Extremist Hate Group Celebrates California Member Accused of Murder
Samuel Woodward, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on Jan. 17, 2018, in Santa Ana. (Orange County Register/YouTube)
DOCUMENTING HATE: ProPublica obtained the chat logs of Atomwaffen, a notorious white supremacist group. When Samuel Woodward was charged with killing 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein last month in California, other Atomwaffen members cheered the death, concerned only that the group’s cover might have been blown.
Late last month, ProPublica reported that the California man accused of killing a gay and Jewish University of Pennsylvania student was an avowed neo-Nazi and a member of Atomwaffen Division, one of the country’s most notorious extremist groups.
The news about the murder suspect, Samuel Woodward, spread quickly throughout the U.S., and abroad. Woodward was accused of fatally stabbing 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein and burying his body in an Orange County park.
The report, it turns out, was also taken up in the secretive online chats conducted by members of Atomwaffen Division, a white supremacist group that celebrates both Hitler and Charles Manson.
“I love this,” one member wrote of the killing, according to copies of the online chats obtained by ProPublica. Another called Woodward a “one man gay Jew wrecking crew.”
More soon joined in.
“What I really want to know is who leaked that shit about Sam to the media,” a third member wrote.
At least one member wanted to punish the person who had revealed Woodward’s affiliation with Atomwaffen.
“Rats and traitors get the rope first.”
Encrypted chat logs obtained by ProPublica — some 250,000 messages spanning more than six months — offer a rare window into Atomwaffen Division that goes well beyond what has surfaced elsewhere about a group whose members have been implicated in a string of violent crimes. Like many white supremacist organizations, Atomwaffen Division uses Discord, an online chat service designed for video gamers, to engage in its confidential online discussions.
In a matter of months, people associated with the group, including Woodward, have been charged in five murders; another group member pleaded guilty to possession of explosives after authorities uncovered a possible plot to blow up a nuclear facility near Miami.
The group’s propaganda makes clear that Atomwaffen — the word means “nuclear weapons” in German — embraces Third Reich ideology and preaches hatred of minorities, gays and Jews. Atomwaffen produces YouTube videos showing members firing weapons and has filmed members burning the U.S. Constitution and setting fire to the American flag. But the organization, by and large, cloaks its operations in secrecy and bars members from speaking to the media.
The chat logs and other material obtained by ProPublica provide unusually extensive information about the group’s leaders, wider makeup, and potential targets, indicating:
The group may have as many as 20 cells around the country, small groups of indeterminate size in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Nevada and elsewhere. Members armed with assault rifles and other guns have taken part in weapons training in various locations over the last two years, including last month in the Nevada desert near Death Valley.
Members have discussed using explosives to cripple public water systems and destroy parts of the electrical power grid. One member even claimed to have obtained classified maps of the power grid in California. Throughout the chats, Atomwaffen members laud Timothy McVeigh, the former soldier who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168, including numerous children. Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who massacred 77 people, also come in for praise.
Woodward posted several messages in the days after Bernstein’s murder, but before he was arrested and charged. In one thread, he told his fellow Atomwaffen members that he was thinking about the “passing of life” and was “truly grateful for our time together.”
Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty in the Bernstein case. Prosecutors have said they are exploring whether the murder constituted a hate crime and detectives are now investigating what role, if any, Atomwaffen might have played in the homicide. Woodward and Bernstein had known each other in high school in California, and appear to have reconnected somehow shortly before the killing.
Law enforcement, both federal and state, have said little about what they make of Atomwaffen. But organizations dedicated to tracking and studying hate groups have been calling attention to what they regard as the group’s considerable threat.
“We haven’t seen anything like Atomwaffen in quite a while,” said Keegan Hankes, a researcher who tracks the group for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They should be taken seriously because they’re so extreme.”
Jeffrey Kaplan, a historian, has studied racial extremists for decades and edited the Encyclopedia of White Power. In an interview, he suggested that Atomwaffen is dangerous, but that talk in their propaganda and private conversations of aims such as toppling the U.S. government amounted to what he called a kind of “magical thinking.” Kaplan said such groups often contain a handful of diehards who are willing to commit crimes and many more wannabes who are unwilling to do much more than read fascist literature.
“It’s very hard to go from talking about violence to looking a guy in the eyes and killing him,” said Kaplan, a professor of national security studies at King Fahd Defense College in Saudi Arabia.
ProPublica has identified five key Atomwaffen members through information provided by law enforcement investigators, internal Atomwaffen records, outside experts and a former group member.
Those records and interviews make clear that John Cameron Denton is the leader of Atomwaffen. Denton, 24, grew up in Montgomery, Texas, a small town about 30 miles north of Houston. Public records show Denton currently lives in the nearby town of Conroe, a few miles to the south of Montgomery.
