Carole Teegardin: How could you like hitler? I mean, and he said he wasn’t that bad of a guy. And I never forgot that.
Tristan Webb: We’re not, um, just going to sit behind keyboards anymore and talk about, uh, our, our beliefs or talk about, um, the fact that we need to train and we need to be prepared that we’re actually doing it now, um, and actually getting ready for any scenario.
Daniel Valasco: They have a right to be here. They have no right to, however, cause trouble and hurt people and intimidate people. They have no right to do that.
Eric Webb: I can’t believe that’s legal to let my son be in a pressure cooker situation like that with a loaded weapon.
Geraldine Moriba: This is season two of Sounds Like Hate, a podcast series from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’m Geraldine Moriba.
Jamila Paksima: And I’m Jamila Paksima. We’re examining where we come from, the history we accept as truth, and how sometimes our views influence the people we love the most towards violent extremist beliefs.
Geraldine Moriba: Last season, in our three-part story Baseless we introduced you to the accelerationsist, neo-nazi group called the base. We reported on their violent plots and schemes.
Jamila Paksima: We shared excerpts from 83 hours of secret audio recordings made inside the base’s “vetting room” between the leader of this group and more than 100 potential new members.
Geraldine Moriba: These recordings cover a two-year period, starting November 2018.
Erik: If you look at the economy and this whole fiat currency, even if it doesn’t collapse, it’s just going to degenerate more and more until even the military starts to revolt. That’s why I’d say just prepare for the fall.
Jamila Paksima: The conversations reveal how the base was organizing members into small terror cells across the United States. This included converting a farm in Michigan into a whites-only compound where men would practice paramilitary training and get prepared for the collapse of America.
Geraldine Moriba: On one of those secret recordings was a prospective member from Michigan, a 17 year old who called himself Erik.
Erik: Uh, well, I’m, uh, a quarter Slavic and then mostly Anglo and German.
Jamila Paksima: 55 percent of the recruits on these secret recordings were 21 and under. Erik stood out for his eagerness to open his family farm in Bad Axe, Michigan, to other base members.
Erik: I mean, I know you guys have a really good vetting situation going. So, you know, anybody that needs anything, they got a safe house to go to. Anybody has a place to come.
Geraldine Moriba: Part Four of Baseless is about this teenage recruit and members of the base who moved in with him. It’s also about his family’s attempts to intervene before it was too late.
Jamila Paksima: A warning to our listeners: This episode contains offensive and violent content.
One of the first things we learned after releasing the last episode of Baseless is Erik’s real name. It’s Tristan Webb. He is 18 now. This is our first phone conversation.
Tristan Webb: Hi, how’s it going? This is Tristan.
Jamila Paksima: Hey, Tristan, thank you for calling. How you doing today?
Tristan Webb: I’m doing all right.
Jamila Paksima: Have you had a chance to hear our podcast at all?
Tristan Webb: Yeah. I heard, um, the one that I was in.
Jamila Paksima: What were some of the things that have led you to national socialism or white separatism?
Tristan Webb: I was researching into politics in general, since a really young age, um, because of the fact my dad was more of a, uh, conspiracy theorist kind of guy. So I didn’t trust the government at all or democracy and I, uh, kind of came to see that, um, we needed something radical to change. If they’re lying about all these other things, then they’re probably lying about hitler and stuff.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan’s antisemetic and distorted beliefs frightened his grandmother, she could see her grandson heading down the path of radicalization.
Carole Teegardin: It just started to feel like Tristan was, you know, having some trouble.
Jamila Paksima: Carol Teegardin is Tristan’s paternal grandmother. She was a columnist with the Detroit Free Press and later she became a substitute teacher.
Carole Teagarden: He had an early hardship with that stuff.
Jamila Paksima: After Tristan’s parents divorced she says one of his father’s girlfriend’s hurt him as a five year old.
Carole Teagarden: They got into a tangle. She grabbed his arm and, and, uh, broke it, basically. That was really bad. And Eric was really upset. And Eric never saw, you know, he didn’t see the woman after that. But there was a residue of that, there’s all kinds of things that happened and some other stuff that happened that I’d rather not talk about.
Jamila Paksima: She says Tristan was also exposed to his mother’s drinking.
