20-year-old man charged in Orange County with killing a gay
Jewish college student earlier this month is said to have belonged to
Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group.
Ali Winston, special to
ProPublica and Jake Hanrahan,
special to ProPublica
D.C.) -- The California man accused
of killing a 19-year-old University of
Pennsylvania student earlier this month is an avowed neo-Nazi and a
one of the most notorious extremist groups in the country, according to
people with knowledge of the man’s recent activities.
man, Samuel Woodward, has been charged in Orange County, California,
murdering Blaze Bernstein, who went missing in early January while
family over winter break. Prosecutors allege that Woodward
Bernstein more than 20 times before burying his body in an Orange
where it was eventually discovered. The two men had attended high
20, is set to be arraigned on Feb. 2 and has not yet entered a plea.
County prosecutors say they are examining the possibility that the
a hate crime — Bernstein was Jewish and openly gay — and some recent
reports have suggested that the alleged killer might hold far-right or
white supremacist political beliefs.
three people with detailed knowledge of Woodward’s recent past have
to shed more light on the young man’s extremist activities. They said
was a member of the Atomwaffen Division, an armed Fascist group with
ultimate aim of overthrowing the U.S. government through the use of
and guerrilla warfare.
Hitler and Charles
organization, which celebrates Hitler and Charles Manson, has been tied
other murders and an elaborate bomb plot over the past eight months.
who study right-wing extremist movements believe Atomwaffen’s
violence has made it one of the more dangerous groups to emerge from
wave of white supremacists.
of the three people who described Woodward’s affiliations are friends
the other is a former member of Atomwaffen Division.
revelations about Woodward’s background add a new element to a murder
has attracted considerable local and national news coverage.
they also raise fresh concerns about groups like Atomwaffen Division,
outfits of uncertain size that appear capable of genuine harm.
joined the organization in early 2016 and later traveled to Texas to
Atomwaffen meetings and a three-day training camp, which involved
in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, camping and survival skills, the
member said. ProPublica has obtained photographs of Woodward
at an outdoor
Atomwaffen meeting in the scrubby Texas countryside.
of the photos depicts Woodward and other members making straight-armed
salutes while wearing skull masks. In other pictures, Woodward is
Assault Rifles, Social
young man is proficient with both handguns and assault rifles,
according to one
person who participated in the Texas training and watched him shoot.
person also said that Woodward helped organize a number of Atomwaffen
media posts and chat logs shared by Woodward’s friends show that he
described himself as a “National Socialist” or Nazi. He “was as
you can get,” according to one acquaintance.
contacted Orange County prosecutors regarding Woodward’s alleged
activities. Michelle Van Der Linden, a spokesperson for the District
Office, said she couldn’t comment directly on the case, but said the
investigation is ongoing, with detectives exploring all possible leads.
told police Bernstein had tried to kiss him while they were in the
to a sealed affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register.
defense lawyer, Edward Munoz, did not immediately respond to a request
Wednesday, Bernstein’s parents spoke to reporters about the loss of
their son, but
said they were not interested in talking about any information they had
investigation of his death.
Los Angeles Times quoted his mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, as saying
worried during her son’s life that he might be a target -- because he
small, and Jewish, and gay.
was concerned sending him out into the big world,” she said. “But at
you have to let go and they leave the nest and fly. I couldn’t protect
burning the U.S.
started in 2015 and is estimated to have about 80 members scattered
country in small cells; the former member said the group’s ranks have
since the lethal and chaotic “Unite the Right” rally last summer in
many of the new white extremist groups have consciously avoided using
imagery, Atomwaffen has done the opposite.
name can mean “Atomic Weapons” in German, and the organization embraces
Reich iconography, including swastikas, the Totenkopf, or death’s head
insignia, and SS lightning bolts. The group frequently produces YouTube
featuring masked Atomwaffen members hiking through the backcountry and
themselves burning the U.S. Constitution and setting fire to
flag at an Atomwaffen “Doomsday Hatecamp.”
biggest inspiration seems to be James Mason, a long-time fascist who
to the American Nazi Party and later, during the 1970s, joined a more
the 1980s, Mason published a newsletter called SIEGE, in which he
political activism in favor of creating a new fascist regime through
small “lone wolf” terror attacks, and all-out war against the
also struck up a friendship with the late Charles Manson, who has
another hero for Atomwaffen.
founding member charged
organization first gained a measure of national attention in May of
when 18-year-old Devon Arthurs, one of Atomwaffen’s founding members,
charged in state court in Tampa, Florida, with murdering two of his
Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22. Both victims were
murders allegedly occurred after Arthurs traded Nazism for radical
police took Arthurs into custody, according to news accounts based on
reports, he claimed he had shot his former comrades because they had
him about his Muslim faith and plotted violent attacks to further their
agenda. Arthurs told
investigators he killed Onsechuk and Himmelman “because they
want to build
a Fourth Reich.”
Arthurs initially confessed to the killings, he has pleaded not guilty
case is ongoing. In early January, a judge ordered a psychiatrist to
whether Arthurs is mentally competent to stand trial.
A cooler filled
with a volatile
law enforcement searched the apartment in Tampa, Florida, where Arthurs
others lived, they found firearms, a framed photograph of Oklahoma City
Timothy McVeigh, rifles, ammunition, and a cooler full of a highly
called HMTD. Investigators also discovered radioactive material in the
bomb-making material belonged to a fourth roommate, Atomwaffen leader
Russell, a Florida National Guardsman. Arthurs told authorities that
had been planning to blow up a nuclear power plant near Miami. Earlier
month Russell pleaded guilty in federal district court in Tampa to
possession of explosives and was sentenced to five years in federal
surfaced again in connection with a double homicide in Reston,
December 2017. A 17-year-old neo-Nazi allegedly shot to death his
parents, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker and Scott Fricker, who had urged their
to break up with him. The accused, who shot himself as well but
remains hospitalized, was charged as a juvenile in state court in
two counts of homicide.
17-year-old was a big fan of Atomwaffen and James Mason, according
to reporting by the Huffington Post, which examined his
social media trail.
former Atomwaffen member in contact with ProPublica said that the teen
than a fan: He was in direct communication with the group.
rhetoric is some of the most extreme we have seen,” said Joanna
senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
group, she said, views itself as the radical vanguard of the white
movement, the frontline soldiers of an imminent race war.
Thompson covers hate
crimes and racial extremism for ProPublica.
Ali Winston is
a reporting fellow
with the Investigative Fund.
is a freelance
journalist and filmmaker based in the United Kingdom.
This report was
first published Jan.
26, 2018 at ProPublica and is reprinted here with permission.
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