follower was arrested on suspicion of murdering the parents of his ex-girlfriend after they ended their daughter’s relationship with the neo-Nazi. A month later, Samuel Woodward was charged with killing a gay Jewish college student in California. Woodward, ProPublica reported in the following days, had participated in weapons training with Atomwaffen members in Texas in the months after the Tampa slayings. Woodward’s fellow Atomwaffen members cheered online when he was arrested, calling him a “one man gay jew wrecking crew.”
In response to questions about DHS’s readiness to combat white supremacist violence, DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton issued a statement:
“The Department of Homeland Security is committed to combating all forms of violent extremism, especially movements that espouse racial supremacy or bigotry. DHS takes all threats to the homeland, both foreign and domestic, very seriously and to suggest otherwise is an affront to the men and women of DHS that work tirelessly every day to ensure the safety of the American people. We will continue to work hand-in-hand with our federal, state and local partners to carry out our mission of keeping our country safe.”
Brandon Russell met Devon Arthurs online, on a site called Tinychat that provides video chat services, Arthurs said. Both young men lived in Florida — Brandon in Tampa, Devon in Longwood, a suburb north of Orlando. Wearing headsets, the two would sit at their computers and talk deep into the night.
Eventually, their conversations moved over to Iron March, a now-defunct neo-Nazi forum with the tagline “race war now!” On Iron March, Russell posted photos of himself posing with a Mossberg shotgun while wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Natural Born Killers” and an image of a Nazi eagle. Online, he celebrated school shooters like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine High School) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech); mass murderer Anders Breivik (a self-proclaimed National Socialist who killed 77 people in Norway); and Hitler.
In addition to his fascination with fascism and acts of violence, Russell had one more obsession: nuclear weapons. He posted instructions online for building improvised nuclear reactors — it's not clear how realistic these plans were — and studied nuclear physics as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida.
When Russell launched Atomwaffen in 2015, Arthurs was one of the first recruits to the group. Arthurs began gravitating toward Nazi beliefs at 13 or 14, according to his father, Alan Arthurs, who said he’s still mystified by his son’s interest in Nazism. “I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't know why,” he told Frontline and ProPublica.
In the spring of 2017, Devon Arthurs and Russell moved into the Tampa apartment. Arthurs had dropped out of high school and had no job. But Alan Arthurs believes his son and Russell were making lengthy road trips to sell illegal firearms in states far from Florida.
In time, Russell and Arthurs were joined in the Tampa apartment by Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22, two Atomwaffen members from Massachusetts.
Oneschuk and Himmelman were the dead men police discovered in the apartment on the night of May 19, 2017.
Alan Arthurs said his son called him after the shooting and confessed to killing the pair. Over the ensuing hours, Arthurs told a shifting series of stories about his motives. He told his father he’d killed them to head off Atomwaffen’s terrorist plans. He said something similar to investigators. But he also offered an even stranger version: that he’d converted to Islam and supported ISIS, and that he’d killed the two men because they mocked his newfound religion. A judge has since ruled Arthurs mentally incompetent to stand trial.
In his interrogation shortly after his arrest, Arthurs said he was aware of his mental health problems and wished he’d been hospitalized long before. He said that people might not think he looked like a terrorist, but that he had been engaged in dark and dangerous conduct.
And then, in quite composed fashion, he sketched out in great detail both the terrorist ambitions of Atomwaffen and the tactics law enforcement might use to infiltrate the group and bring it down. He warned the Tampa detective leading the questioning, Kenneth Nightlinger, against underestimating the group. Repeatedly, he tried to push back against what he seemed to regard as the detective’s skepticism.
Arthurs said Atomwaffen drew inspiration from The Order, a neo-Nazi terrorist group active during the 1980s. Led by Robert Mathews, the organization believed the U.S. had been taken over by a shadow government of powerful Jews. The Order bombed a synagogue and in 1984 assassinated Alan Berg, a prominent Jewish radio host who lived in Denver.
Russell and Atomwaffen “venerate” The Order, Arthurs said in his interview with detectives. “These people, they have no human empathy like we do.”
