How an OC Murder Is Connected to a Shadowy Nationwide Neo-Nazi Group With Troubling Ties to the U.S. Military

Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

Produced by journalists with ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news operation, and Frontline, the PBS documentary series, this report focuses on Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group with a direct link to Orange County. County prosecutors have charged Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward, 20, with the January murder of Blaze Bernstein, 19, a gay Jewish college student whose body was buried in Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. Both men attended Santa Ana’s Orange County School of the Arts.

The 18-year-old, excited by his handiwork at the bloody rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, quickly went online to boast. He used the handle VasillistheGreek.

“Today cracked 3 skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” the young man wrote on Aug. 12, 2017.

Vasillios Pistolis had come to the now-infamous Unite the Right rally eager for such violence. He belonged to a white supremacist group known as Atomwaffen Division, a secretive neo-Nazi organization whose members say they are preparing for a coming race war in the U.S. In online chats leading up to the rally, Pistolis had been encouraged to be vicious with any counterprotesters, maybe even sodomize someone with a knife. He’d responded by saying he was prepared to kill someone “if shit goes down.”

One of Pistolis’ victims that weekend was Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and trans woman from Charlottesville who had shown up to confront the rally’s hundreds of white supremacists. In an online post, Pistolis delighted in how he had “drop kicked” that “tranny” during a violent nighttime march on the campus of the University of Virginia. He also wrote about a blood-soaked flag he’d kept as a memento. “Not my blood,” he took care to note.

At the end of the weekend that shocked much of the country, Pistolis returned to his everyday life: serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Of the many white supremacist organizations that have sprung up in the past few years, Atomwaffen is among the more extreme, espousing the overthrow of the U.S. government through acts of political violence and guerrilla warfare.

Journalists with ProPublica and Frontline gained insight into Atomwaffen’s ideology, aims and membership after obtaining seven months of messages from a confidential chat room used by the group’s members. The chat logs, as well as interviews with a former member, reveal Atomwaffen has attracted a mixture of young men—fans of fringe heavy-metal music, a private investigator, firearms aficionados—living in more than 20 states.

But a number of them are current or former members of the U.S. military. ProPublica and Frontline have identified three Atomwaffen members or associates who are currently employed by the Army or Navy. Another three served in the armed forces in the past. Pistolis, who remains an active-duty Marine, left Atomwaffen in a dispute in late 2017 and joined up with another white supremacist group. Reporters made the identifications through dozens of interviews, a range of social media and other online posts, and a review of the 250,000 confidential messages obtained earlier this year.

Joshua Beckett, who trained Atomwaffen members in firearms and hand-to-hand combat last fall, served in the Army from 2011 to 2015, according to service records. Online, Beckett, 26, has said that he worked as a combat engineer while in the Army; combat engineers are the branch’s demolitions experts.

In Atomwaffen chats, Beckett, using the handle Johann Donarsson, said he was building assault rifles and would happily construct weapons for his fellow members. “Give me the parts and the receiver, and I’ll get it all together for you,” Beckett wrote in August 2017.

Beckett also wrote about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of combat in Afghanistan, as well as how his time in uniform caused him to radically revise his political beliefs, prompting him to abandon mainstream conservatism in favor of National Socialism.

In online discussions, Beckett encouraged Atomwaffen members to enlist in the military, so as to become proficient in the use of weaponry, and then turn their expertise against the U.S. government, which he believed to be controlled by a secret cabal of Jews. “The Army itself woke me up to race, and the war woke me up to the Jews,” Beckett wrote, adding, “The U.S. military gives great training. . . . You learn how to fight—and survive.”

Woodward (right) with a fellow Atomwaffen member. Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

Another Atomwaffen member used the chats to talk about the combat he saw during the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan. “I was in the infantry in the Army in Afghanistan and did a lot of . . . shit,” the member wrote. He said the Army wanted him to become a chemical weapons specialist, but he chose to join the infantry. He spent his time, he wrote, blasting “lead into sand niggers.”

