Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Families dispute claims that slain Tampa Palms roommates shared neo-Nazi beliefs

TAMPA — Andrew Oneschuk never liked making small talk on the phone, his father said, but the last time the two spoke, something seemed off.

The 18-year-old was unusually quiet when he called Walter Oneschuk on May 17 to tell him he and his friend Jeremy Himmelman, 22, were returning home to Massachusetts. They had planned to spend a month with two other men in a Tampa Palms apartment, the father said, but in barely two weeks, the tension between the new roommates had grown unbearable.

That Wednesday, Walter Oneschuk said, his son provided sparse details about a fight that broke out when Himmelman and Oneschuk, future military recruits, hung an American flag on the apartment wall. Their roommates, Devon Arthurs, 18, and Brandon Russell, 21, had been using the flag as a doormat, and after countless arguments over their "extremist views," the two friends from Massachusetts said they had had enough.

The flag, Walter Oneschuk speculates, could be the reason the two men were shot and killed two days later. He would rather believe that than the alternative.

After he led police to the bodies Friday, Arthurs said he shot the two because they were neo-Nazis who didn't accept his recent conversion to Islam, an arrest record states. He also said he did it to prevent them from carrying out planned acts of domestic terrorism, a prosecutor wrote.

It tortures Walter Oneschuk that his son's eulogy has been publicly delivered by the man accused of killing him.

Online condolences are now poisoned by praise from neo-Nazi groups that call the young men "Aryan brothers" and say they died for "the cause."

"They joined the ranks of the last battalion and are with Fuhrer now," one person posted on a white nationalist forum.

Walter Oneschuk mourns a different Andrew, the son who finished prep school early, traveled the globe and discussed philosophy and religion. He wanted to serve in the Navy like his father, a former pilot in the Naval Reserve.

"I can't sugarcoat things and pretend that I know everything Andrew did," Oneschuk said, "but even if he ever looked into neo-Nazi activity in the past, I know without a shadow of a doubt that was not who he was now."

Tampa police spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the agency is not looking into Arthurs' claims that the victims ascribed to neo-Nazi beliefs. Those details were released only in the context of his admitted motive for the homicides, Hegarty said.

The alleged affiliations became headline news when investigators discovered boxes of bombmaking materials addressed to the fourth roommate, Russell, who described himself to investigators as a national socialist and neo-Nazi. In his bedroom, they found white supremacist literature and a framed photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Russell, who is a Florida National Guardsman, was arrested Sunday in Key Largo on a criminal complaint filed by the FBI in Tampa. He was traveling with another man whose identity has not been released.

Andrew Oneschuk and Himmelman never discussed details of how they met Russell and Arthurs with their parents, the father said.

Himmelman had stayed with the Oneschuk family a few times.

"He was a very lovable, sweet, polite guy who just wanted to make everyone laugh," Walter Oneschuk said of his son's friend.

The father sometimes joined them on hiking and snowboarding trips and struggled to keep up with their discussions about politics, history and religion.

Himmelman's sister, Alyssa Himmelman, recalled some of that too in an interview on Sunday, calling Oneschuk's son a wonderful guy with a good heart.

"They loved politics and history," she said. "My God, they could go on for hours about it."

In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, she also said her brother did not subscribe to the beliefs Arthurs has attributed to him and Oneschuk. She said her brother was only living with him and Russell while he looked for work.

She had met Arthurs when he visited her brother in Massachusetts before Jeremy moved to Florida, and described him as "sick and twisted."

"He was an odd character," the sister said. "He was very loud and racist. He said vulgar things."

Her brother had fallen out with Arthurs and Russell before, she told the Associated Press.

"Jeremy was just too kindhearted to think that people like Devon and Brandon could do something like this," she said. "He never saw that."

The families of both men killed said each had military aspirations.

Oneschuk looked at his stay in Tampa Palms as a mini vacation before the Navy, his father said. He had already begun the recruitment process but was awaiting a background check.

The two fished and swam a lot, sending home alligator photos from Florida.

They had visited Arthurs in January and knew he was active in a white supremacist group and online forum.

Still, they returned a few weeks ago. It was a place for them to stay rent free, Walter Oneschuk said. He recalls how hard it was for him and his wife to stand in the driveway and see Andrew leave, but they had confidence that their son had grown up. As they helped him load the car, the father offered parting advice.

"I told him, 'You have to make your own way in life. Don't choose the easiest path,' " he said.

"As he pulled out of the driveway, I just remember watching him smile the biggest smile while he drove away, ready to make his way in the world.

"Now he's left us, just before his life could be fully lived."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377.

     
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