“These people ... they know exactly how to build, they knew exactly how to build bombs that could've destroyed this entire building,” Arthurs said.
Nightlinger often pressed for more information.
“Do you know about specific plans that these two individuals had?” the detective asked, referring to Oneschuk and Himmelman.
Arthurs said the men were planning on blowing up power lines near a major highway. They were going to use the HMTD to do it.
The detective pressed further.
“Did Brandon ever specifically talk about doing anything similar to that? To any government buildings?”
“Oh, absolutely. All the time,” Arthurs answered.
“Any specific ones?”
“Government offices, federal buildings,” Arthurs said.
The detective at one point tried to assure Arthurs that he and others would act on his information.
“This is absolutely serious stuff,” said Nightlinger, encouraging Arthurs to pass on “any information” that could be used to combat “these misguided individuals.”
Arthurs apologized for seeming flustered.
“I'm not trying to sound like a schizo cause I know that I'm trampling over words and stuff,” he said.
“No, no, you're in control, man,” Nightlinger said. “You're good, keep going.”
And Arthurs did.
Arthurs told the detective that Russell acquired guns and trained him and the other roommates in how to handle them. He said while Russell had joined the Florida Army National Guard, he’d used the American flag as a doormat to the apartment. He warned that if Russell was given the chance, he’d easily be able to reacquire the explosives that had been confiscated from the garage.
And repeatedly Arthurs offered to help law enforcement round up Atomwaffen members and dismantle the organization. He’d open up his computer. And he thought it would be easy to penetrate the computers of the others.
“You think having your computer, an FBI agent as you requested, sit down and go over this stuff, you think then you would open some eyes?” Nightlinger asked.
“Yeah, I definitely do,” Arthurs said. “I think that it would open some eyes to a much bigger thing than what happened today, and I think that I could definitely, basically save a lot of lives overall.”
At one point, the detective seemed persuaded. Nightlinger suggested he would pass the word to the appropriate agents in the FBI.
“I mean they're actually going to be actually be made aware of this and they're going to do their homework,” he said. “Just to make sure you're not talking out your ass about something here in order to maybe gain some favorable treatment.”
The FBI would not answer questions about its handling of the Tampa case, saying that the investigation remains open. Agents have questioned former Atomwaffen members in at least two states, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the inquiry.
In a statement, the FBI said: “The FBI is not permitted to discuss any facet of the Brandon Russell investigation. The decision not to discuss this investigation was made in accordance with Department of Justice Guidelines and FBI Rules and Regulations.”
ProPublica and Frontline reviewed the crime scene photos and police reports from the Tampa apartment with Kerry Myers, a former FBI bomb tech who investigated the Oklahoma City bombing.
“They were making bombs,” Myers said. “This is a bomb maker's workshop.”
Myers added that the materials were enough “to blow up a car, blow up an airplane, blow up a bus. We have the same basic explosive kit here that the Boston Marathon bombers had.”
Alan Arthurs, who had watched his son’s involvement in Nazism develop over the years and seems to have been the first person Devon called after the killings, told ProPublica and Frontline he has never been interviewed by FBI agents. The local Tampa detectives didn’t question Alan Arthurs until June 5, 2017, more than two weeks after the crimes, according to Police Department records.
At the Tampa apartment, investigators recovered one of Russell’s notebooks, which contained a hand-drawn map of a quarry located between Orlando and Tampa. The map included GPS coordinates for the quarry and a description of its operations. Such facilities often use high-powered explosives to blast through rock. McVeigh stole blasting caps from a mining operation before the Oklahoma City attack.
The quarry in Florida, a sand mine, is owned by E.R. Jahna Industries. Reached for comment, company executive Adell Jahna said that he had never heard of Atomwaffen and that the company had never been contacted by local law enforcement or the FBI in connection with the case.
During his interrogation, Devon Arthurs had not only warned of Atomwaffen’s violent ambitions, but said repeatedly that the organization had attracted U.S. military personnel as members and was aiming to recruit more.
