This project was in collaboration with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Before he was a neo-Nazi, Clayton Sanford was a cosplayer.
It was May 2008 and the occasion was Anime North, one of the largest annual anime gatherings in North America. Thousands of people descended on Toronto, dressed as Japanese cartoon and gaming characters. Sanford went as Roy, a character from Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, complete with sky-blue armour, gold-handled sword, and a plume of striking red hair.
It was Sanford’s first cosplaying event. In photos he strikes various warrior poses, usually unsmiling and faux fierce-looking with a thick red wig and gold lamé flecking his costume. “I’m always serious. Because Roy is hardcore,” he wrote as a caption to one of these pictures.
A decade later, the now 31-year-old Sanford was deeply involved in another (decidedly less colourful) world, this one populated by proud racists who decry immigration, denigrate minorities, and espouse mass deportation and occasionally genocide in an effort to make Canada white again.
As “Axe In The Deep,” Sanford hosted This Hour Has 88 Minutes, one of the most popular and enduring white nationalist podcasts in the country. From September 2016 until mid-May 2018, when it went dark following inquiries from VICE, 88 Minutes was a gleefully profane, forever hateful take on the news of the week.
Three weeks ago, VICE unmasked 88 Minutes co-host “League of the North” as Thomas White, a former coffee shop owner from Thunder Bay who, in May 2017, launched the Rising Sun coffee company in hopes of “creating a new economy for the future of our people.”
Clayton Sanford’s pursuits were less straightforward. As a teenager he bounced around internet communities, but one really took hold—zeldapower.com, a forum dedicated to all things Zelda, the flagship Nintendo series.
As “ifm2181,” Sanford was among the site’s prolific posters, appreciated for his sharp wit and salty tongue. At the same time, he was open about his high school travails and anxieties about dating. But he also discussed his disdain for visible minorities and the LGBT community, which festered into outright hatred as time progressed. His feelings towards women, at first hopeful if anxiety-tinged, metastasized in a similar fashion.
Sanford became more strident in his views in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the ensuing rise of the alt-right. In 2016 he began to post on The Right Stuff, a US-based neo-Nazi forum. Last year he attended the Canadian Alt-Right Gathering known as Leafensraum. “We don’t feel at home in our own societies because they been filled with hordes of alien foreigners, he said in an August 2017 88 Minutes podcast. “And so we do create parallel societies and friendships with our white brothers."
VICE was able to determine that Clayton Sanford was Axe In The Deep following our publication of the Thomas White article in May. An email naming Sanford pointed us to zeldapower.com and the user ifm2181. Since 2001, ifm2181 had posted on the site more than 60,000 times. Users would sometimes refer to him as Clayton. In a pair of posts from January 2008, ifm2181 said his name was Clayton and Sanford.
By sifting through years' worth of his online presence, details about Sanford began to emerge. He lives in suburban Ottawa. His parents are no longer together. Sanford and his father, a musician and retired electrician, are close. (His father didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.) In one of the earlier podcasts, Sanford said that his dad was “kind of normal” but was “working on fashing [a term for making someone a fascist] him out a little bit.” There were grandparents in suburban Ontario and extended family in New Brunswick and Maine. He liked Airsoft and wore prescription glasses. High school was hell.
Sanford said that he “lived online” since the late 90s. He has lived with his parents for most of his adult life, hopping from job to job without finishing any meaningful post-secondary training. He writes in the ironic detached style that would come to define the online alt-right and spoke about how he had a hard time in school. His love of anime prompted a trip to Japan in 2015.
“I've known ifm2181's real name as Clayton Sanford since the early days of ZP,” Ben Arsenault, a former Zelda Power moderator, told VICE. “We knew about ifm's extreme alt-right views as early as November 2016, when he came back to ZP to gloat about Trump winning the election.”
Sanford, as ifm2181, left many online crumbs. Axe In The Deep is more difficult to parse. Sanford didn’t respond to several requests for comment for this story; we weren’t able to determine what he does to fund his neo-Nazi activities, nor how he met his fellow 88 Minutes hosts. But his trajectory from angry nerd to full blown neo-Nazi is relatively straightforward: he had a few preconceived notions about race, and went further and further down the rabbit hole and emerged a fully formed neo-Nazi by the time of Trump’s election.
