Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence and hatred.
BRANDON — From his parent’s home in one of Florida’s sprawling subdivisions, Daniel McMahon spent his days spinning sick fantasies online.
The 31-year-old avowed fascist dreamed of an ethnostate where non-whites would be eliminated and women would be subservient to men. In online chat groups and on social media he denied the Holocaust took place, cheered on mass shooters, denigrated minorities and women and plotted to harass activists.
McMahon’s vitriol had consequences for those he targeted — and now for himself.
The FBI raided his parents’ home on Sept. 18 and arrested McMahon on allegations that he threatened a black activist in Charlottesville, Va.
McMahon was well-known to those who monitor online hate. Some of his private chats and messages from 2017 and 2018 were among the leaks of alt-right forums obtained and published by Unicorn Riot, a leftist media outlet, and verified by the nonprofit Right Wing Watch. Activists also experienced his screeds first-hand.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed McMahon’s online history from those leaks and screenshots of his comments provided by those who said he targeted them. They capture some of his progression from small-time provocateur to inciting harassment campaigns across the country.
His online personas — screen names such as Jack Corbin, Pale Horse and Dakota Stone — were linked to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in 2018.
His targets said they watched his escalating activity with growing alarm.
“I’ve been worried for a long time he would snap and shoot someone,” said Molly Conger, 30, a Charlottesville journalist, activist and frequent McMahon target. “It’s all online — until it isn’t.”
• • •
The indictment against McMahon was filed in the Western District of Virginia on Sept 11.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office there accused him of threatening an unnamed black activist who was running for Charlottesville City Council. The activist, referred to only as D.G., dropped out of the race this year after McMahon sent him threats on the internet that caused him “fear of death and bodily injury,” the indictment said.
McMahon faces federal charges of interference with a candidate for elective office, bias-motivated interference with a candidate for elective office, threats in interstate commerce and cyberstalking.
His attorney, Nick Matassini Jr. of Tampa, argues his client was engaging in political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
“Daniel denies he acted with any racial animus,” Matassini told the Times.
However, McMahon’s mother told the Tampa FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force a different story.
At McMahon’s Sept. 23 bail hearing in Tampa’s federal courthouse, a Pasco County sheriff’s detective serving with the task force testified his mother told them her son didn’t like African Americans, Jews or gay people, according to the Associated Press.
She also worried he could become a mass shooter.
In a motion asking that McMahon be released before trial, his attorney wrote that his client has no criminal record, owns firearms but is willing to surrender them, and is not currently employed but is caring for his ill mother.
The motion also said McMahon recently testified before a federal grand jury in Virginia, though the purpose of that testimony was not revealed.
The hearing ended with a federal judge deciding that McMahon should continue to be held without bail in the Pinellas County jail, which holds federal prisoners.
Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson ruled that McMahon’s “mental instability, ability to obtain firearms and praise of mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Charleston, South Carolina” posed a threat to the community, according to the Associated Press report.
McMahon’s parents did not respond to requests for comment from the Times. Their neighbors expressed surprise at the arrest but declined to speak on the record.
He graduated from Bloomingdale High School in 2006, but not much else is known about McMahon’s life offline: His education, profession or trade, and whether he was in a relationship or had children.
• • •
McMahon has been involved in far-right circles going back as far as 2013, said Scott K. Ernest, a former white nationalist turned activist working to help others escape the movement.
Ernest, 41, said that as a white nationalist he interacted online with McMahon. Even then, he was troubled by McMahon’s comments — including extreme sexual fantasies about women in the white nationalist movement.
Many of McMahon’s posts were made on the social media platform Gab, which experts say white supremacists use to amplify and spread hate-filled propaganda that would not be tolerated on Twitter or Facebook.
McMahon never appeared to affiliate with a specific group, Ernest said, but stuck out for the sheer volume of profanity-laced posts he generated every day.
“He wanted to be famous, somebody who was known and everybody would be scared of, that’s what I always got from him,” Ernest said. “I absolutely thought he was capable of violence."
He recalled McMahon often talked about firearms.
“I was like, you should not be having guns,” Ernest said. “He is what red flag laws are made for.”
In the leaked chats, McMahon — under the screen name Pale Horse — and other members in a white nationalist chat group brainstormed ideas for how to grow their movement in Florida.
Their ideas ranged from posting fliers in St. Petersburg and Ybor City to training recruits for street fighting. They also discussed harassing a retired Tampa Bay teacher featured on TV for participating in a Holocaust study program. It is not known whether any of those plans made it beyond chat rooms.
Members of the group yearned to do more than just put up posters. They wanted to “take Florida by storm,” and discussed strategies and waging guerilla warfare. McMahon offered to gather information about their foes.
“I already have ID’d many FL Antifa,” McMahon wrote.
What McMahon excelled at — and bragged about — was encouraging harassment.