Carole Teagarden: She’s had some problems over the years, but I told her I don’t judge her on anything, any of all this stuff that goes on. I have judged her about the alcohol and I told her that, you know, and she said, “it is what it is.” So, either you can get sober or you don’t. I was the lucky one. I was able to, you know, stop. Lucky I did, ‘cause I had kidney disease.
Jamila Paksima: At the age of 8, Tristan moved with his mother to Lake City, Michigan. This move was the hardest. Teegardin says he was a new kid, in a new town, when he became suicidal. He went to therapy, reluctantly. His grandmother remembers this was the beginning of his interest in hilter, she says he watched historical videos about him with a close relative.
Carole Teegardin: I would go over there and they would have, he would have videos about hitler and Tristan would sit and watch ‘em with him. Well, you know, I just looked at it and I went, “how could you like hitler?” I mean, and he said, “he wasn’t that bad of a guy.” I didn’t connect it to Tristan that I didn’t think anything. I didn’t think he; I didn’t think anything at the time. I should have.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan’s mother declined speaking with us, but in the secret recordings of the base’s recruiting calls, Tristan explained that many of his mother’s side of the family shared his white supremacist views, views which deepend when Tristan met a friend online, a teenage girl living in Australia.
Carol Teegardin: He fell for this girl and his whole life began to revolve around phone calls, which you almost have to do because he’s talking to her when it’s three o’clock, you know, our time. And so school was suffering. So he wanted to do home schooling.
Jamila Paksima: Soon, Tristan said he wanted to visit her. Trying to be supportive, his grandmother took him on the first of two trips across the world. She says she was shocked when Tristan’s new girlfriend also turned out to be a white supremacist. They dated for about two years.
Carole Teagarden: My grandson, he doesn’t call himself a white supremist. Um, he calls himself, I think the last thing I heard was a nationalist, which is, um, pretty, it’s racist and I was stunned when it first appeared. I thought, boy, you know, our family wasn’t like that.
Jamila Paksima: He developed an obsession with black metal music and started following a Norweigan artist named Varg Vikernes, a neo-nazi and a convicted murderer who served time for arson and for burning down a church and for fatally stabbing a musician.
Carole Teagarden: It was pretty much white supremist. He had burned down some churches and he had actually murdered somebody from another dark metal band. And he went to jail and he came out and I thought, “oh, boy, this is bad.”
Jamila Paksima: By the time he was in Lake City High School, Tristan openly shared his nazi beliefs and it got him kicked out of school.
Carole Teegarden: The Lake City school is shut down because he was passing out whatever he had done. And, um, he got suspended.
Jamila Paksima: We were able to obtain a copy of the propaganda, dated May 15, 2018, from the Missaukee County Sheriff’s Office. The pamphlets professed false and disparaging accusations about other races, as well as keeping the white race pure. There was also a letter Tristan signed and distributed, asking students to fundraise and join him in the national socialist movement.
Carole Teegarden: That’s when I saw the material start to happen, like, Holocaust signs. And he had framed pictures of hitler and hitler’s henchmen. And I would walk in and I go, “wow, Tristan this is, um, pretty rough.” Then he, he began to.. he cut his hair short and then he began to do, like, the skinhead look. And he was getting a lot of this stuff online.
Eric Webb: He’s always been an outsider. And then he searched for identity.
Jamila Paksima: Eric Webb is Tristan’s father. Tristan was using his father’s name as an alias to join the base. This is the real Eric.
Eric Webb: She’s snoring.
Jamila Paksima: He was holding his miniature pet Yorkie during our interview. He says he didn’t know about the pamphlets.
Eric Webb: How did I.. I never.. that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that.
Jamila Paksima: There were many things he didn’t know about his son.
Tristan Webb I have swastika tattoos on my hand and, uh, tattoos on my face.
Jamila Paksima: You didn’t know that did you?
Eric Webb: No.
Jamila Paksima: “And now I have a tattoo on my face.”
Eric Webb: Ugh.
Jamila Paksima: Even the dog is groaning about it.
Jamila Paksima: Teegardin says Tristan lived with his father at different points. He heard Eric’s conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, prepper ideology, and anti-government views. Teegardin also says Webb later became a Q’anon believer. This is a conspiracy theory about a secret faction of Democrats who were Satan-worshipping pedophiles, running a global child sex-trafficking plot against former-president Trump. Eric disagrees with his mother’s characterization of his beliefs and says he’s not the source of Tristan’s radicalization.
