A man wielding a tiki torch with neo-Nazis and white supremacists in a photo that became one of the most haunting images of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 killed himself on the same day that his trial for a federal drug trafficking charge was set to begin.
Von Nukem’s image went viral after he was photographed wearing a black shirt, carrying a tiki torch and yelling racist chants at the front of a far-right group that gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues. Photos of Von Nukem, who was accused of participating in the beating of counterprotester DeAndre Harris, were taken the day before 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and dozens of other counterprotesters were injured on Aug. 12, 2017.
A coroner’s report obtained by The Washington Post shows that Von Nukem shot himself behind the hay shed at his home and that “suicide notes were found at the scene, left for law enforcement and his children, however handwriting was somewhat inconsistent.” Marie Lasater, the coroner in Texas County, Mo., confirmed Von Nukem’s cause of death to The Washington Post.
The news was first reported by Molly Conger, an independent journalist and researcher in Charlottesville, in a viral Twitter thread on Tuesday.
“Today, I can tell you he is dead,” Conger wrote in a tweet that had been viewed about 10 million times as of early Wednesday.
you probably remember this photograph. it's one of the more iconic of the awful images of the nazi torch march at UVA on august 11, 2017.— molly conger (@socialistdogmom) February 14, 2023
on august 12, the man in the center was elated to see himself on the cover of papers across the county.
today, i can tell you he is dead. pic.twitter.com/ti5c1c0LT0
Arizona public defenders Leo Costales and Jordan Malkin, who were listed as Von Nukem’s attorneys, did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Wednesday. Candace Von Nukem, Teddy’s wife since 2013, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
His obituary, which has since been taken offline by the funeral home, says that Von Nukem “left what [he] always referred to as his ‘meat suit’” in Hartshorn, Mo., last month.
“Some people knew Ted and understood he was a different type of fellow and had different views of things, but he would give the shirt off his back if you asked or needed it,” the obituary says.
Von Nukem’s death comes weeks after a federal judge cut by millions of dollars the damages that some of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists and hate groups owe for their role in the Unite the Right rally.
Judge Norman K. Moon ordered in late December that the $24 million awarded in punitive damages be reduced to $350,000, the limit imposed by a 1988 Virginia law. Moon also affirmed the jury-ordered compensatory damages of more than $2 million, bringing the total awarded damages to $2.35 million — a fraction of the $26 million a jury ordered in November 2021.
The lawsuit was brought by a group of nine people who alleged physical harm and emotional distress during the weekend of the deadly rally.
After a former classmate outed Von Nukem as the man in a photo next to screaming demonstrator Peter Cvjetanovic, Von Nukem told the Springfield News-Leader that while he supported President Donald Trump, he was not associated with any of the far-right groups that had organized the Charlottesville rally. Von Nukem — who was born as Ted Landrum and changed his name in honor of Duke Nukem, the video game character — claimed that the Unite the Right event “was not a racist rally,” but instead “a rally to save our history.”
“I don’t mind showing solidarity with them,” Von Nukem told the newspaper days after the rally, adding how he believed White people faced disadvantages in modern culture. “If we don’t play, we will be the field trampled by the players. You have to pick your side. You have to throw your support behind the army that is fighting for you.”
While Von Nukem faced no charges related to the United the Right rally, he’s been accused of taking part in the assault of Harris, who was seen on video being pummeled in a Charlottesville parking garage by six men linked to militia or white supremacist groups. Research from Conger and videos and images from photojournalist Zach D. Roberts show that Von Nukem was among the men at the scene. In text messages provided as evidence during the lawsuit against a group of white supremacists for their role in Charlottesville, Von Nukem bragged about beating Harris.
“I’m the guy that cracked [Harris] in the face with the baton,” he texted others on Aug. 13, 2017, according to court records. He added, “It was bloody business in the garage.”
Von Nukem kept a low profile until March 17, 2021, when his vehicle was stopped trying to cross into the Mexican port entry of Lukeville, Ariz., according to court records. Von Nukem, who later told authorities that he had been living in Mexico with his family for a few months, was arrested after officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection found 14 packages of fentanyl pills stored in his Nissan Pathfinder, records say. Von Nukem told federal agents that he was paid 4,000 Mexican pesos, or about $214, by a man he only knew as “Victor” to smuggle the packages, but denied knowing they contained fentanyl.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 30, Costales, one of Von Nukem’s public defenders, told the judge that his client was not present and he had been unable to contact him, according to court records. About an hour later, Costales told the judge he “received information from the defendant’s wife regarding an emergency situation.” The court then ordered a warrant for Von Nukem’s arrest.
Roughly 1,350 miles away, Von Nukem’s wife hadn’t seen her husband since the previous evening when he went to load the furnace. When she noticed he wasn’t in the house on the snowy morning of Jan. 30, she went to look for him, realizing it was his court date, records show.
“[She] found him in the hay shed with an obvious gunshot wound and called 911,” the coroner’s report says.
EMS personnel arrived and administered CPR to the man, who showed “a faint pulse,” but they were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead, according to the coroner. Lasater checked with the Justice Department to confirm the man’s identity, the report says.
Von Nukem is survived by his wife and five children, whose ages are between 6 months old and 8 years, according to his obituary.
Years before his death, Von Nukem said to the News-Leader that he was considering running for Congress “to enact the Trump agenda,” arguing that White people had helped develop other parts of the world.
“Were there dark times along that road? Sure,” he said in 2017. “But does that mean we need to go extinct? Absolutely not.”
Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.