• • •
In the chats, McMahon sought to position himself as an “antifa-hunter” who could “unmask” and “track” antifa members. Antifa is a loosely organized anti-fascist protest movement, while many of his targets considered themselves anti-racism activists.
Still, in the alt-right’s online alternate reality, antifa was some kind of catch-all for everything they opposed, an actual organization that had to be fought at all costs.
His targets were female journalists, student activists at the University of North Carolina and Charlottesville protesters, who he imagined were “Antifa leaders.” During protests, McMahon would identify them via videos and pictures and post their information on white nationalist chat rooms, telling those on scene to confront them. Sometimes, he fixated on particular activists — especially women.
That’s what happened to University of North Carolina graduate student Lindsay Ayling. She said she has been targeted on the Chapel Hill campus since the fall of 2018 because of McMahon.
Ayling, 31, became involved in anti-racism activism after Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist who drove a car into a crowd during the Aug. 12, 2017 Charlottesville rally.
“I saw people protesting and getting attacked by Nazis,” Ayling said. “I really admired their courage and thought — that’s the kind of thing I should be doing.”
She began to help organize marches and sit-ins calling for the removal of Silent Sam, a 110-year-old Confederate monument on her campus.
Then Ayling said she and other UNC activists found themselves the focus of McMahon’s obsession, just like the Charlottesville activists. In fall 2018, she said a friend sent her a screenshot: McMahon had posted her picture and name on Gab, calling her a “leader of Antifa.”
“Keep your eyes out for Lindsay Ayling,” he wrote.
His North Carolina followers took the cues he sent from Florida. Local neo-Confederate activists would seek her out, Ayling said, and taunt her by name. Men with video cameras came up to her at protests and rallies and tried to record and interview her.
Another time, she said McMahon saw her on a livestream and told two neo-Confederate protesters to confront her about the death of her brother, who was killed by a train.
So they started making train noises, she said.
Ayling began to fear someone could “carry out some of the threats that people have been making online.”
That is a potential danger, said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich, who studies nativist, neo-Confederate and white supremacist movements.
“The threat isn’t purely digital,” she wrote in an email to the Times. “Trolls like McMahon are heavily networked with others who believe that action should occur outside of online spaces, often with disastrous effect …”
After neo-Nazis tried to expose her home address on Twitter and Facebook, Ayling said she bought a Glock pistol.
• • •
McMahon, his targets said, tried to game the boundaries of free speech by framing violence as a wish or describing it as a fantasy.
“If you wanna talk about violence and not get burned by Uncle Sam, just do it the legal way!” he posted on Gab on June 11, 2019, recommending his followers use language like “monkey” or “Zion-Marxist” instead of more inflammatory slurs.
Elon University professor Megan Squire, who studies online communities including the alt-right, and has also been harassed by McMahon, said he often wrote explicit descriptions of violent attacks and sexual abuse — but didn’t threaten to commit those acts himself.
“He was one of those hard cases where he thought he knew where the legal line was and tried really hard to stay right up to the line,” Squire said. “It was just shy of a threat.”
In December 2018, he wrote on Gab: “The police should rape female antifa Black Bloc terrorists for fun and then gouge their eyes out and hit them with their expandable baton till they stop screaming.”
Then on Feb. 18, 2019, McMahon wrote about a Silent Sam activist: “I would be delighted if a UNC Police Officer blew X’s wall-eyed head clean off.”
Even if the threats were indirect, McMahon’s language was similar to mass shooters such as Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018.
“The one thing I learned from Robert Bowers is you really can’t tell,” Conger said. “I saw his posts before he killed those 11 people and they really did not look very different than (McMahon’s) posts or a lot of other posts.”
In fact, McMahon and Bowers were close allies online.
• • •
Bowers interacted with McMahon’s posts on Gab (under the screen name “Jack Corbin”) more than anybody else, according to an analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Pittsburgh man regularly reshared McMahon’s homophobic and racist posts, and egged McMahon on as he relentlessly harassed a female journalist.
Months after the massacre, McMahon defended Bowers online.
“I DO think Robert Bowers is a good person,” McMahon wrote on Gab in February. “He’s a good person who snapped, because of all the Anti-White s--t going on.”
McMahon appeared to undergo a meltdown a few months earlier. He had encouraged right wing activists to show up to a rally at UNC — but no one did.
“I am going to retire from the white nationalist movement. I’m sick of weak, unreliable Motherf——s,” he posted. “Also I didn’t have anything to do with what Robert Bowers did, but I will say he has more balls than most of you. God bless that man. I’m out."
Over-the-top theatrics are typical alt-right tactics. But those who watched McMahon’s activity from afar were concerned he might be reaching a breaking point.
“It was cartoonish at times but also terrifying,” Squire said. “You don’t know if he is pranking you or really means this stuff.”
Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.