“Axe In The Deep” was Sanford’s subtle send up to his roots in nerd culture. The nom de guerre was seemingly taken taken from “Tankard Basher,” a medieval ditty sung in a Dwarven dialect and inspired by Dwarf Fortress, one of Sanford’s favourite video games.
In the days following VICE’s request for comment requests, ifm2181’s page on the online artistic community DeviantArt disappeared, along with those on cosplay.com and Steam. His YouTube channel changed usernames at about the same time—the new username for his channel is “X D D D”. Someone logged into his Zelda Power account and attempted to delete tens of thousands of his posts on May 18—two days after the publication of the VICE story about Thomas White.
Yet his little used account on scienceforums.net remains active. The same goes for Sanford’s Axe In The Deep Twitter account. In 2016, Axe referred to´ifm2181’ and was tagged in a picture of himself as Roy.
In addition to being This Hour Has 88 Minutes’ main host, editor, and producer, Sanford (as Axe In The Deep) was arguably the show’s most strident and explicit voice.
His race-baiting monologues set the tone for each episode, and his language was shocking by even the alt-right’s standards. He frequently dropped the N-word, slurred Indigenous people, mocked Asian people, advocated for violence against Jewish people, and made suggestive comments about a violent race war. “Words from both sides will soon turn to bullets, and white people don't shoot with their gun sideways,” he said in 2016 in reference to Black Lives Matter.
His turn as a proud (if anonymous) racist is only the most recent iteration of Sanford’s evolving online persona. When he was making his first digital footprints in the early 2000s, Sanford was the polar opposite of the epithet-spewing race-baiter. In May 2005, he described himself as a “destitute medieval heavy metal communist” who started a website in hopes of starting “Herothane,” a commune ruled by socialist principles.
“When I knew him, Clayton was an outspoken communist,” said a female former friend, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal from Sanford and his neo-Nazi cohorts. “He actually spoke out against white supremacists and fascism. Communist Clayton wanted a separatist society. He wanted us to have a sovereign piece of land and have a commune that we’d defend with medieval weapons.”
As forums go, Zelda Power was an odd fit for Sanford, a self-professed fan of Sega, Nintendo’s 90s rival. Yet he was attracted to the freewheeling and edgy aspects of the site where users often strayed from Zelda-related yore. “We were the weird corner of the wider Zelda internet fan base,” one longtime user told VICE.
Sanford, as ifm2181, thrived in this space for roughly 15 years. “Zelda Power was just constant drama back then, and there was a very clear pecking order,” says Arsenault. “Your identity offline didn’t matter as much as how charismatic you were on the board. ‘ifm’ was pretty witty if nothing else, so I’d say he was high up on the pecking order.”
Offline, Sanford tried his hand at cosplay and chronicled his journey on the forum. He constructed much of his Roy costume himself from scratch in his father’s house, heating and molding ABS plastic for the armour. He shimmed the sword from a piece of oak baseboard. “I shall be Roy for the world to see,” he wrote on Zelda Power a few months before Anime North.
Sanford’s Zelda Power missives were appropriately laden with the blarney and braggadocio typical of online forums but, in rare occasions, he did reveal some vulnerabilities.
“My psychosis is too general and self-diagnosed to be considered real or worth talking about,” he wrote in 2009. When the sister of a Zelda Power member was murdered, he was one of the first to respond with flowers and kind words. “You’re one of us and we look out, sometimes in our own little ways.”
Yet women, long the source of insecurity for Sanford, became an increasing target for his scorn as years went by. “Hit women and they can’t kick you because they’re actually in shock. Or slap them backhand like a real man,” he wrote in 2008.
He also began speaking disparagingly about racial minorities. “Guns don’t kill people, minorities do,” he wrote in 2012, shocking by Zelda Power standards at the time but positively tame compared to what was to come. Notably, he found himself on the opposite side of Zelda Power’s generally progressive opinions on Gamergate and Brexit, which said female gamers were often victims and Britain should remain in the EU. He’d been effectively ostracized when Donald Trump was elected, returning only briefly to gloat. By then, Clayton Sanford had already found another family.
Sanford came to the alt-right in 2016 via a similar path to Zelda Power in 2001: nerd culture. He found a home with The Right Stuff, the alt-right hub founded by Mike Peinovich in 2012.
"I would argue that The Right Stuff is the most important hub for the alt-right, right now. I say that mostly because of the audience it generates,” Keegan Hankes of the SPLC told VICE a few weeks ago.
