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After renouncing white supremacist ideology, Virginia man sentenced to year in prison

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd of hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right during the “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A man who prosecutors say served as a Virginia leader in a white supremacist group renounced his beliefs Friday before being sentenced to a year and a day in prison on firearms charges.

Andrew Thomasberg, 21, was convicted in Alexandria federal court as part of a national crackdown on the Atomwaffen Division, a small but violently oriented neo-Nazi cohort that was founded in an online extremist forum.

“It’s been a humbling experience,” Thomasberg said in court. “My life will not resume in the same way.”

Judge Liam O’Grady also put the McLean man on supervised release for three years.

“If you study our history, you’ll realize that for 200 years we have been a collection of people coming from all over the world, and that’s what makes us the greatest country in the world,” he said. “Open your eyes.”

Thomasberg pleaded guilty last year to lying while buying a firearm and possessing firearms as a drug user. But he came to the attention of law enforcement because of his extremist views. He attended the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as a member of the neo-Nazi Vanguard America, then became a leader and recruiter in Atomwaffen, prosecutors say, where he urged violence in hopes of starting a race war. He referred to mass murderers as “saints” and claimed he had begun shouting racial slurs at black people in public in hopes of confrontation, according to court documents.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” prosecutor Anthony Mariano told the judge, quoting poet Maya Angelou. “This is a defendant who has shown a willingness to engage in acts of violence.”

Thomasberg’s defense attorney Gretchen Taylor responded that her client was “susceptible to radicalization” because “he has never felt like he fit in.”

But, she said, it’s not what he truly believes. “He’s reshaped his world view,” she said. “He’s lived a pretty sheltered life. . . . It’s part of growing up.”

He suffers from chronic Lyme disease and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the suicides of several friends, she said: “He was looking for solutions.”

When he was arrested, according to court records, Thomasberg had more than a dozen firearms and more than 50 magazines in his home, mostly loaded. He kept loaded guns in his bedroom and one in the glove box of his car, according to court documents, and he bought a gun for over $1,000 and sold it to a friend for $14.88 — a number symbolic for white supremacists.

“He was not keeping them for a racial holy war,” Taylor argued in court. “He’s had a keen interest in firearms since probably age 9 or 10.”

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Thomasberg has a juvenile record for firing a gun at a moving vehicle in 2013 during a botched drug deal when he was 14, attorneys said in court.

The friend who bought the illegal gun, Brian Baynes, moved away from white supremacy on his own, his public defender said in court last year. He was sentenced to 30 days intermittent confinement.

Prosecutors said that Thomasberg showed no such repentance until Friday.

The day before his arrest, according to prosecutors, Thomasberg submitted an application to join another white supremacist group called Patriot Front. When interviewed by law enforcement, according to court documents, he stood by his racist beliefs and praised Dylann Roof, who murdered nine parishioners in a black church in South Carolina five years ago.

“What he did, that took balls,” Thomasberg told the agents, according to the documents.

In text messages obtained by investigators, he told friends he had begun heckling black people in public and was ready “in an instant” to begin killing them.

When asked by agents about racist terms he used for African Americans, prosecutors say Thomasberg replied, “A leopard can’t change its stripes, or its spots. Science is science.”

Taylor said that Patriot Front does not “espouse violence per se” and that Thomasberg “didn’t do anything illegal in Charlottesville.”

Five men described as Atomwaffen leaders or members were arrested earlier this week across the country. There are no laws against supporting white supremacist groups, so federal authorities have been creative in their crackdown on right-wing extremists. Thomasberg and an associate in Virginia were both prosecuted for buying guns as drug users. Two others are accused in Alexandria of conspiring to make interstate threats, as are four men in Seattle federal court.

But these charges carry far lower guidelines and maximum penalties than apply in terrorism-related cases.

Taylor quoted the judge who sentenced an associate of Thomasberg’s in D.C. federal court, saying that in America “we don’t punish people for having hate in their hearts.”

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