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National Guard 'neo-Nazi' left slaying scene to buy rifles, authorities say

Brandon Russell, 21, faces federal charges after bombmaking materials were found.
Brandon Russell, 21, faces federal charges after bombmaking materials were found.
Published Jun. 9, 2017

TAMPA — A distraught Brandon Russell told investigators he was leaving town to visit his father in West Palm Beach.

He had just discovered two of his roommates shot to death May 19 in their Tampa Palms apartment.

But instead, prosecutors say, Russell hooked up with another neo-Nazi like him, grabbed some cash, and bought two rifles and 500 rounds of ammunition. The pair then headed south to the Florida Keys.

What they had in mind was not revealed at a federal court hearing Thursday in Tampa. But they weren't sure they were coming back, the friend would tell investigators. He quit his fast-food job on the spot to join Russell.

The new information helps explain why authorities moved cautiously, calling in a bomb squad, when they stopped the two men in Key Largo on May 21 and arrested Russell on explosives and weapons charges.

Russell, a National Guardsman, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas B. McCoun III on Thursday as his attorney argued for his release on bail pending trial.

McCoun said he would decide the matter today. He made note of how alarming the circumstances of the arrest appeared.

"These are different times from a few years ago," McCoun said. "The picture presented is inherently threatening in today's world."

In court documents, authorities say they first encountered Russell outside his apartment, crying, once his roommate Devon Arthurs led them there to point out the bodies of Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22.

Arthurs said he killed the pair because they were neo-Nazis who had disrespected his conversion to Islam, according to an arrest report.

When investigators searched a garage below the apartment's living quarters, they found explosive chemicals and other materials commonly used to make bombs. Some of the substances were in a package addressed to Russell, authorities said.

"This speaks to something that's very disturbing here," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel George said in arguing against release for Russell.

The prosecutor pointed out a framed photograph of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh that investigators found in Russell's bedroom, along with copies of Mein Kampf and the white nationalist novel The Turner Diaries on a bookshelf.

Authorities had not yet found the bombmaking materials in the garage when Russell drove off, saying he was going to see his father. Prosecutor George said the father is a sheriff's deputy in Palm Beach County, but the Sheriff's Office there could not confirm that Thursday.

Russell and his friend, who was not named in court, instead visited a Bass Pro Shops store, George said. They bought two rifles, described in court as a .30-06 and a 556, 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.

Russell later told investigators he is a leader of a white nationalist group known as Atomwaffen, George said. He was known to post to what was called an online hate forum, telling sympathizers interested in joining his group to send him private messages.

His roommate Arthurs, who remains jailed on murder charges, told investigators Russell had threatened in online forums to "bomb infrastructure and kill people," the prosecutor said.

But Russell's attorney, Ian Goldstein, told the judge that nothing about his client's beliefs or the firearms he bought constitute a crime.

"There is no allegation that my client conspired to commit any type of terrorist act at all," Goldstein said. "The government is speculating that Mr. Russell was going to do something. But at the end of the day, he's charged with possessing these materials."

Russell's mother, Brigitte Chantalle Russell, who lives in the Bahamas, presented his passport. His grandmother, Molly Lou Russell, offered the equity in her Orlando home toward bail and to keep an eye on him.

The judge asked if she was aware of her grandson's neo-Nazi sympathies.

She replied, "I don't really believe he was into doing all of this."

Times staff writer Howard Altman contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.