A former leader of an extremist group was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on Tuesday for his role in a “swatting” scheme whose targets included journalists, a sitting cabinet secretary and a predominantly Black church, federal prosecutors said.
John Cameron Denton, 27, of Montgomery, Texas, whom the Justice Department identified as a former leader of the Atomwaffen Division, a paramilitary neo-Nazi group, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for his role in a swatting conspiracy in which he and others reported false claims involving “pipe bombs, hostage takings or other violent activity” to the authorities in hopes of drawing a forceful police response to the front door of an unwitting third party.
Their efforts led to attacks on 134 locations across the country from October 2018 to February 2019, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Prosecutors said that Mr. Denton and many of his co-conspirators “chose targets because they were motivated by racial animus.”
“The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes,” Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District, said in a statement. “This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion or any other form of bias will be identified, apprehended and brought to justice.”
In February 2020, charges were first brought against Mr. Denton and others associated with the Atomwaffen Division, who were accused of intimidating and harassing journalists and activists.
After his arrest, Mr. Denton signed a plea deal in July, pleading guilty to the charge of committing interstate threats to injure.
According to the authorities, Mr. Denton’s co-conspirators included two foreign nationals and another man, John William Kirby Kelley, who was sentenced in March to more than two years in prison.
In an affidavit with the criminal complaint against Mr. Denton, the authorities detailed multiple swatting attacks on locations such as the Alfred Street Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church in Virginia; Old Dominion University, which Mr. Kelley attended; and ProPublica’s New York City office as well as the home of a ProPublica journalist — two targets that Mr. Denton personally singled out for swatting.
The affidavit did not identify the “U.S. cabinet official” who was targeted in one of the swatting attacks, but last year, a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly said that Kirstjen Nielsen, a secretary of homeland security during the Trump administration, was the cabinet official targeted by Atomwaffen.
On Tuesday, Andrew Stewart, a lawyer representing Mr. Denton, said in a statement that his client took “full responsibility for his actions and their consequences.”
“He is committed to a process of real change and the court’s well-reasoned sentence today is the next step,” Mr. Stewart said. “He is deeply sorry to the victims of the two swatting calls that he suggested, their families, and anyone else harmed by the conspiracy.”
According to the affidavit, Mr. Denton in January 2020 unknowingly met with an undercover F.B.I. agent at his home, where he acknowledged having used a voice changer when making swatting calls as well as having targeted journalists who had reported on him and his affiliation with the Atomwaffen Division.
The group is known for its neo-Nazi and “accelerationist” beliefs, meaning they seek a societal collapse to make room for a whites-only ethnostate, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups. In July 2020, the group announced that it had reorganized as the National Socialist Order.
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