The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College student who hosted racist online ‘swatting’ group is sentenced to 33 months

The FBI’s Raymond Duda speaks at a February 2020 news conference in Seattle about charges against a group of alleged members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division.
The FBI’s Raymond Duda speaks at a February 2020 news conference in Seattle about charges against a group of alleged members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

One day in late 2018, John William Kirby Kelley didn’t feel like going to class. So he turned to the friends he had made online, suggesting they call in a fake threat to his school, Old Dominion University.

The people who gathered in the online chat room, which Kelley hosted, regularly engaged in “swatting,” or calling police with invented crises that would require a special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, team, prosecutors said. The friends also routinely derided Black and Jewish people and targeted minorities; one was the leader of a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division.

Kelley and the group leader, John Cameron Denton, were ultimately arrested along with four other Atomwaffen associates.

“I am really sorry,” Kelley, now 20, said in Alexandria federal court Monday before being sentenced to 33 months in prison. “I hope to return to the community as a better man.”

Some victims were chosen simply because they were streaming their own online activities live, giving the swatters a chance to watch law enforcement respond in real time. But Denton repeatedly harassed a ProPublica journalist who had reported on him and other neo-Nazi leaders. The group also called in threats against two Black churches, a mosque, a Black newspaper columnist and Trump administration official Kirstjen Nielsen.

In a statement, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh said “swatting attacks are serious crimes” that will be prosecuted, “especially when those threats are motivated by racial or religious animus, which are intolerable and have no place in our society.”

Judge Liam O’Grady underscored the “great trauma” caused not just to the victims but to police who believed they were responding to potentially deadly situations.

“There was clear racial animus here,” he said. But O’Grady said Kelley, after a “really unfortunate” upbringing, was “working at being a better person and living a better life.” With his computer skills, the judge told Kelley, your “future is very promising.”

Along with using racist slurs, Kelley expressed a desire to put up posters in the area in Northern Virginia where George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party, was shot and killed in 1967, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina Cuellar noted in a filing.

Kelley met Denton in a white-supremacist chat room and drove to West Virginia to meet another virulently racist associate, Cuellar said. The latter co-conspirator was not charged because of his age, according to court filings; two others are not in the United States.

The other four people arrested were charged in federal court in Seattle, where they were accused of conspiring to threaten journalists. Two have pleaded guilty; two are awaiting trial.

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On Monday, Kelley said that the words he used online “do not represent my values and my beliefs” and that he was “personally disgusted” by the “bad influences” he befriended.

Public defender Cadence Mertz told the judge that Kelley had mental deficits that made it difficult for him to connect his actions with their consequences, exacerbated by a lack of family support. He did not ask to be released after his arrest because he had nowhere to go, she said.

While his “online activities took a dark turn,” she said in court filings, and he “adopted” the language of white supremacists, he “does not harbor hateful beliefs in real life.” His use of hate speech, she said, was not rooted in sincere belief but was “a function of his isolation and misguided efforts to fit into this social group.”

Kelley, she said, did not personally choose any targets based on race. While Denton called himself “Rape,” “Tormentor” and “Death,” she noted, Kelley’s online alias was “Carl.” (According to court records, he also went by “BotGod.”)

Denton is set to be sentenced April 13.

During his 14 months in jail, Mertz said, Kelley has been reading about racism, understands the harm he caused and “is hopeful that one day his association with a fringe white supremacist group will not be the first thing people see when they Google his name.”

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