ProPublica and Frontline specifically identified Pistolis and Beckett through interviews with a former Atomwaffen member who knew them, the group’s internal records and the men’s digital footprints. In his online activities, Pistolis left many clues to his identity, including pictures of himself he uploaded to private white supremacist chat rooms and his public Facebook page. Beckett’s internet handles and Facebook content also helped us to confirm him as the man who had spent five years in the Army before joining Atomwaffen.

Reporters contacted Beckett via phone and Facebook messages but did not get a response. Beckett’s Facebook page features an image of Donald Trump driving a white convertible emblazoned with the number 1488, a white supremacist code, and a call for whites to jump in the car.

In a series of phone and email exchanges, Pistolis claimed he did not attend the Charlottesville rally and did not assault Gorcenski or anyone else. His online messages about Gorcenski, he said, were nothing more than jokes. He admitted to harboring “alt-right” or white supremacist beliefs, though he claimed he had “infiltrated” Atomwaffen on behalf of another extremist group and was never actually a member.

Pistolis, who indicated to reporters that he is stationed in North Carolina, pulled down his personal Twitter account shortly after being contacted by ProPublica and Frontline. He also took down his account on Gab, a discussion channel favored by white supremacists, many of whom have been banned from Twitter and other social-media platforms. His postings indicate that after leaving Atomwaffen last November—other members accused him of risking unwanted attention for the group by showing up with an Atomwaffen flag at a rally in Tennessee—he became an active participant in online forums involving the Traditionalist Workers Party, another neo-Nazi group.

Since May 2017, three people involved with Atomwaffen have been charged with five murders. Devon Arthurs, an early Atomwaffen recruit, is facing trial for allegedly murdering two other members of the group in Florida. A teenager in Virginia stands accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents, who had tried to keep their daughter away from him; the 17-year-old, who was in the process of joining Atomwaffen, is being tried as a juvenile. Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty in the slaying of Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish college student whose body was discovered in a Southern California park early this year. Authorities believe Woodward stabbed Bernstein more than 20 times.

Despite the mounting body count, it is unclear just how aggressive law enforcement—at the federal or local level—has been in investigating the group. None of the men charged in the homicides had a military background.

The FBI had no comment when asked about Atomwaffen.

One Atomwaffen member caught up in a high-profile criminal case has a quite direct link to the armed forces.

Atomwaffen’s founder, Brandon Russell, 22, was arrested last year after investigators discovered a cache of weapons, detonators and volatile chemical compounds in his home, including a cooler full of HMTD, a powerful explosive often used by bomb-makers, and ammonium nitrate, the substance used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City attack. Russell was also in possession of two radioactive isotopes, americium and thorium. In September 2017, he pleaded guilty to a single charge of unlawful possession of explosives and was later sentenced to five years in federal prison.

At the time of his arrest, Russell, 22, had been serving in the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion of Florida’s Army National Guard. A spokesman for the Marine Corps, Major Brian Block, said the corps would be looking into Pistolis and would likely open a formal probe into his activities last summer.

“There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” Block said in a written statement. “Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values.”

He added, “The guidance to Marines is clear: Participation in supremacist or extremist organizations or activities is a violation of Department of Defense and Marine Corps orders” and can lead to expulsion from the service.

Contacted by ProPublica and Frontline, Carla Gleason, a Department of Defense spokesperson and Air Force major, said the military relies on its commanders to identify problematic activities and respond judiciously. “What we’re doing is empowering commanders at every level to counsel service members on their conduct and take disciplinary action where appropriate.

“We do recognize the right to free speech and thought,” Gleason continued, adding that the Department of Defense insists that service members observe the military’s policies prohibiting discrimination and extremist behavior.

ProPublica and Frontline documented Pistolis’ role in Charlottesville through an analysis of photos and video footage from the rally, as well as his own online admissions, including a statement Pistolis posted to an Atomwaffen chat room saying he “kicked Emily gorcenski” during the march at the University of Virginia. ProPublica and Frontline contacted the University of Virginia Police Department to check the accuracy of the material involving Pistolis at the Unite the Right rally, and to see if there was an investigation underway. Sergeant Casey Acord reviewed the material and later said his agency would investigate Pistolis’ apparent role in the melee that occurred during the torch-lit march on school property.

