A former leader in a violent neo-Nazi group was sentenced Tuesday to 41 months in prison for harassing journalists who reported on his activities and others.

John Cameron Denton, 27, was the Texas leader of the Atomwaffen Division when he took part in what Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina Cuellar called “the most widespread swatting conspiracy in the country” known to federal law enforcement. Swatting is the practice of making fake bomb and hostage threats to provoke an overwhelming law enforcement response.

“The fear and anxiety you created in all these victims . . . will remain in their memory for far too long,” U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady said in federal court in Alexandria. “All for you and this group to get your jollies off? It’s incomprehensible.”

Atomwaffen, which calls for acts of random violence in hopes of starting a race war, was founded in 2015 on the neo-Nazi website Iron March and has been linked to several killings. One founder is now facing trial in Florida where he is accused of murdering his two roommates; the other is in prison for possession of explosives. While much of its activity occurred online, members also met for “hate camps” and traveled abroad to meet like-minded extremists in Europe.

After the murder charges, authorities said, Denton and four others in 2018 began using “swatting” to target journalists who had reported on Atomwaffen as well as politicians and Black and Muslim worshipers.

Federal investigators got involved after the group falsely claimed a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, was being held hostage. They were exposed when one member, a college student, called in a fake bomb threat at his Virginia university. The former student is now serving a three-year sentence.

Co-conspirators who chose targets based on racial animus are in Canada and the United Kingdom, according to law enforcement.

They “are the most culpable,” O’Grady said, and “they certainly should be here.”

Denton focused his ire on a reporter at ProPublica who had exposed him as Atomwaffen’s leader. The reporter’s personal information was put online and for six months he was harassed and hacked. The conspirators called in a fake hostage situation at the news organization’s New York office, forcing staff to evacuate. They also targeted the journalist’s California home, where the reporter and his wife were handcuffed and separated from their 9-year-old son in the middle of the night.

Cuellar said the son now asks “why neo-Nazis hate brown people like me.”

Experts say Atomwaffen was crippled by the prosecutions in recent years; the group officially disbanded in 2020 and then re-created itself as the National Socialist Order. Only one Atomwaffen member arrested last year is still fighting the swatting charges — Kaleb Cole, Denton’s former roommate and the group’s co-leader, according to prosecutors. Others have disavowed the neo-Nazi philosophy, as have two Atomwaffen members prosecuted in Virginia on weapons charges.

Two convicted in Washington state apologized for their actions, saying they were drawn to Atomwaffen because of isolated, difficult childhoods.

"Atomwaffen certainly wants to act more tough than they are; it's just ridiculous, it's almost laughable what they were trying to do," Johnny Garza, 21, said in an interview with King5's Chris Ingalls, one of the group's targets, before he began serving his 16-month sentence.

Ingalls pushed back, saying he, his wife and children had to go into hiding because of the threats. “There’s nothing laughable about that,” he said.

Another Washington Attomwaffen member convicted in the swatting, Taylor Ashley Parker-Dipeppe, 21, said through his attorney that he found Atomwaffen online after a “horrific childhood” during which he was bullied for coming out as transgender.

He was released after a year in jail.

“At least one of these men were very forthcoming,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office helped detain Cole as a threat. “My hope is we’re learning more about how to combat these guys.”

Denton struggled socially as well, his attorney Andrew Stewart said in court. He found Atomwaffen online in 2016, according to court records, and became an intense advocate for the work of a once-obscure neo-Nazi named James Mason.

Denton on Tuesday apologized for the swatting and said he did “not plan on going back to any groups like Atomwaffen.” But Stewart acknowledged that his client “retains a portion of the ideology,” adding that Denton is engaged in therapeutic interventions to move out of racist extremism.

O’Grady said he hoped Denton would learn “we are all created equal and we should all be treated equal.”

While Atomwaffen’s leaders and high-profile adherents may be behind bars, experts say the group succeeded in elevating Mason and support for a war against non-White people.

“They really were the forerunners in helping breathe life into this ideology that will remain and that won’t disappear,” said Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Center on Extremism for the Anti-Defamation League.

Atomwaffen’s influence is also seen in the rise of the Order of Nine Angles, a British movement that combines neo-Nazi and satanic beliefs.

Last month, when Atomwaffen and the National Socialist Order were banned in the United Kingdom, the anti-extremist group Hope not Hate responded in a statement that while Atomwaffen was “past its peak,” support for the Order of Nine Angles was rising.

A former U.S. soldier accused of plotting an attack last summer on his fellow service members overseas did so with O9A supporters in an online chat called “Rapewaffen,” an Atomwaffen offshoot, according to court records. That case is pending.

“The Ku Klux Klan was decimated in the 1970s by the FBI, but it didn’t make the ideology go away,” said Tom O’Connor, a former FBI special agent who worked in domestic terrorism. “Now neo-Nazis are ascendant.”

Crackdowns by law enforcement and by tech companies have pushed them off mainstream platforms, but that also makes their activities harder to track, Mendelson said.

“With the greater spotlight on their activities, the repercussions of that is that they are operating less in the open and more in these clandestine spaces,” she said.

Even at its peak, Atomwaffen only had between a few dozen and 100 adherents across the country. Mendelson and other experts say what made the group dangerous was the extreme violence it encouraged.

Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at American University, said what concerns her is the way fringe groups like Atomwaffen are being embraced by the broader far-right. Neo-Nazis marched with militias and other groups at protests, she said, and they all came together during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Racist symbols were displayed throughout the crowd during the Capitol riot, and the Anti-Defamation League has identified 12 of those arrested as white supremacists.

“There used to be a distinction between those who were anti-government and those who were neo-Nazis, but it’s a broad tent right now,” Cronin said. “They’re united under a kind of broad fascist front.”