Eric Webb: A lot of people want to blame. They want to look for a source. In my view of the world a lot of people go, “well, where did he learn this kind of stuff from?” Well, he didn’t learn it from me. Wouldn’t have learned it from my mom or my dad.
Jamila Paksima: Do you think you had extremist views when you were young?
Eric Webb: No, never.
Jamila Paksima: Are you a national socialist?
Eric Webb: No.
Jamila Paksima: Have you ever denied the Holocaust?
Eric Webb: No.
Jamila Paksima: Do you idolize hitler?
Eric Webb: No.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan says his parents and school counselors tried to intervene.
Tristan Webb: They tried to get therapists to talk to me. They tried to suspend me. They tried to do whatever they could to stop, you know, me, de-radicalize me and everything. And it just didn’t work. It just made me, uh, more secure in what I was doing and it worked. I mean, I got a group of people around and got people to wake up.
Jamila Paksima: By the time he was in high school, Tristan says he identified as a national socialist. This excerpt is from his interview with the base.
Eric Webb: There was an assembly going on and I was giving a speech and then there was, uh, light coming in from the window behind me. They called me Jesus hitler the rest of the year.
Jamila Paksima: In your vetting call, you talked about students calling you Jesus hitler?
Tristan Webb: Yeah, that was, um, just because I, I would give speeches and stuff. And I was really passionate about the movement, um, and I would try and convert people over and give people pamphlets.
Jamila Paksima: Here’s another story his father hadn’t heard.
Eric Webb: Jesus hitler? Never heard of it. But that just sounds.. to me, in my beliefs, it’s like, okay, Jesus. And who’s the anti-Jesus? Oh, hitler. It, it, it just tells me on my own personal level that he’s battling good and evil in himself.
Jamila Paksima: Eric Webb is an optometrist, a divorced father of two. He says he’s a devout Christian. He also saw his son struggle with depression and then witnessed him going down a path of extremism. Webb says he tried to intervene more than once.
Eric Webb: I called CPS and I called the school counselor when I first saw the swastika stuff and they did nothing. I talked to a lawyer about getting custody of my son. Nothing. If, if CPS and the school counselor aren’t going to back you, you’re not going to win custody. So.
Jamila Paksima: Webb says he never worried about Tristan being violent.
Eric Webb: I didn’t worry about him being a killer. He doesn’t have it in ‘em to kill. Um, but I worry about him being put in that situation where he would shoot back.
Jamila Paksima: In high school, the sheriff’s office and federal investigators were called. There was a concern Tristan might be a school shooter. They searched his car for guns and found nothing. Tristan dismissed the suspicion.
Tristan Webb: I was a metal head and, you know, wore leather jackets and stuff, you know, and then I was, you know, also, you know, a nazi. So people just assume, you know, you’re going to shoot up a school because of that.
Jamila Paksima: But in America there is reason for concern. 2018 was the most deadly year on record with 24 active school shooting incidents. 114 people were killed or injured, more than any other year. In the secret recordings we obtained of the base’s recruiting calls, Tristan boasted he’d had more than one visit from the feds.
Erik: I opened the door and there’s, like, 11 feds, ATF agents, guys in suits. I mean, it was crazy. And then, uh, I sat down, talked to ‘em and the ATF agents went in my room and, uh, they have all my serial numbers of my guns and shit. And they found this silencer I was trying to make, uh, in the garage.
Jamila Paksima: These visits appear to be a source of pride to Tristan.
Jamila Paksima: It seems they’re watching you.
Tristan Webb: Uh. Yeah, they pretty much have been since I was about 15. So.
Jamila Paksima: How many times have they met with you?
Tristan Webb: Uh. Well, okay. First time I was in high school, and that was because they, somebody called the FBI on me saying I was going to shoot up the school, and then they came and met with me. And then, um, the raid, uh, in September of 2019, and that was, um, uh, because of my grandma calling the state police and then they called CPS and then CPS called the FBI and then, um.
Jamila Paksima: So along the way, is there anything that could have been supportive to you? Or all this effort to try to talk to you was futile?