Sanford was a high-profile TRS member who both demanded respect and dispensed advice to fellow alt-right podcasters to better their propaganda be it memes, YouTube videos, or podcasts. “I try to look at [propaganda videos] as if I am a normie seeing my first Hitler video, and the scenes of hale gunfire and flashing stars of David and shit around in them is always off-putting. Their first video should not be naming the jew or showing war, it should be showing something normie-friendly, and this video does it well,” he wrote to a user who posted a pro-Hitler video in December of 2017.
Sanford also wrote myriad posts extolling the virtues of a white ethnostate. Like many other “Leafs” (what the Canadian users on the forum called themselves) much of Sanford's hatred was directed at Indigenous people. “They really are just red n-----s, almost every single one of them is a fat, lazy slob, whom, if they worked as hard as they complained, could build fucking pyramids,” he wrote in 2016.
The leap from online activity to recruiting came with This Hour Has 88 Minutes. The podcast was popular in part because of its longevity; with 90 shows, it was one of the few of its kind to last beyond a few episodes.
Sanford would edit the podcast and helped create a segment called the “Rice Report” where a “correspondent” would put on a Chinese accent and speak about how Asians were taking over North America. The podcast would play host to overtly Canadian alt-right topics and parody songs like a Nazi-inspired cover of the Stan Rogers’ classic “Barrett's Privateers,” which was retitled “Manstein Grenadier,” and the first line changed to read, “Oh the year was 1943/Oh how I wish I was in Berlin now.”
With their attempts at racist comedy bathed in irony and cynicism, these podcasts are significantly closer to how the alt-right shit-posters operate online than the pseudo-intellectual products offered by the existing white supremacist websites.
“Podcasts are extremely important to the movement, this is evident by how many there are, particularly on the Right Stuff network where This Hour Has 88 Minutes was hosted,” Hankes told VICE. “They have made a prolific amount of content in their short couple of years in existence. It's really critical for new and fledging members indoctrination into this world.”
But the heightened profile of these online neo-Nazis also meant more attention from journalists and anti-fascists. As the identities of people like Gabriel Sohier-Chaput (“Zeiger’) and Thomas White were revealed, an increasingly panicked Sanford urged his fellow users to get off the Discord platform, the source of many leaks to several anti-fascist activists, because he was worried about his friends' identities being revealed.
In July of 2017, for the first time, the Leafs met. The event, which took months to plan, was dubbed Leafensraum—a distinctly Canuck riff on “Lebensraum,” a term for Nazi-era colonialism. Speeches were given, fireworks were set off, and the white race was lionized. One attendee brought two giant tubs of mayonnaise to celebrate whiteness. It was, for a lack of a better term, an all-male Nazi camp out.
Almost 40 high-level neo-Nazis attended the event in southern Ontario from July 21-24 where they shared cabins, booze, and ideas. They came from all over: one American came north; others still drove in from New Brunswick. Several Quebecers, including Sohier-Chaput, made the trip. 88 Minutes podcast co-host Jonathan Boone flew in from BC. Sanford came in from his Ottawa-area home.
It had much of the same comradery of the anime convention nearly a decade earlier, though instead of discussing the finer points of anime—like the political importance of tentacle porn no longer being a pervasive part of the medium—he was now hiking, drinking Scotch, and plotting a white-only future with his fellow Nazis.
Like the conventions of his youth, Sanford adored his time spent with his online friends—including his fellow podcast hosts. "It was the first time we met. The whole crew was all together for the first time, along with pretty much every guest we ever had," Sanford would say on a later 88 Minutes podcast.
As it turns out, it was his high-water mark. In the following months, the identities of several prominent Canadian neo-Nazis would be revealed through various media outlets and a concerted doxxing campaign by several anti-fascist groups. It has effectively silenced them for now. The Right Stuff forum has clammed up and This Hour Has 88 Minutes is done, seemingly leaving Clayton Sandford without an online voice for the first time in over a decade.
It is a welcome silence for at least one of his former friends.
“Clayton Sanford can't be allowed to operate in the dark as a white supremacist with a platform,” says Ben Arsenault. “On the surface I want to hate him for being a Nazi. But the truth is that it just makes me sad, and I miss my friend.”
With files from Alheli Picazo