A 25-year-old leader of a neo-Nazi organization linked to murders across the United States has pleaded guilty to federal hate crime and conspiracy charges after threatening journalists and others who worked to expose anti-Semitism.
Cameron Shea was arrested in March 2020 and charged with conspiring to intimidate members of the press and the Anti-Defamation League in Washington state, as The Guardian’s Jason Wilson reported. In charging documents, the Department of Justice described him as a “high-level member and primary recruiter” for the Atomwaffen Division.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the group, founded in 2015, as “a terrorist neo-Nazi organization” whose members believe in using violence to accelerate the collapse of society.
Members of the group have been linked to a string of violent hate crimes. After one member was charged in 2018 with killing Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish college student in California, Google, Discord, and other technology companies moved to bar the organization from using their platforms, which had been used to spread propaganda and organize illicit activities.
The US Department of Justice, in a statement on Wednesday, said Shea and three co-defendants conspired online to “identify journalists and advocates they wanted to threaten in retaliation for the victims’ work exposing anti-Semitism,” focusing primarily on Jews and reporters of color. Targets in Tampa, Seattle, and Phoenix were then mailed posters featuring Nazi symbols and threats of pending violence.
“We will be postering journalists houses and media buildings to send a clear message that we too have leverage over them,” Shea said in a November 2019 group chat, the Associated Press reported. The targets were chosen for their critical work on far-right extremists.
A poster sent to an employee of the Anti-Defamation League featured a “Grim Reaper-like figure wearing a skeleton mask holding a Molotov cocktail,” according to the Justice Department, with text reading: “Our Patience Has Its Limits . . . You have been visited by your local Nazis.”
Last fall, two other members of the group pleded guilty to involvement in the conspiracy. And in July 2020, another admitted to making false claims to police that led to SWAT teams arriving at the homes of reporters, Seattle-area NBC affiliate KING 5 reported.
In March, a 20-year-old Atomwaffen member, John William Kirby Kelley, was handed a 33-month prison sentence for hosting the chat room where such activities were planned, according to The Washington Post. Other targets included Black churches and a former Trump Homeland Security chief, Kristjen Nielsen.
Another member of the conspiracy, Taylor Parker-Dipeppe, pleaded guilty to distributing a poster in Florida – at the wrong address – and last month received a sentence of time served. According to their attorney, Parker-Dipeppe was kicked out of the neo-Nazi group after coming out as transgender.
Shea will be sentenced in June 2021. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, declined to state whether Shea is cooperating with authorities, citing department policy.
An alleged co-conspirator, Kaleb Cole, has pleaded not guilty and is due to face trial in September, she said.
“My kids have had a pretty progressive upbringing,” Joanna Schroeder told Insider. “So it was pretty shocking to me when I started looking over their shoulders to see that there was some really disturbing content showing up on their Instagram feeds.”
Schroeder, a parenting writer from Los Angeles, was troubled by the photos and videos being recommended to her two teenage sons on Instagram. “There was alt-right and borderline Holocaust-denial stuff, memes, showing up on there,” Schroeder said.
While Schroeder was shocked and appalled, the abundance of far-right content on the photo and video sharing platform is well-known to researchers.
Instagram has allowed itself to emerge as a fertile ground for extremist propaganda, experts on extremism told Insider.
“Instagram is actively pulling its predominantly young users down an extremist rabbit hole,’ Imrah Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, wrote in an email.
The rabbit hole, in some cases, leads to kids being introduced into neo-Nazi groups. So much so, in fact, that Instagram has become the primary platform for far-right groups to recruit vulnerable teenagers in recent years, several experts said.
‘A premium on recruiting youth is really standard’
Instagram has become the “platform of choice for young Nazis to radicalize teenagers,” according to the UK anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate’s annual report. Neo-Nazi groups are using it to prey on vulnerable young people and sign them up to their extremist causes, the report said.