Reporters also showed pictures, video and chat posts to Gorcenski, the activist attacked in Charlottsville. While she didn’t suffer any significant physical injuries that night, the experience, Gorcenski said, was profoundly traumatizing—and she has faced frequent harassment from fascists and white supremacists since the rally. She said she plans to move out of the country.

Gorcenski quickly identified Pistolis as the man who kicked her.

“He’s telling the truth in these logs about what happened,” she said.

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Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

As with many white supremacist groups, Atomwaffen initially coalesced in cyberspace—the founders and early members met one another through a fascist discussion forum called Iron March, which is now defunct. But in the past few years, the organization—it is estimated to have 80 to 100 members—has moved into the real world.

Atomwaffen has conducted weapons and other training exercises in at least four states, according to the chat logs and interviews. Current and former members of the military have found that their skills are highly valued by Atomwaffen and have assumed leadership roles within the group. Drawing on their battlefield experience, Marines and soldiers have helped to shape the group into a loose collection of armed cells, according to the chat logs and people with direct knowledge of the organization.

There has long been a worrisome, if not fully understood, nexus between the military and the white supremacist movement. Over the past half-century, many of the movement’s key leaders have come from the ranks of the military, including George Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party; Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam; and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler.

Pete Simi, co-author of the book American Swastika and an associate professor at Chapman University, said white supremacists often draw inspiration from the armed forces. “Extremist culture tends to be paramilitary—the Klan, for instance, is a clearly paramilitary organization, it was started by former military officers,” said Simi. “A lot of traditional neo-Nazi groups tend to emulate military structure. . . . Some skinhead groups do that as well.”

Organizations such as Atomwaffen, he said, “need military people who have explosives experience, firearms experience, combat fighting experience” that they can pass on to other members. But there’s also another factor, in Simi’s view. “I think there’s also a credibility aspect to it, in that it gives more credibility to the group to have people who served in the U.S. military. It brings a certain gravitas.”

Pistolis. Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

Last year, nearly 25 percent of active-duty service members surveyed by the Military Times said they’d encountered white nationalists within the ranks. The publication polled more than 1,000 service members.

The results are jarring in a number of ways, not least because each branch of the armed forces has regulations that bar service members from joining white supremacist organizations. Army policy, for example, forbids soldiers from participating in “extremist groups” that foster “racial, gender, or ethnic hatred or intolerance.” The Marine Corps has a similar regulation, Order 1900.16, which mandates swift penalties for Marines caught engaging in “extremist or supremacist activities.”

Air Force directives note that airmen who participate in racist organizations can face court martial for disobedience.

For Simi, a key question is whether the Department of Defense and various military branches are effectively enforcing these policies by screening volunteers as they enter the service and thoroughly investigating reports of extremist activity by service members. If the figures in the Military Times survey “are anywhere close to credible, then there’s clearly a problem that isn’t being addressed,” Simi said.

A former Marine who currently works for a government intelligence agency told ProPublica and Frontline that the military’s seriousness about combating white supremacists in its ranks can vary. “At the command level—and publicly—the military takes any extremism seriously,” the ex-Marine said. “There is a zero-tolerance policy regarding Nazis. We defeated them in World War II, and they have no business currently serving in the U.S. military.

“At the unit level, I believe there’s a willful ignorance,” the former Marine added. “‘If neo-Nazis aren’t allowed to enlist in the military, and if nobody I know is a neo-Nazi, there must not be any within my unit’ seems to be the standard. It’s difficult to take seriously that which you don’t believe exists.”

* * * * *

Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

Pistolis appears to have gotten involved in the neo-Nazi movement long before he joined the armed forces. In online conversations with members of Atomwaffen, Pistolis said he’d started hanging around with the National Socialist Movement “and other skinheads” when he was 16. He listed some of his favorite books: Mein Kampf was one; the autobiography of American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell was another. A third was The Turner Diaries, the notorious 1978 novel about race war in America that inspired McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

Pistolis said in the chats he was also a fan of Siege, a 563-page tome preaching the virtues of assassination, political terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the U.S. government that has become something of a bible for Atomwaffen members.