Tristan Webb: Oh, yeah, no, it didn’t work at all. I think, um, no one wants to hear, you know, “oh, you’re wrong. You know, you need to stop this, uh. Oh, you know, you’re, you know, you’re evil. You’re radi..” ‘Cause it just makes you more sure in yourself.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan says he founded a group called aryan resistance.
Tristan Webb: I, I think that, um, the Jews, um, they are just a parasitical race and I mean, I don’t believe the Holocaust happened. I wish it did happen.
Jamila Paksima: So, how do you explain the six million people who died in the Holocaust?
Tristan Webb: The gas chambers and a lot of the six million number that’s been thrown around is exaggerated. Of course, they were put into the camps. The Holocaust is, um, greatly exaggerated for profit.
Jamila Paksima: There are probably hundreds of millions of people who disagree with you. It’s one of the worst atrocities that ever happened in this world. Um, at the same time, you know, a few minutes ago, you’re telling me, “no, no race should overpower another race.”
Jamila Paksima: And while Tristan’s extremist views helped him gain membership into the base, none of his racist, Holocaust denying, genocidal rantings are based on truth.
I Don’t Speak German Podcast: Alright, and welcome to Episode 41 of I Don’t Speak German. The podcast that talks about the things that terrible people do, say, and believe.
Geraldine Moriba: Daniel Harper is a podcast host. He uses a mix of humor and information to explain the pathways to extremism. Not long after Harper launched his series in early 2019, he was doxxed. In Harper’s case, a dossier was circulated online with personal details about him. It included an address in Michigan.
Daniel Harper: The dossier was, you know, it had my.. my name is Daniel Harper. So, it would have kind of raw information taken from a data dreg, you know, on, on some level.
Geraldine Moriba: Which is when the harassment started.
Daniel Harper: There were, uh, some, um, drive-bys of the house posted in, uh, various Telegram channels, which we, again, colloquially call Terrorgram. That’s when it turned from mockery to something that was much darker.
Geraldine Moriba: One video focused on a house with an SUV parked in the driveway. Neo-nazi’s shared it on YouTube, along with the license plate number and threats like, “nice place you got there.”
Daniel Harper: They would drive a car and film going past this particular address and then, um, they would turn on, like, their GPS that indicated, yes, we are at this particular address. But it turned out that they had the wrong house, that there had previously been another person named Daniel Harper who had lived in that house.
Geraldine Moriba: But not you, Daniel Harper.
Daniel Harper: But not me.
Geraldine Moriba: So, a different family, a completely unrelated family was being harassed.
Daniel Harper: A completely unrelated family, and my immediate response was, of course, to notify, um, authorities and to get the word out through every, um, vessel I had to make sure that, um, this family was aware of, um, the possible threat.
Geraldine Moriba: In September 2019, the FBI picked up U.S. Army soldier Jarrett William Smith. He was arrested for distributing information about making weapons of mass destruction, a napalm bomb, and crossing a state line to plan an attack on the misidentified home of Daniel Harper, the podcaster.
Geraldine Moriba: There was one message that said: “I’m not saying do anything illegal, but I’m saying it would be a real shame if all he has went up in literal flames.” That is a, a provoking, deliberate message to suggest what they believe to be your home should be burned down.
Daniel Harper: Absolutely. And, um, that quote comes immediately after a, uh, a set of instructions for how to do exactly that without being detected, um, in the middle of the night. But of course, what’s interesting there is that, uh, he’s saying the words, you know, “I’m not saying do anything illegal.”
Geraldine Moriba: Smith was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in federal prison, but the horror didn’t end there. In the most unfortunate type of mistaken identity, another neo-nazi group repeated the same bungled attempts at terror. This time it was the base. Harper had reported about this group on his own show. Which brings us back to Tristan’s story in Michigan.
Daniel Harper: Right. They were much more sort of operationally focused. And my work is almost entirely on kind of the propaganda wing of these guys.
Geraldine Moriba: You’ve reported a lot on militias. How does the base fit into the patterns you’ve seen with these groups?
