A former leader of the Atomwaffen Division in Texas, a racially motivated violent extremist group, was sentenced this week for his role in a “swatting” conspiracy that targeted a mosque in Arlington, Texas; journalists, a Virginia university, a former U.S. Cabinet member, a historic African-American church, and members of various minority groups and communities across the United States, according to the Justice Department.
Swatting is a harassment tactic that involves deceiving emergency dispatchers into believing that people are in imminent danger of death or bodily harm and causing the dispatchers to send police and emergency services to an unwitting third party’s address.
“The reprehensible conduct in this case terrorized communities across our nation, as innocent Americans simply tried to attend school, practice their faith, and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a news release. “The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes. This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion, or any other form of bias, will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice.”
According to court documents, John Cameron Denton, 27, of Montgomery, Texas, participated in a conspiracy that conducted swatting attacks on at least 134 locations between October 2018 and February 2019. He was sentenced Tuesday to 41 months in prison.
Many of the conspirators, including Denton, chose targets because they were motivated by racial animus, the Justice Department said.
“Denton’s swatting activities were not harmless pranks; he carefully chose his targets to antagonize and harass religious and racial communities, journalists, and others against whom he held a bias or grievance,” said Timothy Thibault, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office Criminal Division.
Conspirators targeted multiple locations in the Eastern District of Virginia, including a then-sitting U.S. Cabinet official living in northern Virginia on Jan. 27, 2019; Old Dominion University on Nov. 29 and Dec. 4, 2018; and the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria on Nov. 3, 2018. In each instance, conspirators selected the targets and called emergency dispatchers with false claims of pipe bombs, hostage takings, or other violent activity.
As a result of these swatting calls, police were dispatched to Old Dominion University and the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and people were required to shelter in place while the bomb threats were investigated. According to court documents, a conspirator admitted to choosing the Alfred Street Baptist Church as a target because its congregation is predominantly African American.
Additionally, Denton personally chose at least two targets to “swat”: the New York City office of ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism; and an investigative journalist who produced materials for ProPublica. Denton chose these two targets because he was angry with ProPublica and the investigative journalist for publishing Denton’s identity and discussing his role in the Atomwaffen Division, a U.S.-based violent extremist group with cells in multiple states, authorities said. The group’s targets have included racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the U.S. government, journalists, and critical infrastructure.
During the investigation, Denton unknowingly met with an undercover law enforcement officer and told the officer about his role in the swatting conspiracy. Denton stated that he used a voice changer when he made swatting calls and admitted that he swatted the offices of ProPublica and the investigative journalist. Denton also stated that it would be good if he was “raided” for the swatting because it would be viewed as a top-tier crime, and he felt that his arrest could benefit the Atomwaffen Division.
Denton’s lawyers argued at the sentencing hearing that the conviction should not be considered a hate crime, the Associated Press reported. While defense lawyer Andrew Stewart acknowledged that numerous swatting targets were chosen based on racial animus, he claimed Denton never did so.
At the hearing, Denton, offered a brief apology to his victims, to his family and to police officers who responded to the swatting calls, the AP reported. U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady asked Denton about where he stands on his white-supremacist views and Denton responded that “I do not plan to go back to Atomwaffen Division or any groups like that.”
O’Grady, in handing down the sentence, said “I’m not convinced that you’ve changed your ways at all” but nevertheless gave a sentence below federal sentencing guidelines of 51 to 60 months. Below-guideline sentences are not uncommon. Denton has already served about 14 months in jail awaiting sentencing.