In the past year alone, Hope Not Hate found that two violent far-right groups have used Instagram as their primary mode of recruitment. The British Hand and the National Partisan Movement – two UK-based extremist groups – actively recruited teenagers on the app, the study found.
Three teenage boys, all alleged to be members of The British Hand, are now facing trial on terrorism charges.
Similarly, in the US, a neo-Nazi group’s presence on Instagram led to two young men’s arrest. Both were involved in the hardcore, white supremacist Iron Youth group, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
One of the young men had shared Instagram posts urging fellow group members to kill Jewish and Black people, according to a court document.
“The idea that white supremacists and other far-right extremists would put a premium on recruiting youth is really standard,” the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism’s vice president, Oren Segal, told Insider. What is novel, he said, is how neo-Nazi groups are skillfully utilizing Instagram’s functions.
“Extremists never miss an opportunity to leverage their hateful ideas through the lens of the latest technology,” Segal explained.
Memes are an effective way to cloak more sinister views
The focus on visual media and the abundance of young users makes it “a great platform to push far-right propaganda which is stylized and punchy,” said Hope Not Hate researcher Patrik Hermansson.
The punchiest way to garner attention from young people is through memes, Hermansson said. “Memes are easily consumable and they are funny and they’re easy to share,” he added. “They spread quickly and it exposes a lot of people to them.”
Memes are also an effective way to cloak more sinister views under a layer of humor or irony, Hermansson said. “The humor makes them easier to swallow,” he added.
Some of the more inoffensive memes use characters popular with the alt-right – Doge, Pepe the Frog, Cheems – to articulate controversial sentiments.
“What many extremists have learned is that explicit expressions of hatred may not attract as many people as more subtle references,” the ADL’s extremism expert said.
“It’s a tried and true technique of how to win hearts and minds,” Segal added. “You don’t hit them over the heads with the hatred. You sort of slow roll that process.”
‘Instagram’s algorithm leads users down rabbit-holes’
The “slow roll” process, which gradually introduces youngsters to more troubling material, is enabled by Instagram’s algorithm, say experts. Liking a seemingly innocuous meme can, in turn, present the teenager with more radical content.
Schroeder saw this process unfold when she began to monitor her teenage sons’ Instagram use.
“A kid might like something edgy, Pepe the Frog or something, and that triggers the algorithm,” she said. ‘That then sends them tumbling down into anti-feminist, racist, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi type of content.”
While the Instagram algorithm is relatively opaque and constantly evolving, it is known that the Explore page is a curated page of recommended content. The content is chosen “based on an individual’s historical interactions,” according to social media marketing company Later.
Liking content relating to any form of misinformation – election, vaccination, or race-based – leads to anti-Semitic and extremist content being promoted to the user, it found. “Instagram’s algorithm leads users down rabbit-holes to a warren of extremist content,” the study said.
“Instagram’s algorithm actively seeks out individuals who have not yet engaged with the extreme or radical accounts, but who have characteristics that the algorithm determines may find it appealing and then serves it to them,” Angelo Carusone, president of the right-wing watchdog Media Matters, told Insider.
He believes that directing younger users to problematic users makes Instagram a recruiting sergeant for extremists.
“Instagram isn’t merely hosting the content; it is actively building extremist movements by recruiting new adherents into the fold and connecting them with like-minded extremists,” Carusone said.
Direct messaging can lead to ‘grooming’
The DM feature allows users to send a message to any other use of the app and facilitates sending messages en masse aiding the indoctrination process, said Hope Not Hate’s Hermansson.
“They [extremists] can directly get in touch with people and say, “why don’t you join my group?'”
This can lead to “grooming,” according to far-right researcher Miro Dittrich. “You see 30-somethings talking to 14-year-olds and kind of grooming them for the far-right ideology.”
It’s particularly hard for social media platforms to police private messages unless a user reports them, Dittrich noted.
While it is hard to moderate direct messaging, experts believe that moderation generally is insufficient on the apps.