Arthurs said Russell, the group's founder, had signed up for the Florida Army National Guard in part to get the kind of combat training he might put to use for Atomwaffen. Russell had been drilling in Pinellas Park with the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team on the day of the murders. In his own interview with Tampa police, Russell said he expected his unit to be deployed in 2018 and was considering the Army as a career.
“He joined specifically for the knowledge and the training, and he wants to use that training against the government,” Arthurs said of Russell during his police interrogation. “These people join the military specially to get training. To get access to equipment.” The ultimate goal, Arthurs continued, was to become more equipped to kill people.
Defense Department directives and the regulations of each military branch bar servicemembers from engaging in white supremacist activity. Servicemembers can face criminal charges and expulsion from the military for violating these policies.
After Russell’s arrest, the Florida Guard mounted an investigation into his activities while in uniform. Three weeks after Russell was jailed, the Guard wrapped up its inquiry. In a report, the Guard listed some of the troubling things it had found:
- Russell had a tattoo of the Atomwaffen logo on his right shoulder. The investigator on the case noted that the U.S. military did not maintain a database of tattoos that might have been used to screen for troubling affiliations.
- Two of Russell’s superiors had warned him about his conduct after he repeatedly “vocalized his hatred for homosexuality and ‘faggots.’”
- Russell had “seemed very anxious to receive body armor, and keep his military issued gear.”
But the investigation concluded that Russell had not sought to recruit other soldiers for Atomwaffen, and that he “did not present consistent characteristics that would have led a reasonable person to suspect Russell held such radical beliefs.” Investigators determined there had been no negligence in allowing Russell into the Guard or in his continued presence in its ranks.
The two-page summary of the investigation, obtained by ProPublica and Frontline, contains no references to Arthurs’ statements to authorities about other possible Atomwaffen members in the military. Nor does it contain any evidence that the Guard had alerted officials in other military branches to the potential presence of Atomwaffen in their ranks.
The Florida Army National Guard did not respond to repeated requests for an interview regarding Russell.
This year, ProPublica and Frontline identified seven Atomwaffen members with military experience, including Russell.
The Pentagon did not respond to detailed requests from ProPublica and Frontline to discuss Atomwaffen and its possible recruitment of current or former military members.
In a statement, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Maj. Carla Gleason of the Air Force, said: “The DoD uses a multi-level approach to learn as much as possible about potential new soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines so we can assess whether they should be extended the privilege to serve in the military. While we can't guarantee that every person who enters the service will be free from holding extremist thoughts, various screening tools provide us the best opportunity to identify those who do not share our values.”
Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, has studied the historic links between the white power movement and the U.S. armed forces. White power groups, she said, have long drawn from the ranks of the military. And former soldiers have become leaders of white supremacist groups over the decades.
Aryan Nations chief Richard Butler did a stint in the Army. KKK Grand Dragon Louis Beam served in Vietnam, as did White Patriot Party leader Frazier Glenn Miller. In 2014, after decades of involvement with white extremist groups, Miller murdered three people outside of a pair of Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. He was eventually sentenced to death and is awaiting execution.
Belew is careful to say that the members of the military who wind up affiliated with white supremacist groups constitute “a tiny, not even statistically significant percentage” of total servicemembers. But those few, she said, have often played “an enormously important role” in organizing such groups and carrying out their bloodiest actions.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Belew said, white power groups increasingly modeled themselves on the U.S. military and began to focus on recruiting “both veterans and active-duty troops in order to run boot camps” and “create paramilitary training facilities.” As the movement grew more extreme, she said, it sought out people who could build improvised explosives or accurately fire a submachine gun.
Atomwaffen has certainly embraced that tactic. Current and former soldiers have participated in what the group calls “hate camps,” secret weapons training conducted in a number of states around the country over the last two years.
Those who have studied the relationship between military service and white supremacist ideology say soldiers can become deeply disillusioned when fighting controversial wars with little in the way of clear victories. They may return angry and damaged, animated by a degree of nihilism.
