Fears of workplace shooting led to child porn charge against Portland man

·8 min read

May 6—A Portland business owner who feared that an employee would commit a workplace shooting called the FBI last month after receiving an anonymous tip suggesting that the worker was part of a white nationalist group and that he was preparing for the collapse of society by buying guns and survival gear.

Now the former employee, Andrew Hazelton, 28, is facing a federal criminal charge of possessing child pornography, a case that appears to be an unintended result of the employer's report and the investigation that followed. Hazelton was ordered held without bail during a detention hearing Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge John H. Rich III.

Hazelton, of Elmwood Street in Portland, was denounced by name Monday as a "former member" by the New England chapter of a white nationalist group whose fliers have been posted around Portland in recent months. The group did not say why it condemned him. He was first identified by an anonymous group of Twitter anti-fascist activists who scour social media and monitor extremist groups to publicly out alleged white nationalists and Nazi sympathizers.

The allegation that Hazelton had a sexual interest in children dates to a 2019 investigation by the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office, whose investigators successfully linked Hazelton to a case where he sought sexual pictures from a 10-year-old girl. But Hazelton was never charged in that case, and it's unclear why the Penobscot County investigators did not press forward using the information that has resulted in charges against Hazelton.

The business owner who reported Hazelton, David Sawicki of Voice Teleservices in North Deering, decided to call authorities after he received an anonymously emailed image showing someone pointing a stun-gun device at a co-worker inside his office. The image also was posted publicly last month by the anti-fascist Twitter group.

Sawicki said he had been planning to fire Hazelton for poor attendance before he received the image, but he feared that if he did so Hazelton would come back to the workplace armed. Sawicki then called the sheriff's office, which advised him to call the FBI. A summary of the FBI's interview with Sawicki and other employees at Voice Teleservices was entered as an exhibit during Wednesday's court hearing.

"It was definitely our office," Sawicki said of the anonymously emailed photo during an interview Wednesday. "Honestly, up until we saw that (photo) we thought, 'OK, he's eccentric.' "

While Hazelton was known by co-workers to make strange comments, in recent months he had become more reticent around the office, repeatedly showed up late to work and appeared nervous. He also had told others that he wanted to move "up north" so he could be around more white people.

He told co-workers he had been at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., and even showed a co-worker images and videos on his phone from the Capitol grounds that day, said Tsinat Taffere, Hazelton's manager, in an interview Wednesday.

The act of publishing someone's true identity and connecting it to their anonymous online persona without their permission is called doxxing, and has become a controversial, occasionally dangerous tool of online groups looking to bring real-world consequences for online actions or affiliations.

Besides being doxxed online, Hazelton was outed in his neighborhood. Sometime in April, someone began posting flyers on telephone poles near his home near the University of New England identifying him as a white nationalist.

"Get to know your local Nazis!" The flier read, showing an image of Hazelton that he had taken of himself in a mirror, along with a litany of allegations about him, including that he belonged to a group identified as NSC-131.

"Hate isn't welcome here," the flier concludes. "Protect your neighbors; don't tolerate racists."

This week the local chapter of NSC-131, NSC New England, expelled Hazelton by name.

"We wholly and entirely denounce our former member, Andrew Hazelton," NSC New England wrote in a statement posted to Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform where the hate group has about 2,000 followers. "If another person like this (Hazelton) joins our group, and we find out what you're about before the feds do — you'll be wishing they got you first," it said.

The statement was posted after his arrest for possessing child pornography, but did not state the reason Hazelton was being expelled. The group said in the statement that it will institute background checks, "phone checks" and "character-based vetting" going forward.

The post by NSC New England also linked to the Twitter account where Hazelton was first identified by name as a white supremacist neo-Nazi.

Hazelton was called out on a Twitter account called Antifascist Garfield, or Garf, whose followers monitor the shadowy parts of the internet where extremist groups recruit new members, among other activities.

By monitoring accounts that engage with known white supremacists, Garf connected Hazelton's true identity to his online posts. In one image that appeared to have clinched the identification, a screenshot of an account showed an online bank account, including the owner's full name: Andrew Hazelton. Garf cataloged other posts by the now-unmasked account sympathizing with white nationalist ideas.

Other posts made by that account apparently linked to Hazelton and captured by Garf purport to show Hazelton trying to radicalize his father, an elected official in his hometown of Westford, Massachusetts. They also show the account linked to Hazelton discussing collecting Nazi paraphernalia.

Hazelton's mother, Susan Hazelton, hung up on a reporter when reached at her Westford home Wednesday morning.

During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wolff entered an image of the neighborhood flier about Hazelton and an interview summary by federal agents with Hazelton's former employer and co-workers, who told them Hazelton had become despondent and suicidal between November and December 2020, and he bought a handgun sometime in January.

Hazelton's attorney, public defender David Beneman, argued that Hazelton had strong ties to the community and his family in Massachusetts who would support him; they were also present for the Zoom hearing. Beneman said Hazelton was in recovery and took his mental health seriously, and suggested added bail restrictions that would allow him to be released.

But Rich cited Hazelton's alleged interaction with the 10-year-old girl as "extremely grave," and found that he posed a danger and should not be released.

After the hearing, Beneman did not return a call seeking an interview.

It's still unclear what connected the recent FBI investigation of Hazelton with the 2019 allegations.

Affidavits submitted by the agents do not specify how they learned of the earlier investigation.

In that case, investigators with the Penobscot Sheriff's Office responded to a complaint by a mother that an adult man contacted a 10-year-old girl on Instagram and tried to entice her into having sex with him.

The account associated with the adult man used the online handle "Hazelman93" and the person using it went by Andrew, according to court records, which included screenshots of the exchanges.

At the time, investigators for the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office located the account associated with "Hazelman93" and using a Massachusetts license plate visible in one photo, traced the car to Hazelton's mother. Using openly available information on Facebook, the Penobscot investigator identified Andrew Hazelton as Susan Hazelton's son, and with further open-source research, linked Hazelton's Facebook account to the Instagram handle "Hazelman93." The Penobscot investigator, Detective Sgt. Noel Santiago, even traced Hazelton's address to South Portland.

But it's unclear what further action the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office took. Hazelton does not have a criminal record, prosecutors said.

Using the information from the 2019 investigation, agents with the FBI were granted a search warrant April 28 for Hazelton's cellphone and electronic devices and searched his home the next day, taking Hazelton's phone from him. On the phone, they found a folder labeled "1488" that contained videos of child pornography, according to federal court records.

Agents took several guns from his room along with his computer. But they left behind stacks of crisp, freshly printed propaganda fliers touting the NSC-131 group, according to his roommate, Jonathan Guimont, 42, who showed a reporter the papers along with a small collection of Nazi reading, including Hitler's autobiography and vintage Nazi paraphernalia, including a red arm band with a swastika on it.

Guimont said that in the roughly two years they lived together, Hazelton was quiet and stayed in his room almost always, leaving only to use the bathroom or the kitchen, he said. He once saw the Nazi arm band displayed in Hazelton's bedroom when he had to reset the internet router, and heard Hazelton denigrate people of color and Jews. But they never fought and left each other alone, Guimont said.

He was floored when he arrived home from work last week to find the FBI in his hallway, and hopes he can stay in the home, now that Hazelton is gone.

"I told my landlord, 'Look, you're letting me pick the next roommate,' " he said.