ProPublica has obtained several photos of Denton. In one, Denton, who is short and wiry, has a bulky combat shotgun slung over his shoulder. He seems to favor camouflage pants and black T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of National Socialist Black Metal bands, a fringe subgenre of heavy metal music that mixes Satanic and Nazi themes.
“Politics are useless. Revolution is necessary,” Denton said in a chat post expressing the Atomwaffen worldview.
Records and interviews show Denton goes by the name Rape in the online conversations, and he appears to be involved in nearly every aspect of the organization. He shapes Atomwaffen’s ideology, chooses designs for its distinctive black-and-white posters and online propaganda, and selects the books that new recruits must study as part of their initiation, said a former Atomwaffen member interviewed by ProPublica. Denton’s younger brother, Grayson Patrick Denton, 19, is also a member, according to the chat logs and interviews; within the group, he goes by Leon, an homage to a Belgian fascist who fought with the SS.
The leader’s identity was first revealed last month in a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Afterward, Denton was seething. “They think they can stop RAPE!? THEY THINK THEY CAN STOP ME!?!,” Denton wrote in one chat message.
Neither Denton brother responded to messages seeking comment.
Just how many people belong to Atomwaffen is unknown. The ex-member told ProPublica that the group has enlisted about 80 members across the country, many of whom joined after the deadly events in Charlottesville last summer.
An internal Atomwaffen document obtained by ProPublica shows members scattered across 23 states and Canada. The group’s largest chapters are based in Virginia, Texas and Washington, according to a message posted in the chats by an Atomwaffen recruiter last summer.
“Each chapter operates independently,” wrote the recruiter. “We want men who are willing to be the boots on the ground. Joining us means serious dedication not only to the Atomwaffen Division and its members, but to the goal of Total Aryan Victory.”
A review of the chat logs shows messages posted by people using more than 100 different user names. Access to the discussions is tightly controlled, and it is unclear if some members post under multiple usernames.
Denton has helped build the organization around the ideas expressed in an obscure, hyper-violent book: “Siege.” The 563-page book collects and organizes the monthly newsletters produced during the 1980s by an old-line neo-Nazi activist named James Mason. It is required reading for all Atomwaffen members and serves as the backbone for the organization’s ideology, worldview and training program.
When Mason began publishing his newsletter in 1980, he was bitter and deeply dismayed. He had devoted his life to the fascist cause, joining the American Nazi Party in the mid-1960s, at the age of 14. But the movement had completely failed.
For Mason, the way forward was obvious: He no longer wanted to convince the masses of the rightness of Nazism. They would never get it. Now was the time for true believers to go underground and launch a clandestine guerrilla war aimed at bringing down “The System.”
“Siege” is essentially a long string of essays celebrating murder and chaos in the name of white supremacy. In Mason’s view, Dan White, the local politician who assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk, was a hero.
Mason proposed the creation of a White Liberation Front composed of small armed squads that would “hide in wilderness areas,” moving frequently from location to location while striking out in a string of “hit-and-run engagements.” Mason based this proposed organization on the short-lived National Socialist Liberation Front, a small splinter group of the American Nazi Party that formed in 1969 and espoused the strategic use of political terrorism.
The chat logs show that Denton and other Atomwaffen figures are in contact with Mason, who is 65 and is said to be living in Denver, Colorado; in one online conversation, Samuel Woodward wrote about meeting with Mason face to face along with other Atomwaffen members. In chats, members frequently post pictures of Mason and revere him as a brilliant, under-appreciated thinker.
ProPublica was unable to contact Mason.
Jeffrey Kaplan, the academic at King Fahd Defense College in Riyadh, interviewed Mason in the 1990s and spoke to ProPublica about Mason’s outlook and the groups he inspires, such as Atomwaffen.
He describes Mason as “a true believer.”
“Now he’s got a following, which he didn’t have for the last 30 years,” Kaplan said. “He’s got some kids who’ve rediscovered him. He must be in heaven.”
As Kaplan sees it, groups such as Atomwaffen — would-be Nazi guerrillas devoted to white revolution in the U.S. — are “akin to cults,” and are propelled by a quasi-religious faith that they will ultimately prevail. He continued, “What else would sustain you when everyone hates you?”
John Cameron Denton, based on interviews and the material obtained by ProPublica, comes across as something of a cult leader. Lately he has been pushing for Atomwaffen members to pool money and purchase land in rural areas so they can “get the fuck off the grid,” and begin implementing their revolutionary agenda. The former member said Denton envisions using this network of Atomwaffen compounds to launch attacks against targets in the U.S.