After joining Atomwaffen, Pistolis took on a leadership role in the summer of 2017, running the North Carolina cell and vetting new recruits to the group, according to the chat messages as well as a former member.

Before the Unite the Right rally, Pistolis—who is slim with dark, close-cropped hair and a distinctive widow’s peak—sketched out designs for two flags he wanted to bring to the event. One was yellow and black and featured a coiled snake poised to strike and the logo of the Golden Dawn, a Greek fascist party linked to murders and violence in that country. On the other flag, he blended the stars-and-bars of the Confederate battle flag with the Sonnenrad, a circular emblem used by the Nazis and adopted by the new generation of white supremacists.

Pistolis paid a company to manufacture the flags and shared a picture of them online in a private chat room for people attending the rally; the chat logs were obtained by Unicorn Riot, a leftist media collective.

Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS

Over a span of roughly two months, Pistolis posted at least 82 messages in the chat room, which was hosted by Discord, an online messaging service aimed at video gamers.

His views were quite clear: Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who is African-American, was a “monkey” in a fancy suit. He shared photos of Bellamy and Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, who is Jewish, captioned with the words, “Niggers, Jews . . . Bad News.”

In Charlottesville, Pistolis, wearing a black-and-white Adidas tracksuit, was among the hundreds of torch-bearing young men who marched onto the campus of the University of Virginia after sunset on Aug. 11 while chanting “blood and soil,” a slogan of the Third Reich, and performing straight-arm Nazi salutes. Photos and video from that night show Pistolis participating in the event.

The march ended at a monument to Thomas Jefferson, where the white supremacists were met by a small group of anti-fascist counterprotesters, many of them students, who had gathered at the foot of the statue. There was pushing and punching. Pistolis ran through the crowd and launched a flying kick at Gorcenski.

“He traveled here from out of state with the intent to do violence,” said Gorcenski. “His own statements match up perfectly to what’s happened.

“The military is supposed to protect American civilians and here we see that our soldiers are attacking American civilians—and celebrating it.”

The melee that night immediately intensified, as white supremacists bludgeoned the counterprotesters with lit torches and streams of pepper spray shot in all directions. Dozens of men attacked the anti-fascists.

Pistolis was front and center, according to his post. He told his fellow Atomwaffen members how to spot him in videos of the altercation that were popping up on YouTube. “If you see a guy in a tracksuit, that’s me,” Pistolis wrote.

Another Atomwaffen member reminded Pistolis that he could face a court martial if he were arrested for brawling. “So don’t get caught doing stupid shit,” wrote the Atomwaffen member, an Army soldier.

The day after the torch march, Pistolis was fighting again, this time in the streets surrounding Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. He was carrying one of the flags he’d had specially made for the rally and wearing a black baseball cap, combat boots and a T-shirt with the stylized skull logo of the Punisher, the comic-book vigilante.

At least two photos taken by a Getty Images photographer capture him smashing a counterprotester with the wooden flagpole.

Later, Pistolis shared a photo of the aftermath with his friends in Atomwaffen. The blue-and-red flag was splattered with blood. He said he’d “cracked a skull” and left “three motherfuckers bleeding.”

Another member asked if he could share the “bloody flag” picture on Atomwaffen’s Twitter account.

About a month after the rally, Pistolis got into an online conversation with an Atomwaffen member from Virginia. Unite the Right was “so much fun,” the Virginia man wrote.

Pistolis promptly uploaded two photos of himself from that weekend.

“I can confir[m],” he wrote.

Image courtesy ProPublica/Frontline PBS. Design by Richie Beckman

Since this story was initially published online on May 3, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has confirmed that it has opened a probe into Pistolis. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) urged Defense Secretary James Mattis to investigate Pistolis and his fellow neo-Nazis. Ellison also requested that the Department of Defense provide information to Congress about the military’s efforts to discipline white supremacists in its ranks and screen out racial extremists during the enlistment process. He asked the Pentagon to turn over the information by May 21.

Samuel Woodward is expected to return to court in mid-June for a preliminary hearing in the Bernstein murder case. Woodward has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder that carries a sentencing enhancement for using a deadly weapon, a knife. So far prosecutors have not sought to charge him under the hate crimes law.

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