In January and February, the FBI executed a series of stunning and coordinated arrests of domestic terror suspects across the U.S., apprehending members of The Base and Atomwaffen Division (AWD), two well-known and violent white nationalist terrorist organizations, on serious charges.
But the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has now derailed law enforcement efforts to keep some of these same accused domestic terrorists behind bars for the near term. Four of the men caught up in those sweeping, nationwide arrests have asked to be freed before their trials on the grounds that the conditions of overcrowded prisons during the pandemic puts their health at risk.
Two have already been granted release. None, notably, have been charged with terrorism offenses, highlighting the differences between how authorities handle members of white nationalist terror groups and members of jihadist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.
Experts and advocates across the U.S. say the prison system is having an enormously difficult time dealing with the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners. Across the country, thousands of older, non-violent prisoners have been granted early release from their sentences.
New Jersey has released 1,000 prisoners from county jails and federal prisons are looking to accelerate the release of high risk inmates, while Arizona has vowed not to release any prisoners early from their sentences.
The latest to argue for their release is the former leader of AWD, John Cameron Denton, who goes by the alias 'Rape' and is awaiting trial in Virginia on charges stemming from a swatting campaign targeting journalists, politicians, and members of the Trump administration. Weeks ago, federal prosecutors alleged that Denton also traded child pornography with another white supremacist. Two of his fellow members of AWD, Johnny Garza and Taylor Parker-Dipeppe, were both recently granted release on bond in Seattle.
Cameron appears in court Friday, where he is arguing the coronavirus pandemic is interfering with preparations for his case and prevents him from meeting with his lawyers to discuss developments. Federal authorities say he’s still a “serious danger” to the public and should remain in jail.
“The defendant not only took part in a violent conspiracy, he targeted journalists who wrote articles about him that he found less than flattering,” reads the government's motion to keep him in jail. “Based on the defendant’s actions, there is every reason to believe that he will continue to target journalists and others who have written about Atomwaffen Division and himself.”
William Bilbrough, a member of The Base who is alleged to have plotted with others to shoot up a gun rights rally in Virginia and helped harbor a fugitive member of the terror group, argued last month that he should be released from prison and was denied.
“The government has discounted from the beginning the threat of COVID-19 and continues to minimize its risks to Bilbrough and others similarly situated,” his appeal reads. Bilbrough, a diabetic, notes that he is immunocompromised, which puts him in a high risk group if he contracts the virus.
“In its response, the government, if nothing else, has been rigidly consistent in its position regarding the lack of risk to Bilbrough of his exposure to COVID-19—and continues to fail to recognize what is going on in the real world even as judges in Maryland and around the country are adjusting to this new factor that must be evaluated in making release decisions,” the appeal reads.