CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Four members of a militant white supremacist group from California were arrested on charges they traveled to Virginia last year to incite a riot and attack counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally that turned deadly, federal authorities said Tuesday.
The defendants — Benjamin Drake Daley, Michael Paul Miselis, Thomas Walter Gillen and Cole Evan White — are part of the Rise Above Movement, which espouses anti-Semitic views and meets regularly in public parks to train in boxing and other fighting techniques, according to an affidavit written by an FBI agent.
The affidavit alleges the four were “among the most violent individuals present in Charlottesville” in August 2017 during a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus and a larger rally in downtown the following day. It says photos and video footage shows they attacked counterprotesters, “which in some cases resulted in serious injuries.”
The men have also taken part in “acts of violence” at political rallies in Huntington Beach and Berkeley, California, and other places, the affidavit alleges.
“This is a group that essentially subscribes to an anti-Semitic, racist ideology, and then organizes, trains, and deploys to various political rallies, not only to espouse this particular ideology but also to engage in acts of violence against folks who are taking a contrary point of view,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said at a news conference in Charlottesville held to announce the charges.
All four men were arrested early Tuesday morning, Cullen said.
Gillen, of Redondo Beach, appeared in a Los Angeles court Tuesday afternoon. He chewed gum and yawned several times as his detention hearing was waived until Thursday.
When Judge Jean Rosenbluth asked him if he understood what the government was accusing him of, Gillen said, “For the most part, yeah.”
Daley, of Redondo Beach, and Miselis, of Lawndale, were also expected to make initial court appearances later Tuesday, while White, of Clayton, was due in court Wednesday, he said.
Attempts to reach the suspects’ relatives to comment on their behalf were not immediately successful.
Cullen said each defendant faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on the two counts they each face: traveling to incite riots and conspiracy to riot. However, defendants often get less than the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines.
The arrests come more than a year after hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Clashes erupted Aug. 11, 2017, as a crowd of white nationalists marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting racist slogans encountered a small group of counterprotesters.
The following day, more violence broke out between counterprotesters and attendees of the “Unite the Right” rally, which was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in at least a decade. Street fighting exploded before the scheduled event could begin and went on for nearly an hour in view of police until authorities forced the crowd to disperse.
Cullen said investigators sifted through “an incredible volume” of video and still photographs to review the movements of the four men and determine whether they could claim they were only defending themselves after being attacked by others at the rally. He said prosecutors believe there was “no provocation” for them to engage in violence that day.
The four, he said, went to the rally with their hands taped, “ready to do street battle.”
Then they engaged in punching, kicking, head-butting and pushing, assaulting an African-American man, two women and a minister who was wearing a clerical collar, Cullen said.
“In our view, these four committed particularly violent acts in Charlottesville. Secondly, they committed violent acts in California at other rallies. Therefore, in our view, they were essentially serial rioters,” Cullen said.
According to The Anti-Defamation League, Rise Above Movement members believe they are fighting against a “modern world” corrupted by the “destructive cultural influences” of liberals, Jews, Muslims and non-white immigrants. Members refer to themselves as the mixed martial arts club of the “alt-right” fringe movement, a loose mix of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right extremists.
“They very much operate like a street-fighting club,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
The group has roots in the racist skinhead movement in southern California, Segal said.
Daley figures “prominently” in the organization, according to the affidavit, which also cites news organization ProPublica’s efforts to identify Rise Above Movement members involved in the violence by reviewing video footage of the clashes. The news outlet reported in July that the group was founded in early 2017 and had a relatively modest core membership of 15 to 20 young men.
ProPublica and Frontline also reported in July that Miselis was a member of RAM, worked as an aerospace engineer at defense contractor Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach and held a government-issued security clearance. A company spokesman later said Miselis was no longer employed by the company but didn’t say whether Miselis was fired or resigned.
After authorities forced the rally to disband Aug. 12, a woman was killed when a car that prosecutors say was driven by a man fascinated by Adolf Hitler plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters.
The suspected driver, 21-year-old James Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with federal hate crimes in the death of Heather Heyer, 32. Fields also faces state murder charges; his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 26.
The death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event crashed, killing two troopers.
President Donald Trump sparked a public outcry after he blamed both sides for the violence.
An independent report released three months later found serious police and government failures in responding to the mayhem.
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
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