TAMPA — On one hand, Brandon Russell had never been accused of a crime before. Family and friends told a judge he had a good heart, albeit one easily led.
On the other hand, prosecutors said Russell was a dangerous bombmaker who spewed the hateful ideology of Nazis.
Two years in prison? Eleven years? Those were among penalties suggested by defense and government lawyers Tuesday at Russell’s sentencing hearing.
Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew settled on a five-year prison term, followed by three years of supervised release.
Russell, 22, was a Florida National Guard soldier and leader of a neo-Nazi organization whose explosive materials were found by Tampa police in May during an investigation into the killing of his two roommates.
He had nothing to do with the deaths, but in September he pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an unregistered destructive device and one count of unlawfully storing explosive materials.
"I’m sorry for what I have done," he said in a soft voice after the judge implored him to say something on his own behalf.
Along with the bombmaking ingredients, investigators at the Tampa Palms homicide scene found white supremacist propaganda and a photo of Timothy McVeigh, the white supremacist who killed 168 people in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.
The materials, literature and photo belonged to Russell, leader of a neo-Nazi organization he created called Atomwaffen Division, a phrase using the German word for atomic weapon.
Defense attorney Ian Goldstein argued for leniency, citing Russell’s lack of criminal background, his age and immaturity and his attention deficit disorder. Too long in prison, he argued, and Russell would come out an even more fervent neo-Nazi.
Prosecutor Josephine Thomas asked Bucklew to protect the public from a man with violent beliefs who had amassed enough materials to carry out violence and created an organization that had inspired violence elsewhere, including at least one shooting. She did not provide details in court; however, the Huffington Post has reported that a Virginia teen accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents was enamored by Atomwaffen Division.
Bucklew said she was concerned about several things in the case. FBI agent Christopher Franck testified that there was enough bombmaking material in the garage where Russell lived to kill everyone in the courtroom. In addition, investigators found a copy of The Turner Diaries, William Luther Pierce’s white nationalist novel about race war that prosecutors and Bucklew noted was often in possession of domestic terrorists, plus Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf manifesto on a bookshelf belonging to Russell.
The sentence, Bucklew said, was handed down "to protect the public."
Russell, a private first class assigned to Company C of the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion in Pinellas Park, has been in the Florida National Guard since February 2016. Months before he joined, he announced the creation of Atomwaffen Division on the neo-Nazi website IronMarch.org.
It’s unclear what might have happened had police not been called on May 19 to investigate the home Russell shared with three others, all alleged neo-Nazis, according to police.
One, Devon Arthurs, is accused of killing the other two — Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22 — because they disrespected his conversion to Islam.
Russell was arrested two days later on the federal explosives charges after he and a friend bought two rifles, along with 500 rounds of ammunition and four magazines. The magazines were loaded before they headed to the Keys. They were stopped along the highway by Monroe County sheriff’s deputies and the FBI.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.