The 18-year-old, excited by his handiwork at the bloody rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, quickly went online to boast. He used the handle VasillistheGreek.
“Today cracked 3 skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” the young man wrote on Aug. 12, 2017.
Vasillios Pistolis had come to the now infamous Unite the Right rally eager for such violence. He belonged to a white supremacist group known as Atomwaffen Division, a secretive neo-Nazi organization whose members say they are preparing for a coming race war in the U.S.
In online chats leading up to the rally, Pistolis had been encouraged to be vicious with any counter protestors, maybe even sodomize someone with a knife. He’d responded by saying he was prepared to kill someone “if shit goes down.”
One of Pistolis’ victims that weekend was Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and trans woman from Charlottesville who had shown up to confront the rally’s hundreds of white supremacists. In an online post, Pistolis delighted in how he had “drop kicked” that “tranny” during a violent nighttime march on the campus of the University of Virginia. He also wrote about a blood-soaked flag he’d kept as a memento.
“Not my blood,” he took care to note.
At the end of the weekend that shocked much of the country, Pistolis returned to his everyday life: serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Of the many white supremacist organizations that have sprung up in the past few years, Atomwaffen is among the more extreme, espousing the overthrow of the U.S. government through acts of political violence and guerrilla warfare.
Journalists with ProPublica and Frontline gained insight into Atomwaffen’s ideology, aims and membership after obtaining seven months of messages from a confidential chat room used by the group’s members. The chat logs, as well as interviews with a former member, reveal Atomwaffen has attracted a mixture of young men — fans of fringe heavy metal music, a private investigator, firearms aficionados — living in more than 20 states.
But a number are current or former members of the U.S. military. ProPublica and Frontline have identified three Atomwaffen members or associates who are currently employed by the Army or Navy. Another three served in the armed forces in the past.
Pistolis, who remains an active-duty Marine, left Atomwaffen in a dispute late in 2017 and joined up with another white supremacist group. Reporters made the identifications through dozens of interviews, a range of social media and other online posts, and a review of the 250,000 confidential messages obtained earlier this year.
Joshua Beckett, who trained Atomwaffen members in firearms and hand-to-hand combat last fall, served in the Army from 2011 to 2015, according to service records. Online, Beckett, 26, has said that he worked as a combat engineer while in the army. Combat engineers are the army’s demolitions experts.
In Atomwaffen chats, Beckett, using the handle Johann Donarsson, said he was building assault rifles and would happily construct weapons for his fellow members. “Give me the parts and the receiver and I’ll get it all together for you,” Beckett wrote in August 2017.
Beckett also wrote about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of combat in Afghanistan, and how his time in uniform caused him to radically revise his political beliefs, prompting him to abandon mainstream conservatism in favor of National Socialism.
In online discussions, Beckett encouraged Atomwaffen members to enlist in the military, so as to become proficient in the use of weaponry, and then turn their expertise against the U.S. government, which he believed to be controlled by a secret cabal of Jews.
“The army itself woke me up to race and the war woke me up to the Jews,” Beckett wrote, adding, “The US military gives great training…you learn how to fight, and survive.”
Another Atomwaffen member used the chats to talk about the combat he saw during the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan.
“I was in the infantry in the army in Afghanistan and did a lot of…shit,” the member wrote. He said the Army wanted him to become a chemical weapons specialist, but he chose to join the infantry. He spent his time, he wrote, blasting “lead into sand niggers.”
ProPublica and Frontline specifically identified Pistolis and Beckett through interviews with a former Atomwaffen member who knew them, the group’s internal records, and the men’s digital footprints. In his online activities, Pistolis left many clues to his identity, including pictures of himself he uploaded to private white supremacist chat rooms and photos of himself on his public Facebook page. Beckett’s internet handles and Facebook content also helped us to confirm him as the man who had spent five years in the Army before joining Atomwaffen.
Reporters contacted Beckett via phone and Facebook messages, but did not get a response. Beckett’s Facebook page features an image of Donald Trump driving a white convertible emblazoned with the number 1488, a white supremacist code, and a call for whites to jump in the car.
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