One Atomwaffen member who saw combat in Afghanistan discussed his emotional demons in the group’s private online chats. The man wrote that he had “nightmares about seeing people i know blown up” and felt guilt about inadvertently killing women and children.
ProPublica and Frontline interviewed a former Atomwaffen member who had served overseas in the Army. He would only speak if his identity was not revealed and asked us to call him Jeremiah.
“There were a lot of people that were disenchanted with the mission. I'd say about half of the guys in my unit,” Jeremiah said. “I think a lot of guys, they’re lost and they want hope. They’re looking for answers.”
Somehow he found those answers on Iron March, the now-defunct online neo-Nazi hangout that Russell used to launch Atomwaffen. According to Jeremiah, Atomwaffen “definitely wanted to appeal to veterans.” Within the organization, “people looked up to the military guys,” he said.
He said he encountered other racial extremists during his time in the Army: “There’s a good amount of them. They keep quiet for the most part about it, especially when they're in because they can get in a lot of trouble.”
But it’s unclear how seriously the military is taking the matter. The former member said he’s never been contacted by military investigators.
ProPublica and Frontline interviewed more than 20 officials with direct knowledge of the military’s handling of felony-level criminal investigations. Most said racial extremists were a low priority for military police and detectives with elite military law enforcement units like the Army Criminal Investigation Division and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which polices the Navy and Marine Corps. Military investigators are more focused on street gangs operating within the armed forces, sexual assault and illegal drugs, the officials said.
Roughly a year after Russell’s arrest in Tampa, an Army investigator told ProPublica and Frontline that the Army’s CID unit had not opened an investigation into Russell and his neo-Nazi organization. Several military officials said Army CID had no jurisdiction in Russell’s case because he was a member of the Florida Guard and not an active-duty soldier.
ProPublica and Frontline published their initial reporting on the nexus between Atomwaffen and the military in May. Since then, the Marine Corps has taken action against Atomwaffen member Vasillios Pistolis, a lance corporal on active duty. Pistolis, who had allegedly participated in assaults during the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally in 2017, was court-martialed and ousted from the Marines. In interviews, Pistolis admitted having been a member of Atomwaffen but denied being in Charlottesville.
In response to that earlier reporting, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., in May wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis requesting details on the Pentagon’s efforts to rid the ranks of white supremacists.
Replying to Ellison, the Defense Department said that it had received “27 reports of extremist activity (domestic) by Service members over the past five years.” Military investigators, the letter continued, had investigated 25 of these reports; ultimately, 18 servicemembers from across the military had been disciplined or forced out of the armed forces.
Gleason, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said she couldn’t provide information on individual cases but stated, “Our standards are clear; participation in extremist activities has never been tolerated and is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” She added that commanders are “encouraged to be preventive and pro-active, and they are doing that.”
We took the Pentagon’s letter to Ellison to retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg, who served as the Army’s deputy judge advocate general, the second-highest-ranking JAG officer in the Army. Altenburg said he was persuaded that the military is taking proper action against offenders in its ranks.
“I’m pleased to see that they’re doing all this,” Altenburg said of the 18 cases of discipline handed down by the Pentagon. “This looks very thorough to me and looks like they’re on top of it.”
He noted that the Pentagon letter did not distinguish between white supremacists and other types of political extremists.
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, Heidi Beirich was skeptical of the Defense Department’s figures, calling them “laughable.”
“Hate groups are telling their people to join the military, and this was something that's been documented, both in FBI reports and in DHS reports,” said Beirich, who heads the center’s Intelligence Project. “There’s not only going to be 27 of them, in a military force of, I don’t know, one and a half to two million people in the United States, who are under arms.”
Last year, nearly 25 percent of active-duty servicemembers surveyed by the Military Times said they’d encountered white nationalists within the ranks. The publication polled more than 1,000 servicemembers.
Beirich questioned the Pentagon’s willingness to root out white supremacists. “We keep sending stuff to the military, examples of people, saying: ‘You should look at this guy. He looks like he might be in violation,’” she said. “Most of the time we never even hear anything back from them.”