Daniel Harper: Well, the base is arguably as sort of a training, uh, package for this race war concept. But there is also a tension between groups like the base and the sort of more mainstream militia groups, um, that the base exploits, because what they want to do is define the kind of furthest right, the people dissatisfied with the standard militia rhetoric. And then they want to radicalize them into this kind of more extremist, um, overt race war ideology.
Megan Squire: Let me see. Um. Yeah. So let me, and I put a time stamp in this one, too, so, hold on, I’ll share the screen.
Geradline Moriba: Megan Squire has a PhD in computer science. She uses data science and technology to study online extremism.
Megan Squire: We’re noticing hate groups and other right-wing extremist groups decentralizing and moving to online platforms. As the world uses technology, these groups do also. And so, um, I as a software engineer I’m able to write code and analyze data to try to understand that phenomenon and just the whole idea of them moving to new platforms and new places online.
Geraldine Moriba: Where does the base fit in?
Megan Squire: So, they are representative of ideological shift, I guess, or, uh, a system of beliefs and activities that’s a little bit different than what we’ve seen before. Sometimes that strain of things is called accelerationism. In terms of their capacity for violence, they were probably pretty high. But at the same time, they were very small and, um, as it turns out, fairly easily disrupted, I guess. So, this is a screencap from a different base channel.
Geraldine Moriba: On December 11th, 2019, two Michigan base members took photos of themselves, with flashing bulbs, on the front porch of the home they believed belonged to Daniel Harper.
Megan Squire: And then they marked it with their propaganda. So, not only is the guy wearing the totem kumpf T-shirt and the base symbol on his plate carrier and the skull mask, and he’s blacked his eyes out and he’s got a hat, I mean, the whole thing. But then they also put their base logo on top of the picture, just to kind of drive home the point of who’s doing this terror. It’s definitely propaganda and, and directed at their own affiliates.
Geraldine Moriba: Again, it was the wrong house and the same innocent family.
Daniel Harper: And, uh, they pointed to the number of the address and then, like, took photos of themselves.
Geraldine Moriba: The worst part is it happened again, again, and again. There were threats on social media, videos, and a letter. The family living there called law enforcement for help.
Daniel Harper: The idea is to sow increasing discord within society, to increase the tensions in society, to make people more scared and more apt to, uh, reach for guns and be more apt to turn on their neighbors. And, uh, you know, like, that’s their explicit, stated political goal.
Geraldine Moriba: The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office saw those images and described them as non-threatening photographs and statements and closed the case.
Daniel Harper: What they see is, you know, is just a couple of kids. It’s just trespassing, like.. they didn’t take it seriously at all.
Geraldine Moriba: And then the FBI shows up.
Daniel Harper: Right.
Jamila Paksima: On that same December night in 2019, when two base members were on the porch terrorizing an innocent family, the newest base recruit, Tristan, was explaining his personal beliefs on his vetting call. Tristan says he was recruited by a man with the alias, A.K. His real name is Justen Watkins. On Tristan’s vetting call, he explained Justen Watkins had recruited him to join the Michigan cell of the base.
Tristan Webb: Justen told me about the base.
Jamila Paksima: He’s a 24-year-old member of the base and aryan resistance, the local neo-nazi group Tristan started.
Tristan Webb: He was more of a, uh, you know, a leader, a go-getter, more of a high energy person, you know, a very, a good motivator.
Jamila Paksima: Around this time, Tristan was suspended for 3 days from high school. Then he moved again with his brother and mother to a 3.5-acre family farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan. It’s a small, two-story, three-bedroom white house with beige siding. Membership in the base would connect him to a larger network of like-minded racist people.
Tristan Webb: My dad was raised in the house. My grandpa lived in the house and died there. So, I just, you know, what I wanted to do, was just give, um, other whites, you know, white guys, and whatever an opportunity to live among other whites and be able to actually have families. Just separate and get away from this society because, you know, a lot of guys I was talking to were just depressed.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan invited Justen and two other men to rent rooms. At one point a 17-year-old male runaway from Idaho moved in for a few months. When Tristan’s grandmother, Carole Teegardin, visited she knew nothing good was happening in the Webb house. She worried about Tristan’s father’s hunting rifles and other guns she saw laying around, instead of being locked away. She says an FBI agent asked her to look for clues and find out more about the men living in the house.
