CHARLOTTESVILLE — A Maryland man who has identified himself as a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard was found guilty Tuesday for illegally firing a weapon during last year’s volatile “Unite the Right” rally in the city’s downtown.
Richard W. Preston Jr., 53, had planned on going to trial on the gamble that he could possibly persuade a jury that he had acted in defense of himself or others — an argument he made at earlier stages of his case.
But on Tuesday, Preston abandoned that strategy and pleaded no contest to the charge of firing a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school property. After entering his plea, prosecutors laid out the case they would have presented at trial. Immediately afterward, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore found Preston guilty.
Preston’s no-contest plea acknowledges that there is enough evidence to convict him without admitting that he committed the crime.
He is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday and faces up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. His attorney, Elmer Woodard, is expected to lobby the judge for a reduced punishment.
Like other violent incidents during the rally, Preston’s act was caught on video that went viral. Clad in a bandanna and tactical vest, Preston was walking through a crowd during the Aug. 12 event when he turned around, drew his pistol and fired at an African American counterprotester. Corey A. Long was wielding an aerosol can shooting out large flames when Preston fired at him. Long, 24, also faces charges, including misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct. He is scheduled for a June court hearing.
Preston had argued at an October court proceeding that he drew his weapon when one man seemed to be on the verge of throwing a newspaper box at him and another looked like he was going to attack him with a large nail-laden stick, according to the Daily Progress newspaper. He said he fired because one of his friends felt threatened after Long turned his aerosol can into a makeshift flamethrower.
On Tuesday, Joseph D. Platania, the Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney, told the judge that a witness saw Preston point his gun toward the ground beside Long at a 45-degree angle and then heard a gunshot. The witness, Platania told the court, would have testified at trial that the flames from Long’s aerosol can were not close to anyone.
Platania also said prosecutors did not believe anything about the incident would “justify the discharge of a firearm in self-defense.”
Preston did not testify at Tuesday’s hearing. He declined to comment to the news media when he left the courthouse.
Preston’s case is one of several violent episodes stemming from last summer’s rally, including the death of Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal who allegedly was run over by James A. Fields Jr., a self-professed neo-Nazi. Fields has been charged with first-degree murder and is scheduled for trial in November.
Four other men also were arrested for taking part in the brutal beating of DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old African American counterprotester, inside a parking garage near police headquarters. Like Preston’s gunfire and the car crash that killed Heyer, the Harris beating was caught on video.
Two of Harris’s attackers were convicted of malicious wounding last week. A jury recommended 10 years in prison for Jacob Scott Goodwin, 23, a white nationalist from Arkansas, and six for Alex Michael Ramos, 34, a former militiaman tied to a group called the Georgia Security Force Three Percent. Moore is scheduled to set each man’s sentence in August.
In interviews with reporters, Preston identified himself as the imperial wizard of the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in northern Maryland, and said he attended the rally to protest the removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. Public records indicate that Preston lives in Bel Air, about 20 miles north of Baltimore.
“We didn’t go as the Klan. We didn’t go there to create havoc and a fight,” he told a news station in Indiana. “We went there to protect a monument.”
He told the Baltimore Sun, “We came there to try to keep the peace.”
But shortly after the rally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia obtained video of Preston shooting his weapon at Long and passed it to authorities. About two weeks later, he was arrested.