The fall of a ring of white supremacists harassing journalists, activists and politicians began with a college student trying to get out of class.
John William Kirby Kelley, 19, acknowledged in Alexandria, Va., federal court Tuesday that he was part of a group that called in false threats to police so law enforcement would react with force – a form of harassment called “swatting.” Many of their targets were minorities or journalists and academics who had reported on the far right. One of the members was John Cameron Denton, identified by authorities as a leader in the far-right group Atomwaffen Division, who pleaded guilty last week.
Both Kelley and Denton face up to five years in prison for conspiracy to make interstate threats. Both have agreed to pay restitution to the police departments involved. Both admitted that they had used racial slurs, and Kelley acknowledged that he was aware of his co-conspirators’ involvement in neo-Nazism.
Kelley will be sentenced Nov. 24.
In late 2018, Kelley suggested that the group take aim at Old Dominion University, where he was a student.
“I don’t want to go to class on Wed,” he said in a group chat.
He made the call himself from a blocked number, claiming an armed man had placed multiple pipe bombs on campus. He then accidentally redialed campus police from the number listed in the school directory, a move that led police to focus on him after the report was determined to be false.
The same Google Voice number used to target ODU was used in swatting calls that brought police to a historically black church in Alexandria, Va.; the home of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the same city; and the New York office of ProPublica, which had reported on Denton and Atomwaffen.
Kelley was interviewed by campus police. According to court records, Denton was concerned at the time that Kelley would be arrested. A couple months later, Kelley was arrested on drug charges and kicked off campus, just as the Secret Service began investigating the threat called in at Nielsen’s home.
Kelley was not arrested and charged in the swatting conspiracy until January. Denton was arrested in February, along with four others linked to Atomwaffen and accused of targeting journalists and people of color. Two other co-conspirators who were the most prolific members of the conspiracy are overseas, according to prosecutors, in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Kelley admitted helping maintain a website called “Doxbin,” a repository of information for potential swatting targets – “government officials, journalists, executives, and celebrities,” in the words of Judge Liam O’Grady.
Members of Atomwaffen have been linked by law enforcement to five slayings; the group holds “hate camps” where they practice for combat, according to court records and their own propaganda. The group has affiliates abroad, including in Germany, where members have threatened left-wing and nonwhite politicians.