Carol Teegardin: He said, “See if there are two-way cameras on the exterior of the house.” He said, “See if there’s any additional paraphernalia around.” There was. It was a whole garage with all that stuff covered.
Jamila Paksima: Teegardin says she couldn’t believe what she saw.
Carol Teegardin: Huge swastikas, flags.
Jamila Paksima: She says the FBI agent told her to look for a manifesto. But says on her next visit one of the young men living in the house followed her every step.
Carol Teegardin: So, what I did is just call him back and I said, “there are guns that are loose. There’s no manifesto. There’s a gun in a drawer. There’s cameras.”
Peter Simi: My name’s Pete Simi. I’m a professor of sociology at Chapman University in Southern California.
Geraldine Moriba: Pete Simi is an expert on extremism, the author of American Swastika. He’s also an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University. Simi is known for embedding himself in the lives of neo-nazi’s and skinheads to study the white power movement. His research demonstrates not all kids and adolescents exposed to racism and hate propaganda, or who have tough upbringings, become violent extremists, but violent extremists frequently have those experiences.
Peter Simi: For the past 25 years, I’ve been studying political extremism with a focus on right-wing extremism, white supremacist movements, and anti-government extremists.
Geraldine Moriba: Your research shows there’s no single set of circumstances that attract people to white supremacy groups, but rather it’s the result of maybe a combination of push-and-pull factors. What are those factors?
Peter Simi: The push factors, we’re talking about family adversities, family instabilities, certain kinds of environmental conditions that we know have negative consequences on a child’s development: physical abuse, sexual abuse, uh, parental neglect, other types of instabilities within the family. That’s one type of kind of push factor. Children being raised by families, uh, who are themselves involved in these groups. What’s actually more common than that though is everyday types of racism that’s being, uh, kind of taught in, in the family, maybe a parent’s telling racist jokes or using kind of racial slurs, racist slurs offhandedly. They’re not themselves involved in any type of, you know, extremists or white supremacist group, but they are espousing ideas that, in many respects, are consistent. On the pull side, we see that the propaganda, whether we’re talking about kind of disparate ideas that exist out there in cyberspace or whether we’re talking about groups offline.
Geraldine Moriba: Radicalization can happen in all types of families, regardless of social class, education, or life opportunities.
Peter Simi: There’s a certain kind of allure, an attraction that these ideas and groups represent, which is that you’re going to be part of something special.
Jamila Paksima: We just passed the high school and now we’re passing the middle school and both of them have a picture of a broken axe, so I guess we’re in Bad Axe.
Mimi Harrington: My name is Mimi Harrington and I’m the director at the Bad Axe Area District Library. And I’ve been in this position for the last 17 years.
Jamila Paksima: Bad Axe is 94 percent white and generally a quiet place. Most people work at the hospital or farm.
Mimi Harrington: This area’s called the thumb because Michigan looks like a mitten.
Jamila Paksima: Like most places, there’s a story behind its name. We heard the actual, infamous bad axe was on display at the library. So, we took a detour to see it.
Mimi Harrington: This man, Rudolph Pabst, and another man were surveying the thumb of Michigan. And they found a very old, rusty hatchet, um, in the crotch of a tree or somewhere, and so they called it Bad Axe Camp because it was a bad axe. And it, the name stuck.
Jamila Paksima: Inside a secure glass case there’s a metalhead of an axe in the crook of a tree. Harrington says most folks don’t believe it’s the original axe.
Mimi Harrington: It doesn’t look like the axe that really was the bad axe that they found here.
Jamila Paksima: Why is that being preserved if it’s not the right axe?
Mimi Harrington: I’m really not sure why that axe is being preserved, to tell you the truth.
Jamila Paksima: In 2020, the number of active hate groups operating in the U.S. fell from 940 to 838. But this decrease doesn’t necessarily represent a drop in hate. Cassie Miller has a PhD in American history and is a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Cassie Miller: What we’ve seen is a shift in the organizational style that the movement is using. Um, they’re shifting away from formalized groups, uh, and towards a more diffuse organizational structure. They’ve moved towards a more leaderless resistance model where they’re part of either a diffuse structure or really small clandestine cells that are much harder to track. Um, and the shift has also really been facilitated by changes in the tech landscape. They’ve seen over the past several years how groups have repeatedly and often very successfully been infiltrated by law enforcement, antifascists, journalists.