“There’s the question of how long viral content can stay up on the platform and, therefore, be exposed to a lot of people,” Hermansson said. “On Instagram, it appears that it’s too long. We see recruitment accounts for fascist groups that stay online for two months.”
Instagram faces an even bigger challenge in spotting and removing harmful content published on Instagram Stories. The feature allows users to host videos for 24 hours before they disappear from a user’s profile.
“I think they definitely have a problem with Instagram Stories,” Dittrich said. “A lot more of the content that violates the terms of service is shared via Stories. I think that’s a really hard space to moderate.”
When accounts are locked, the content reaches fewer people but has less chance of being reported. “Accounts among the neo-Nazi radical front usually have a locked account, so it’s not easy for people to flag stuff. Only the inner circle is allowed in these spaces,” Dittrich added.
Parents have to warn their kids
Every expert Insider spoke to agreed that Instagram needs to speed up the moderation process and removing the odd post isn’t enough.
“You can’t just take down one player or delete one picture someone posted,” Dittrich said. “You have to analyze and see that this is a network that all post content that leads to offline violence and do a systematic takedown.”
Insider asked Instagram about its policy on extremist content but it did not respond to the request for comment.
The responsibility isn’t entirely on Instagram, Dittrich told Insider. It also falls upon parents to be aware of the sort of content that their kids are consuming.
Hermansson agrees. “I think the solution to these issues comes down to the parents and schools because they are the closest to the kids,” he said. “The more you know about the terminology and language of the far-right today, the easier it is to see the signs.”
Schroeder, who has taken it upon herself to learn how to protect her kids, said: “It’s like teaching your kids to swim or teaching them to dial 911. They have to learn critical media skills, and they have to learn how to sniff out propaganda.”
Timothy Hale-Cusanelli liked to impersonate Adolf Hitler. He would strut around his workplace sporting a Hitler mustache, spouting vicious anti-Semitism while his intimidated colleagues did not dare to confront him.
An Insider investigation can reveal what is shocking is that Hale-Cusanelli, a Navy contractor, held a secret-level security clearance at the Naval Weapons Station Earle and had received numerous honors for his service in the Army Reserves.
Hale-Cusanelli also has a history of arrests and antagonizing his local Jewish community, the investigation finds.
The insurrectionist’s disturbing world has only now come to light because he faces several criminal counts, including obstructing a law enforcement officer and civil disorder, relating to his role in the insurrection of January 6.
‘The makeshift weapon was inscribed with …. a drawing of a confederate flag’
Even the most cursory of background checks by the Navy or the Army would have revealed that Hale-Cusanelli began dabbling with white supremacist philosophy at least a decade ago.
Hale-Cusanelli lives in Colts Neck, New Jersey. He was arrested, nearby, in August 2010 on charges of unlawful possession of a weapon and criminal mischief, Howell Municipal Court records show.
According to a March court filing, the incident involved Hale-Cusanelli and a friend using a “potato” gun to shoot frozen corn at houses. The crude weapon used was inscribed with the words “WHITE IS RIGHT” and a drawing of a confederate flag, the documents said.
Hale-Cusanelli was found guilty of criminal mischief, paid a $180 fine, and the other charges were dismissed. But this was the first of many brushes with the law and early indicators of far-right views.
Run-ins with the police
Since his first arrest in 2010, Hale-Cusanelli has been charged over 30 times, according to court records.
Prior to the January 6 siege of the Capitol, court records show a string of minor infractions and some more serious charges – but no felonies.
In 2011, Hale-Cusanelli was arrested for stabbing another man in the abdomen, Asbury Park Press reported.
He was accused of an aggravated assault attempt, causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon, possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, unlawful possession of weapons, and simple assault, Freehold Municipal Court records show.
“There was an altercation between his mother and her then-boyfriend who became violent when intoxicated,” Hale-Cusanell’s attorney wrote in the defendant’s motion for modification of bond. “Based upon information and belief, Mr. Hale-Cusanelli intervened to protect his mother and was subsequently arrested.”
