Late last month, ProPublica reported that the California man accused of killing a gay and Jewish University of Pennsylvania student was an avowed neo-Nazi and a member of Atomwaffen Division, one of the country’s most notorious extremist groups.
The news about the murder suspect, Samuel Woodward, spread quickly throughout the U.S., and abroad. Woodward was accused of fatally stabbing 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein and burying his body in an Orange County park.
The report, it turns out, was also taken up in the secretive online chats conducted by members of Atomwaffen Division, a white supremacist group that celebrates both Hitler and Charles Manson.
“I love this,” one member wrote of the killing, according to copies of the online chats obtained by ProPublica. Another called Woodward a “one man gay Jew wrecking crew.”
More soon joined in.
“What I really want to know is who leaked that shit about Sam to the media,” a third member wrote.
At least one member wanted to punish the person who had revealed Woodward’s affiliation with Atomwaffen.
“Rats and traitors get the rope first.”
Encrypted chat logs obtained by ProPublica — some 250,000 messages spanning more than six months — offer a rare window into Atomwaffen Division that goes well beyond what has surfaced elsewhere about a group whose members have been implicated in a string of violent crimes. Like many white supremacist organizations, Atomwaffen Division uses Discord, an online chat service designed for video gamers, to engage in its confidential online discussions.
In a matter of months, people associated with the group, including Woodward, have been charged in five murders; another group member pleaded guilty to possession of explosives after authorities uncovered a possible plot to blow up a nuclear facility near Miami.
The group’s propaganda makes clear that Atomwaffen — the word means “nuclear weapons” in German — embraces Third Reich ideology and preaches hatred of minorities, gays and Jews. Atomwaffen produces YouTube videos showing members firing weapons and has filmed members burning the U.S. Constitution and setting fire to the American flag. But the organization, by and large, cloaks its operations in secrecy and bars members from speaking to the media.
The chat logs and other material obtained by ProPublica provide unusually extensive information about the group’s leaders, wider makeup, and potential targets, indicating:
The group may have as many as 20 cells around the country, small groups of indeterminate size in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Nevada and elsewhere. Members armed with assault rifles and other guns have taken part in weapons training in various locations over the last two years, including last month in the Nevada desert near Death Valley.
Members have discussed using explosives to cripple public water systems and destroy parts of the electrical power grid. One member even claimed to have obtained classified maps of the power grid in California. Throughout the chats, Atomwaffen members laud Timothy McVeigh, the former soldier who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168, including numerous children. Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who massacred 77 people, also come in for praise.
Woodward posted several messages in the days after Bernstein’s murder, but before he was arrested and charged. In one thread, he told his fellow Atomwaffen members that he was thinking about the “passing of life” and was “truly grateful for our time together.”
Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty in the Bernstein case. Prosecutors have said they are exploring whether the murder constituted a hate crime and detectives are now investigating what role, if any, Atomwaffen might have played in the homicide. Woodward and Bernstein had known each other in high school in California, and appear to have reconnected somehow shortly before the killing.
Law enforcement, both federal and state, have said little about what they make of Atomwaffen. But organizations dedicated to tracking and studying hate groups have been calling attention to what they regard as the group’s considerable threat.
“We haven’t seen anything like Atomwaffen in quite a while,” said Keegan Hankes, a researcher who tracks the group for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They should be taken seriously because they’re so extreme.”
Jeffrey Kaplan, a historian, has studied racial extremists for decades and edited the Encyclopedia of White Power. In an interview, he suggested that Atomwaffen is dangerous, but that talk in their propaganda and private conversations of aims such as toppling the U.S. government amounted to what he called a kind of “magical thinking.” Kaplan said such groups often contain a handful of diehards who are willing to commit crimes and many more wannabes who are unwilling to do much more than read fascist literature.