The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suspects in five killings reportedly linked to macabre neo-Nazi group

Sam Woodward made his first court appearance Jan. 17, after he was charged with killing former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein in Orange County, Calif. (Video: Reuters)

Earlier this month, when the body of California college student Blaze Bernstein was pulled from the loose dirt of a public park in the Orange County foothills, questions swirled about a motive. He was stabbed 20 times.

The 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore was gay and Jewish, and local law enforcement announced they were investigating whether Bernstein’s death was a hate crime. The arrest of Samuel Woodward, a 20-year-old former high school classmate of Bernstein’s, only intensified the speculation.

On Friday, ProPublica published a piece linking Woodward to Atomwaffen Division, a relatively new Charles Manson-obsessed neo-Nazi outfit that defines itself as a “revolutionary national socialist organization centered around political activism and the practice of an autonomous fascist lifestyle.”

Quoting three sources with knowledge of Woodward’s recent past, the investigative news site reported Woodward joined the hate group in 2016 and attended a three-day training camp with other members in Texas. Pictures from the event captured Atomwaffen Division members in skull masks, making Nazi salutes. The website reported that the training included lessons in firearms and hand-to-hand combat, preparation for the group’s “ultimate aim of overthrowing the U.S. government through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Atomwaffen — German for “atomic weapon” — cells have been “reported in multiple states, including Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin.” The group’s “vile propaganda often promotes violence against minority communities, including LGBT people, Jews, Muslims, and African Americans.”

And although experts say there may be only 80 members in the organization nationwide, Bernstein’s death is the third high-profile killing connected to Atomwaffen in the past year.

Woodward is scheduled to be arraigned Friday. He has not yet entered a plea, and his attorney has not commented on the ProPublica report.

The Atomwaffen Division makes clear on its website that the organization disavows “keyboard warriorism” in favor of real-world activity.

“Joining us means serious dedication not only to the Atomwaffen Division and its members, but to the goal of ultimate uncompromising victory. With this means only those willing to get out on the streets, in the woods, or where we maybe in the world and work together in the physical realm,” the website says. “We often go hunting, adventuring, and a group favorite is urban exploring.”

A video on what appears to be a YouTube channel affiliated with the group captures footage from a “Doomsday Hatecamp,” including images of members burning the U.S. Constitution, hiking the woods and pouring drinks out “for the martyrs now and the martyrs yet to come.”

“Atomwaffen members have a macabre fascination with serial killer Charles Manson and his vision of a race war between whites and blacks,” the Anti-Defamation League reported. “For this reason, in 2017 . . . Atomwaffen members sought out neo-Nazi Manson devotee and former American Nazi Party member, James Mason, and republished some of his writing, including Siege, a book based on a collection of newsletters Mason wrote in the 1980s.”

The group first surfaced in the mainstream in May 2017 when police in Tampa arrested 18-year-old Devon Arthurs in the killing of two of his roommates, 22-year-old Jeremy Himmelman and 18-year-old Andrew Oneschuk.

As The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang reported, Arthurs later told police “all of them had been friends with a common neo-Nazi belief.” Arthurs, however, converted to Islam and killed his roommates, later telling Tampa police Himmelman and Oneschuk were planning terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a South Florida nuclear power plant. ProPublica reported all three were affiliated with Atomwaffen Division.

A fourth roommate, Brandon Russell, was also arrested. According to a federal criminal complaint, Arthurs told law enforcement Russell had “threatened to kill people and bomb infrastructure.” A search turned up an explosive substance in a cooler at the property. Russell admitted he had manufactured the explosive substance, and also told police he was a neo-Nazi who belonged to the “Atom Waffen.”

The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan examines how media organizations can effectively cover hate groups without promoting their ideas. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

The Tampa Bay Times reported that Lyssa Himmelman, the sister of one of the dead roommates, dismissed claims the four men were neo-Nazis as “lies.” She described her brother as “a wonderful guy with a good heart.”

Russell pleaded guilty to illegal possession of explosives. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Despite confessing to the killings at first, Arthurs had pleaded not guilty. ProPublica reported that he is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he is fit for trial.

An Atomwaffen connection has also been reported in the bizarre murder of Scott Fricker, 48, and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, 43, in their Reston, Va., home in December.

As The Washington Post reported in January, the couple had been pushing their teenage daughter to break up with her 17-year-old boyfriend after discovering his Nazi beliefs on social media. Police say the boyfriend then killed the parents and turned the gun on himself. He survived but remains in critical condition.

Two months before the shooting, the teenager allegedly mowed a 40-foot swastika into a community field’s grass. He has been charged as a juvenile with two counts of murder.

HuffPost tracked down the suspect’s Twitter account, where he shared Atomwaffen Division posts, including material on James Mason’s reprinted “Siege” book.

More from Morning Mix:

Nazi past followed Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad to his death

Omarosa Manigault Newman: From the White House to the ‘Big Brother’ house