The leader is already girding for a confrontation with law enforcement. “I do expect that one day I'll get raided,” wrote Denton in one chat message. “I'm not gonna have a shoot out or anything stupid like that, but I just dont rule out possibilities because I know the govt doesnt play by the rules."
Late last month, Atomwaffen held a three-day training session — or “Hate Camp” in the group’s parlance — deep in the Nevada desert. The event was organized by an Atomwaffen leader, Michael Lloyd Hubsky, who calls himself Komissar, according to the chat logs.
A 29-year-old resident of Las Vegas, Hubsky holds both a concealed weapons permit and a security guard license, and is a big fan of high-powered military-style firearms. In one post he discussed a favorite weapon: a Czech-made rifle called a CZ Scorpion that, Hubsky said, he’d converted to fully automatic and equipped with a flash suppressor.
In another message, Hubsky wrote that he was planning on getting an “FFL” — federal firearms license — so he could “manufacture” guns.
“I can literally become our armory in the event we need it,” Hubsky bragged.
The former member said Atomwaffen has a rule: Don’t talk about the group’s terrorist ambitions in online chats or on social media. Those sorts of conversations are only supposed to happen in person. But Hubsky, at times, has been less than discreet outside the group’s confidential chats.
“So in any war, you need to cut off your enemy’s ability to shoot, move and communicate,” Hubsky wrote in a September 2017 message posted in a discussion on white nationalism that occurred in a non-Atomwaffen chat room. “You would want to target things like: Substations, water filtration plants, etc.” ProPublica has obtained Hubsky’s statements from that online conversation.
Hubsky wrote that he had “a map of the US power grid.”
“West-coast only,” he added in the message. “Classified map. Had someone with special permissions get it.”
Hubsky also discussed blowing up natural gas lines.
“You put a home-made thermite grenade on those,” he wrote. While other types of infrastructure — like water lines – figured in Hubsky’s discussions, hitting the power grid was, in his view, the most devastating and effective attack possible. Destroying electricity infrastructure, Hubsky wrote, “would by default take out the internet because it relies on power to operate.”
In a telephone conversation and subsequent series of text messages with ProPublica, Hubsky at first denied being a member of Atomwaffen. But he later offered to discuss the group at length if his name was not made public, an arrangement ProPublica declined. Hubsky acknowledged that he owns a CZ Scorpion assault rifle — even sharing a picture of the weapon — but said it was not fully automatic. He concluded the exchange by saying he had retained a lawyer.
Hubsky’s organization of the three-day Hate Camp in Nevada began with a proposal to the group late last year. He offered to arrange it so the group could hone its combat skills. There would be shooting and hand-to-hand sparring at a secret location on the edge of Death Valley.
Atomwaffen had already held a Hate Camp in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois during the fall of 2017. At least 10 members from different states attended, with some driving in from as far away as Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Jersey. In the Pacific Northwest, cell members had converged on an abandoned cement factory, known as “Devil's Tower” near the small town of Concrete, Washington, where they had screamed “gas the kikes, race war now!” while firing off round after round from any array of weapons, including an AR-15 assault rifle with a high capacity drum magazine.
The training sessions were documented in Atomwaffen propaganda videos.
Members had also organized smaller training sessions, such as the one last year in Texas that had drawn Blaze Bernstein’s alleged murderer, Samuel Woodward. The Texas training attended by Woodward took place in the countryside outside San Antonio and involved 10 members of the Texas cell who took part in firearms, survival and weapons instruction.
Hubsky scheduled his training camp during the last weekend in January. Atomwaffen’s Washington chapter leader Kaleb J. Cole, who uses the alias Khimaere, agreed to help organize the desert training session in Nevada, which the group started calling the Death Valley Hate Camp.
“Bring your uniform, rifle/sidearm, and whatever camping gear you need,” he wrote. Cole, who is 22 and lives close to the Canadian border in the town of Blaine, is a National Socialist Black Metal enthusiast who holds a concealed firearms permit and owns an AK-47. In 2015, while Cole was living in Bellingham, police responded to a report that he had “Nazi memorabilia” in his residence, according to Lt. Danette Beckley of the Bellingham Police Department; he was also reported to police in the island town of Anacortes for allegedly harassing a Jewish grocery store owner by a waving a Nazi flag in front of the business, according to two law enforcement sources.
The former Atomwaffen member told ProPublica that Cole wields a significant degree of influence over the organization’s propaganda, recruitment and organization. ProPublica could not reach Cole for comment.
When the group got out to the desert, Hubsky made sure they shot photos and videos to be used in Atomwaffen recruiting clips. In one picture obtained by ProPublica, an Atomwaffen member is standing at the base of a sand dune showing off a military-grade weapon — an MCX Virtus rifle made by Sig Sauer — while holding a flag bearing the Atomwaffen insignia, a black shield bearing the symbol for radioactivity. Another member, clutching an assault rifle, is also in the photo.