The case was moved to the state Superior Court but records do not show that it resulted in a conviction.
A year later, Hale-Cusanelli was charged with breach of peace, found guilty, and fined $189, according to Howell Municipal Court records.
Hale-Cusanelli was arrested again in 2013 following an investigation into scrap metal theft, Freehold Patch reported in 2013. Most of the charges were dismissed but he was found guilty of loitering and failure to have his car inspected, Manalapan Municipal Court records show.
Hale-Cusanelli threatened Jews. He said he was going to show up at their homes on the Sabbath.
Between 2013 and 2020, Hale-Cusanelli added Jew-baiting to his resume of petty crime and delinquency.
He was found guilty and fined for littering on state property in 2014, according to Freehold Township Municipal Court records. He also pleaded guilty to driving an unregistered motor vehicle a year later, according to Mansfield Township Municipal Court records.
But a more serious charge against him emerged in early 2020. Hale-Cusanelli was reported to the police on two occasions for engaging in anti-Semitic harassment.
Members of New Jersey’s Jewish community had already felt the force of his Jew-hatred.
“Those who followed anti-Semitism in the area knew about Hale-Cusanelli,” a New Jersey rabbi, who wished to remain anonymous, told Insider.
The insurrectionist was a member of the ‘Rise Up Ocean County’ Facebook page – a controversial page rampant with anti-Semitism that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy eventually condemned.
In 2019, Murphy’s administration sent a letter to Facebook addressing concerns with “racist and anti-Semitic statements on the page, including an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County.”
Facebook eventually removed it.
During the height of its popularity, Hale-Cusanelli was ominously vocal on the ‘Rise Up Ocean County’ page.
The original group’s moderator, Richard Ciullo, told Insider that Hale-Cusanelli had made multiple “incendiary” comments on the page and was eventually banned. Insider has seen screenshots confirming Hale-Cusanelli’s involvement.
In February 2020, the insurrectionist got into an online argument with Jewish commenters.
“Hale-Cusanelli was making veiled threats, saying that he was going to show up to people’s houses on the Sabbath,” the New Jersey rabbi said.
One of the people impacted by the Facebook feud reported Hale-Cusanelli to the police for anti-Semitic harassment on February 29, 2020.
“Hale-Cusanelli made vague threats stating, ‘I’m not scared of people knowing my face, I’m happy to be a lightning rod. Make me famous as your own risk,'” a police report seen by Insider said. Hale-Cusanelli also included references to the individual’s address, it said.
A week later, another person reported Hale-Cusanelli for anti-Semitic harassment and cyberharassment.
Toms River Police Department confirmed both of these incidents.
County prosecutors were also aware of Hale-Cusanelli’s provocative anti-Semitic behavior. He was on their “radar,” a press officer at the Office of the Ocean County Prosecutor told Insider.
A social media troll
Hale-Cusanelli deleted his Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts in an attempt to “obstruct or destroy evidence” before his arrest, federal prosecutors said.
Insider, however, has seen verified screenshots of Hale-Cusanelli’s now-deleted Twitter posts. In one post, the insurrectionist refers to Jews as “locusts.” In another, he targeted New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish community.
He used his Twitter account to promote his YouTube show, “Based Hermes,” which he also deleted after the Capitol riots.
However, special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were able to recover content relating to the show. One YouTube teaser, included in a court filing, showed the insurrectionist falsely claiming that Jewish people were behind 9/11.
Hale-Cusanelli’s lawyer, Jonathan Zucker, argued in the defendant’s pretrial release that the YouTube channel was “controversial” but was primarily about New Jersey politics. Prosecutors refute this.
Investigators also uncovered hundreds of anti-Black and anti-Semitic memes from his cellphone, the court filings show.
A 2019 photo of Hale-Cusanelli displaying the “OK” hand gesture – a hate symbol associated with the far-right and white supremacy – was retrieved too.
