About 90 minutes after Richard Spencer’s speech Thursday at the University of Florida — which generated so much controversy that the governor declared a state of emergency days before the event — a silver Jeep pulled up to six to eight protesters near a bus stop and confronted them, according to Gainesville Police Department spokesman Sgt. Ben Tobias.
The men, whom police identified as white nationalists, threatened the group, making Nazi salutes and shouting chants about Hitler, police said.
One of the people in the group, who were in their 20s and heading home after protesting, hit the Jeep with a baton.
Tyler Tenbrink, 28, of Richmond, Tex., jumped out with a gun, authorities said. According to the Alachua County sheriff’s arrest report, Colton Fears, 28, and William Fears, 30, of Pasadena, Tex., encouraged Tenbrink to shoot, yelling, “I’m going to f—— kill you,” “Kill them” and “Shoot them.”
Tenbrink fired a single shot that missed the people, police said, and hit a nearby building.
“Once the altercation began, it started ramping up very quickly until the gunshot,” Tobias said.
Wesley Durrance, a 2016 graduate of the University of Florida, had just said goodbye to his friends — who were sitting at the bus stop with their signs from the protest — when he heard a loud pop. “Clearly a gunshot,” he said.
He turned around and saw chaos. “Some people were running, one of my friends was still sitting there, my friend who was shot at was standing there,” Durrance said. “Everybody was freaking out, but he was pretty calm, considering. I mean, they had just tried to kill him.”
The men then fled in the Jeep, but one of the people who had been targeted got the license plate number and reported it to police. An off-duty sheriff’s deputy who had worked at the Spencer event found the Jeep.
Gainesville police confirmed Friday that the arrests were related to the event.
Tobias said all three admitted to having been involved in the shooting when they were stopped by police on Interstate 75 about 15 miles north of Gainesville. Tenbrink admitted he was the shooter, according to the Alachua County sheriff’s arrest report.
Spencer’s speech was repeatedly disrupted by people shouting at him, but the protests outside remained largely peaceful, despite tensions between his supporters and more than 2,500 counterprotesters.
“I hesitate to make a comment on an incident that just happened,” Spencer said Friday evening. “If it actually happened as it is described in the news, then it is an absolutely terrible incident and it can’t be defended. But I think we should all remember that it is a developing story.”
He urged supporters to avoid violence.
“There are time when one can rightfully defend oneself, but these kinds of confrontations should be avoided. The eyes of the world are upon us, and we need to behave in the way that is of the highest standards,” Spencer said.
Tenbrink told The Washington Post on Thursday that he came from Houston to hear the speech. “I came here to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, the radical left threatened my family and children because I was seen and photographed in Charlottesville,” Tenbrink said, referring to the “Unite the Right” rally in August that ended in violence.
“The man’s got the brass to say what nobody else will,” Tenbrink said, referring to Spencer.
Tenbrink said from inside the event venue that all he cares about are the 14 words, a reference to a white-supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
“That doesn’t mean I hate all black people I see,” Tenbrink said.
“And homosexuals, if they want to be homosexual, keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to see that s—,” he said.
The Gainesville Sun reported that William Fears had told the paper Thursday that he believed James Fields, the man accused of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, killing one woman and injuring others, wasn’t unjustified.
William Fears told The Washington Post in August that he came to Charlottesville equipped for violence — and found it. He threw and took punches.
“It was like a war . . . it was an eerie feeling,” Fears said after he had gone home to Texas and his job as a construction worker. “Things are life and death now, and if you’re involved in this movement, you have to be willing to die for it now.”
“If I’m killed, that’s fine,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be a martyr or something, or remembered.”
At least two of the three who were arrested in Gainesville have demonstrated connections to extremist groups, police said.
All three men have attended white supremacist events, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and all three were at the torchlight march and the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
Spencer’s speech was his first on a university campus since he led a torchlight march through the University of Virginia in August, with followers chanting, “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” That was the beginning of a weekend of clashes between white nationalists and white supremacists on one side and counterprotesters on the other that turned fatal in Charlottesville the next day.
After that violence, University of Florida officials denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus — as did several other public universities — “amid serious concerns for safety.”
Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute, was not invited by the university or a student group. University of Florida leaders have repeatedly rejected his message as hateful. But under threat of a lawsuit, university officials acknowledged Spencer’s First Amendment right to speak at a campus venue they rent out, and began planning extensive security.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency in the days before the speech. More than 1,000 law-enforcement officers converged on campus, and the public university expects its total costs for security measures to exceed $600,000.
Tenbrink, Colton Fears and William Fears were charged with attempted homicide and were in the Alachua County Jail on Friday. Tenbrink faces additional charges for possession of a firearm by a felon.
Joe Heim, Jennifer Jenkins, Alice Crites, and Terrence McCoy contributed to this report.