ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) — A Texas man known as the former leader of a neo-Nazi extremist group was sentenced Tuesday to 41 months in prison for making fake emergency calls targeting journalists, minorities and elected officials.
According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, John Cameron Denton, 27, of Montgomery, Texas, ran a local branch of the Atomwaffen Division, an international white supremacist group linked to arms dealing, murder and other crimes.
Denton reportedly spoke to undercover federal agents about his involvement in a “swatting” conspiracy, in which perpetrators call in fake bomb or active shooter threats with the hope of SWAT teams taking extreme action against the targets of the scheme.
His targets included the New York office of the nonprofit investigative group ProPublica, which had published stories about neo-Nazis, and one of its reporters. Atomwaffen Division successfully called in an active shooter threat and NYPD responded with about a dozen officers before realizing it was not a credible threat.
Prosecutors say Denton unknowingly told a law enforcement officer he targeted the news outlet after they revealed him as a member of the hate group.
“Denton stated that he used a voice changer when he made swatting calls and admitted that he swatted the offices of ProPublica and the investigative journalist,” the statement from prosecutors said. “Denton also stated that it would be good if he was ‘raided’ for the swatting because it would be viewed as a top-tier crime, and he felt that his arrest could benefit the Atomwaffen Division.”
Timothy Thibault, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office Criminal Division, said Denton’s swatting scheme was far from a harmless prank and was the result of careful decision-making with the hopes of antagonizing racial and religious communities as well as journalists he considered enemies.
“Today’s sentence demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to holding accountable anyone who terrorizes communities and threatens public safety by diverting emergency resources, which puts innocent people and first responders at risk,” Thibault said.
While Denton was arrested for his role in the ProPublica incident, he was also linked to a broader swatting conspiracy that prosecutors say terrorized a Virginia university, an unnamed former U.S. Cabinet member, a historic Black church just outside Washington, D.C., and an Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas, as well as members of various minority groups and communities across the United States.
A February 2020 affidavit from an FBI agent detailed the conspiracy that dates back to 2018 and involves multiple co-conspirators from across the country.
It started with a private dark web chat channel that prosecutors say was maintained by John William Kirby Kelley. Denton and Kelley, along with other members of the chat channel, often planned, carried out and bragged about their crimes online, according to court documents. Racial slurs were also used in the chat groups.
Denton used the handle “rape” and “tormentor” in the chat channel, whose members allegedly organized hundreds of swatting incidents in late 2018.
Kelly, a 20-year-old former student at Old Dominion University near Virginia’s coast, was sentenced in March to 33 months.
Raj Parekh, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, applauded Denton's sentencing and slammed his "reprehensible conduct."
“The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes,” he said. “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 a statement, ProPublica President Richard Tofel praised the work of the Justice Department but noted the judge handed down a lighter sentence than the five-year term sought by federal prosecutors.
“We are deeply appreciative of the tireless efforts in this case on the part of the Department of Justice, and are gratified to see this conviction,” Tofel said. “We are disappointed by the judge’s decision in this matter to deviate downward from the guideline sentence.”
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