Hubsky returned from Death Valley enthused and eager to do more training. He uploaded a memo to the Atomwaffen chat. Members would now be required to join Front Sight, a “private combat training facility” outside of Las Vegas in the small desert town of Pahrump. Front Sight, the memo said, could provide classes in “Uzi and full auto M16 combat, as well as knife fighting, hand to hand combat,” and instruction in climbing and rappelling.
“I don't know anything about this group,” Bill Cookston, Front Sight’s director of operations, said this week. “If anyone were to be doing something against the law or in a radical manner, we would look into that.”
Shortly afterward, Michael Meacher, Front Sight’s CEO, said the training center had sent Hubsky a letter refunding his membership fees and informing the Las Vegas resident that he was banned from the facility for life.
Before Samuel Woodward was jailed on charges of murdering Blaze Bernstein, he frequently participated in the Atomwaffen chats. First he used the handle Saboteur. Later he posted under the name Arn.
Often, Woodward sounded like a typical 20-year-old. He enthused about video games (BioShock, Skyrim) and TV shows (he liked the early seasons of “Trailer Park Boys,” a Canadian comedy series). He complained about not having a girlfriend.
But Woodward also railed at “mongrels and jews” and gays.
He praised Mein Kampf and seemed to regard “Siege” as something akin to divine revelation; from his perspective, violence and society-shaking mayhem were the only options for a true Nazi.
That orientation attracted him to outlaw groups like the National Socialist Underground, a German organization that carried out a massive terror spree between 2001 and 2011, robbing 14 banks, planting bombs and murdering 10 people, most of them immigrants. “The NSU was pretty cool,” Woodward wrote.
In one conversation, Woodward discussed the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s, during which Serbian soldiers and paramilitary fighters raped thousands of Bosnian Muslim women as part of an infamous campaign of ethnic cleansing. “The only acceptable case of miscegenation is what the serbs did to captured bosniak women,” he wrote in November 2017.
Woodward liked the idea of using rape to terrorize women of color, whom he saw as his foes. “Force them to carry around the spawn of their master and enemy,” he wrote.
ProPublica sought comment on the chats from Woodward’s lawyer, Edward Munoz, but did not get a response.
On Jan. 26, ProPublica published a story revealing Woodward’s belief in Nazism and exposing his involvement with Atomwaffen.
While the article attracted the attention of Atomwaffen members, who promptly posted it to their online chats, no one in the group expressed any sympathy for Bernstein, the young man Woodward allegedly murdered. They made jokes about his slaying and used slurs to describe him. If there was worry, it was about Woodward possibly having to do time behind bars for the murder.
“Sam did something stupid,” wrote one member. “Not that the faggot kike didn’t deserve to die. Just simply not worth a life in prison for.”
Sean Michael Fernandez, an Atomwaffen leader in Texas, even saw an upside for the group. Fernandez, who used the alias Wehrwolf, believed that Atomwaffen actually stood to benefit from the increased notoriety stemming from Woodward’s affiliation with the neo-Nazi group and the Bernstein murder.
“We’re only going to inspire more ‘copycat crimes’ in the name of AWD. All we have to do is spread our image and our propaganda,” Fernandez wrote on Jan. 30.
He continued: “The growing fear is what we set out to do and it’s working EXACTLY how I wanted it to since we took over ‘leadership.’ I couldn't have planned this better, seriously.”
For his part, Denton, the national Atomwaffen leader, felt betrayed. ProPublica had interviewed a former member for the story; still, Denton believed that someone currently within the ranks was sharing information with the media. “Looks like AWD needs another purging,” he wrote.
Members began speculating about who was talking to outsiders. Was it a current member? Was it someone they’d kicked out recently?
Members also directed their rage toward the media. As they saw it, Woodward was the one being victimized. Now that his involvement with Atomwaffen had spilled out into the public sphere, Orange County prosecutors might hit him with hate crimes charges — charges that could potentially add years to a prison sentence.
“We really owe those jews at ProPublica,” wrote one member.
Woodward posted many hundreds of messages to the Atomwaffen chats. But on Jan. 5, he typed out a few lines that are quite distinct from all the rest. In them, the raging young man suddenly became highly sentimental. Two days earlier, according to prosecutors, he had buried Bernstein’s lifeless body in a park in Lake Forest, California.
Now Woodward explained that he was reflecting on mortality.
“hey everyone,” he wrote. “i just wanted to let you all know i love you so much.”
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This post includes reporting from:
Ali Winston is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund. Follow him on Twitter @awinston.
Jake Hanrahan is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in the United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @jake_hanrahan.