Several images of the young man sporting a Hitler mustache and haircut were also found.
Hale-Cusanelli received several honors for his service in the Army Reserves
These discoveries did not surprise Hale-Cusanelli’s co-workers at NWS Earle Security Forces.
Many who worked with him at the Naval base were aware of his anti-Semitic views, Insider previously reported.
One Navy Petty Officer said that it was “well-known” that Hale-Cusanelli did not like minorities or Jews. A Navy Seaman recalled an incident where he said that if he were a Nazi, he would “kill all the Jews and eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
An HBC contractor said that spoke about his “dislike of Jews every day” and that people were afraid to report him because he was “crazy.”
Despite a history of arrests and racist behavior, Hale-Cusanelli received several honors for his Army Reserves service.
He joined in May 2009 and is still serving in the 174th Infantry Brigade out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, an Army spokesperson said.
He has never been deployed but has received four Army awards; an Army Achievement Medal, an Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and the Army Service Ribbon.
One honor bestowed upon him, the Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, is awarded for meritorious service. The criteria for receiving it are “exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity,” according to the Army’s website.
Insider, recognizing the discrepancy between Hale-Cusanelli’s problematic history and the criteria of this medal, asked the Army Reserves whether they were aware of his past behaviors.
“Sgt. Hale-Cusanelli’s leadership was not aware of his prior involvement with law enforcement, to include run-ins, arrests, or convictions, or of the videos posted on social media,” Simon B. Flake, the Army Reserve’s media chief, said.
Yet, despite the insurrectionist’s arrest for his involvement in the Capitol riots, he has not yet been discharged by the Army Reserves.
Flake told Insider: “The U.S. Army Reserve takes all allegations of Soldier or Army civilian involvement in extremist groups seriously and will address this issue in accordance with Army regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to ensure due process. Extremist ideologies and activities directly oppose our values and beliefs and those who subscribe to extremism have no place in our ranks.”
‘He was granted a secret-level security clearance’
Similarly, the Navy had a blind spot when it came to Hale-Cusanelli and employed him as a security contractor at Naval Weapons Station Earle. His open adoration for Hitler, his vocal racism and anti-Semitism, were no barrier to advancement, and he was granted a secret-level security clearance.
A secret-level security clearance allows individuals access to information which if disclosed without authorization could reasonably be expected to “cause serious damage to the national security,” according to the Code of Federal Regulations.
To receive this level of security clearance requires a background check and the provision of vast quantities of personal information. A history or pattern of criminality might raise concerns about granting security clearance but it is not an automatic disqualifier, according to Military.com.
Showing an “enthusiasm for another Civil War,” as federal prosecutors suggest the evidence indicates of Hale-Cusanelli, would almost certainly disqualify an individual from gaining clearance.
Since his arrest, Hale-Cusanelli has been “barred” from the naval base, according to federal prosecutors.
Insider contacted the Navy Office of Information to ask about Hale-Cusanelli’s secret-level security clearance in light of former arrests. The office confirmed receipt of the request for comment but did not provide one.
Extremism within US military ranks
Prior to Hale-Cusanelli’s arrest for his involvement in the Capitol riots, there were clues that he held a white-supremacist ideology and might later participate in a violent crime. These signs, however, were not picked up on by military officials.
Hale-Cusanelli was one of many active-duty military members involved in the deadly siege of the Capitol. Almost one in five rioters were active-duty members of veterans, Insider previously reported.
After people on Twitter noticed the similarity, the organizer of the conservative conference strongly denied it was intentional, saying the “stage design conspiracies are outrageous and slanderous.”
“We have a long-standing commitment to the Jewish community,” Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, said in a tweet. “CPAC proudly stands with our Jewish allies, including those speaking from this stage.”
The design of the stage is in the shape of an “Odal rune,” which was used on Nazi uniforms in some divisions of the SS and has also been used by white supremacists in Europe and North America in the years following World War II.