A Florida Army National Guard soldier and self-described neo-Nazi arrested last spring at a Key Largo restaurant with a car full of guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, military-type fatigues and a skull mask was sentenced to five years in federal prison on explosive charges Tuesday in a Tampa courtroom.
But federal prosecutors argued for a tougher sentence, saying Brandon Clint Russell, 22, and another man who was with him when Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputies found them inside the Burger King at mile marker 100, likely came to the Keys bent on destruction.
“A photographic journey through Russell’s apartment — the backdrop of the murder scene — is a chilling confirmation of Russell’s intent to follow in the footsteps of his hero.” Assistant United States Attorney Josephine Thomas wrote in a Jan. 7 motion arguing for an 11-year sentence.
The “hero” Thomas referenced is Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in his 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and whose framed photograph was found by detectives searching Russell’s Tampa apartment on a nightstand in his bedroom May 19.
Also inside the apartment, police found the bodies of two of Russell’s murdered friends. They were shot dead not by Russell, but by his roommate, Devon Arthurs, 19, a former neo-Nazi and recent convert to Islam who told police the two deceased, Jeremy Himmelman, 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, 18, also white supremacists, repeatedly insulted his new-found Muslim faith.
Although Russell likely had nothing to do with the murders committed by Arthurs, who Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun described as a “troubled individual” possessing a “rambling and disjointed mindset,” prosecutors argued his violently-racist views, acumen at making explosives and his behavior before and after being locked up indicated an inevitable violent future on the horizon.
“Russell’s conduct in this case posed a grave danger to the public, and he will continue to pose that danger once released from incarceration. Sometimes, incapacitation is the only way that an individual can be stopped from committing a serious crime,” Thomas wrote.
Russell, co-founder of a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen, German for atomic weapon, pleaded guilty in September to one count of possession of an unregistered destructive device and a count of improper storage of explosive materials.
The explosives were in a cooler found in a garage underneath a Tampa apartment he shared with Arthurs, 19. Police went to the home because Arthurs told them he killed Himmelman and Oneschuk. Arthurs also told detectives he shot the young men because they were bigoted against Islam and also because they were Atomwaffen members who intended on carrying out terror attacks. He claimed to have saved lives by committing the murders.
Russell, a private first-class in the National Guard, was found by detectives outside of the apartment wearing his Army uniform crying when they arrived looking for, and eventually finding, the bodies of Himmelman and Oneschuk. Arthurs immediately told police Russell was not involved in the murders, but then the detectives found the explosives, specifically, hexamethane triperoxide diamine, or HMTD, as well as detonators, in the garage.
Russell admitted the HMTD and detonators were his, but said they were for a rocket project he worked on several years earlier for a college engineering club at the University of South Florida. After investigators found white supremacist literature, posters, a copy of Hitler’s Mien Kampf and a framed picture of McVeigh in his bedroom, Russell told them he was a neo-Nazi and head of Atomwaffen.
He was allowed to leave and told agents he was going to visit his father in West Palm Beach, but instead went to Bradenton to pick up his friend.
The next day, May 20, FBI agents obtained an arrest warrant for Russell based on a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives review of the HMTD and detonators, which were fuses threaded through 5.56-caliber shells. But Russell and the friend never went to West Palm. Instead, they headed south, picking up two firearms — a Savage Arms, 30-06 caliber rifle, and a Smith & Wesson M&P Sport II, 5.56 caliber rifle — several cases of .223-caliber and 5.56-caliber ammunition and four 30-round magazines at a gun shop in Homestead.
“The fact that Russell lied about going to see his father and was found in Key Largo (at a restaurant and not his final destination), with long rifles and ammunition that he purchased less than 24 hours after being interviewed by the FBI, camouflage gear, and a skull mask, shows the character of someone prepared to follow-through with his violent ideology when called to arm,” Thomas wrote.
Russell’s attorney, Ian Goldstein, could not immediately be reached for comment about what his client’s plans were in the Keys, or where he was ultimately going.
Russell’s friend, who was not arrested and is not named in court documents, told police and FBI agents he is also a neo-Nazi and originally met Russell online on “Iron March” website, “where individuals discuss fascism, Nazism, and ‘current trends’ in hate for the government,” according to court documents. It is from Iron March where Atomwaffen was born, authorities believe.
Russell’s friend said he also knew Arthurs, Himmelman and Oneschuk and planned to move in with them. Russell came to his house May 20 and told him about the murders, and said he wanted to “get away and clear his head,” the friend told investigators. The friend quit his job, packed some things, gathered $3,000 and hit the road with Russell.
The newly bought weapons, the friend told investigators, were for “self defense.”
As of this writing, Russell is still a member of the National Guard, although his days as a soldier in good standing are likely numbered, William Manley, deputy communications director with the Florida National Guard, said Wednesday.
“Now that he's sentenced, command will begin disciplinary/discharge procedures,” Manley said in an email. “But it isn't an immediate process.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204