Geraldine Moriba: Before the sun was up on October 28th, 2020, the FBI pulled up with a caravan of cars to raid the Webb family farm, now the Michigan cell of the violent accelerationist group, the base. Justen Watkins, 25, the local leader, was arrested and a search warrant was served. Alfred Gorman, 35, another base member, was arrested at a separate location. They were both picked up for allegedly terrorizing an innocent family 11 months earlier. The target was supposed to be Daniel Harper, the podcaster.
Daniel Harper: The FBI kind of stepped up in a big way after, um, the mass shootings started, particularly after Christchurch, the Poway shooting, um, the El Paso shooting; the FBI started to get really interested in these guys. Around that time, um, infiltrated the groups. So, many of the people who were in these Terrorgram channels were undercover federal informants and FBI agents, um, and just sort of kind of like it was all kind of a process of rounding these guys up, you know, in, in kind of a larger operation.
Geraldine Moriba: Justen Watkins and Alfred Gorman were charged with felony counts of gang membership, unlawful posting of a message, and using computers to commit a crime.
Eric Webb: I don’t know. Don’t you see.. don’t you just see, uh.. or, feel a sense of peace when you get to the country? Just less stress. They’ve done studies.
Jamila Paksima: Eric Webb hadn’t been back to his family farm in four months. He agreed to show us around.
Jamila Paksima: It’s 12 days since the FBI raided this home where you grew up. How does it just feel to be back and know all that just shook down here?
Eric Webb: Well, my dad wouldn’t be happy with that. This is the barn. My great, great, possibly, great, great, great grandparents built for my great, great grandfather who had this farm.
Jamila Paksima: The FBI raid on the Webb residence lasted hours as agents scoured the barn, garage, every drawer, and crawl space looking for clues to what this white power group was planning.
Jordan Gass-Poore’: Hydrogen Peroxide. Okay.
Jamila Paksima: What’s that.. what do you think that’s for?
Jordan Gass-Poore’: That’s weird.
Eric Webb: I don’t know what that is. Back in here, I guess, they had the chickens.
Jamila Paksima: First, we surveyed the area outside the house. It was littered with beer bottles, torn bags of trash. At some point they had farm animals. There were over a dozen empty feed bags and a pen for hogs and chickens.
Jamila Paksima: In the tool shed there’s, like.
Jamila Paksima: Their nazi paraphernalia had been confiscated by the FBI, but we found a disturbing pamphlet with racist caricatures published in 2020 posted on the wall of a tool shed.
Eric Webb: I would take it for your records.
Jamila Paksima: This is 2020 propaganda.
Eric Webb: Take it for your records.
Jamila Paksima: And it’s all about Black people. It’s using the N-word.
Eric Webb: That reminds me of stuff from hitler.
Jamila Paksima: This is from hitler’s times. That’s the way they talked.
Eric Webb: That’s the way they drew their caricatures.
Jamila Paksima: In the garage, Eric Webb found old photos of Tristan on the ground.
Jamila Paksima: This is?
Eric Webb: That is Tristan. That would have been him when he was three?
Jamila Paksima: Did you think your little boy would turn into a neo-nazi?
Eric Webb: I’m still trying to deprogram him on that.
Jamila Paksima: Tristan remembers feeling frustration with the Covid-19 government-mandated restrictions when the global pandemic hit America.
Tristan Webb: During the Covid, um, period when Trump declared the, uh, national emergency we thought something was going to happen then. And, uh, more of, and we wanted to be together and get more people together in case, uh, you know, any more totalitarian, uh, uh, measures came down.
Geraldine Moriba: When the video of George Floyd’s killing sparked a national outpouring on the streets of cities large and small, the town of Bad Axe, population 2, 950, reacted too. On June 5, 2020, a crowd of 200 peaceful protestors marched for equal justice and an end to police brutality against Black citizens.
Base members showed up as counter-protestors. Megan Squire describes images from the scene posted on a Telegram channel.
Megan Squire: Basically, it’s a handful of guys, four or five guys, one holding the camera, the others in the shot in various forms. And they’re wearing, um, plate carriers and full gun, multiple guns, magazines, all that jazz; skull masks, which is kind of like, almost a cliche at this point of atomwaffen and the base-style groups and they’re wearing those and sunglasses. They were obviously using these as propaganda to just advertise, like, “look how badass we are going to show up at this protest and this kind of troll the townspeople and take selfies.”
Geraldine Moriba: They’re also covering their eyes. They’re wearing masks. But then they used black ink to cover their eyes as well.
Megan Squire: Well, it’s a clandestine movement. They’re engaging in, you know, plotting and conspiracy to overthrow governments, in some cases. To commit racially-motivated violence and all kinds of stuff, so they’re going to try to keep their identity secret, and the fact that they’re working on that together, secret.
Tristan Webb: We weren’t just going to let, um, outside forces organize in our town without any opposition. We weren’t just going to back down and let, um, you know, communists and multiculturalists overrun the town. We had gotten a lot of, uh, praise and thanks for, from a lot of members of the community after that and gained a lot of friends and, uh, people in high and low places you wouldn’t expect.
Daniel Velasco: This town don’t need protection. Not like that. He doesn’t need to protect anybody. The sheriff’s office is here. The, the state police is just down the street.
Jamila Paksima: Local business owner and former Marine Daniel Velasco has lived in Bad Axe for 30 years.
Daniel Velasco: There’s a brand name for it, it’s called domestic terrorism. But you wouldn’t think it would be in Bad Axe, but it is.
Jamila Paksima: Trying to diffuse the situation, the county sheriff, a deputy, and the police chief stood shoulder-to-shoulder, protecting the armed men from the crowd. Mimi Harrington, the director of the library in Bad Axe, said this scene was a first for this small community.
Mimi Harington: It made me uncomfortable, to be honest. Yeah, I don’t really see any reason for people to walk around with AK-15s or guns like that.
Geraldine Moriba: For about an hour, Tristan and two base members stood there, gripping their long guns menacingly.
Eric Webb: I can’t believe that’s legal to let my son be in a pressure cooker situation like that with a loaded weapon.
Geraldine Moriba: Then, the three base members started shouting nazi phrases and raising their arms in seig heil salutes. That’s when the Huron County sheriff asked the armed men to leave. And they complied. Tristan says they were not representing the base that day, though they posted images of themselves on the base’s Telegram channel immediately following the protest.
Jamila Paksima: When Tristan’s father saw the story in the newspaper he was livid about his son and his roommates wielding AR-15s downtown.
Eric Webb: I imagine there’s people in town that are, like, “apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”
Jamila Paksima: A few days later, Webb made the two-hour drive to Bad Axe to collect his guns.
Eric Webb: I disowned him and I told him to change his name. He’s going to ruin my name. It was kind of mean, and then I said, “I want the guns.”
Jamila Paksima: Webb didn’t want to enter his own home. So, Watkins left the guns in a trash bag outside. When Webb realized his prized Ruger-56 was missing he threatened to evict all the men. As Webb backed out of the driveway, Watkins lunged at him through an open driver’s window of his truck.
Eric Webb: He had such rage in his eyes. But that turned to fear in that split second ‘cause he knew I wasn’t stopping.
Jamila Paksima: In our next episode of Sounds Like Hate.
911 Operator: Huron County, nine one one.
Eric Webb: Yeah. I just called you, uh, about Tristan this, and now the boys, the came out and attacked me, and Justin was with them.
911 Operator: Are you safe right now?
Eric Webb: Just down the road. About a quarter mile.
911 Operator: Okay. I do not want you to go back to that house. Do you understand me okay?
Geraldine Moriba: These are complicated stories about people who hold onto false histories and terroristic ideologies – and draw boundaries that are skin deep.
Jamila Paksima: If you are a parent or caregiver concerned about online radicalization, visit SPLC or the PERIL project at American University to obtain your handbook, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era. Or, if you or anyone you know has experienced a hate incident or crime, please contact the appropriate local authorities or elected official. You can also document what happened at splcenter.org/reporthate.
Geraldine Moriba: This is Sounds Like Hate, an independent audio documentary brought to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Jamila Paksima: Produced by Until 20 Productions. I’m Jamila Paksima.
Geraldine Moriba: And I’m Geraldine Moriba. Remember to subscribe to find out when new episodes are released. Please rate and review, it really helps. Thanks for listening.