By Michael Kunzelman / Associated Press
An Arizona man who joined other members of a neo-Nazi group in a coordinated campaign to threaten and harass journalists, activists and other targets on both U.S. coasts was sentenced Wednesday to 16 months in federal prison.
Johnny Roman Garza, 21, expressed remorse before a federal judge in Seattle handed down the sentence, which was roughly half the length of the term recommended by prosecutors and a probation officer.
Garza pleaded guilty in September to conspiring with other members of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division to deliver threatening messages to journalists’ homes and other places in the U.S. On a Jewish journalist’s bedroom window, Garza affixed a poster that depicted a man in a skull mask holding a Molotov cocktail in front of a burning home. The poster included the journalist’s name and home address.
“In Garza’s words, the plot was designed to ‘have them all wake up one morning and find themselves terrorized by targeted propaganda,’” a prosecutor wrote in a court filing.
On the same January day as his visit to the Jewish editor’s home, Garza also stopped by a Phoenix apartment complex where a member of the Arizona Association of Black Journalists lived. But he couldn’t find a place to leave a poster.
Garza said he was “in a time of darkness and isolation” that made it easier for “rebellious and resentful” influences to take hold of his life.
“Very unfortunately, I fell in with the worst crowd you can probably fall in with, a very self-destructive crowd at the least,” he told U.S. District Judge John Coughenour.
More than a dozen people linked to Atomwaffen or an offshoot called Feuerkrieg Division have been charged with crimes in federal court since the group’s formation in 2016. Atomwaffen has been linked to several killings, including the May 2017 shooting deaths of two men at an apartment in Tampa, Florida, and the January 2018 killing of a University of Pennsylvania student in California.
In Seattle, the judge said he believes Garza is genuinely remorseful. He said he also factored Garza’s youth and “turbulent childhood” into his decision to depart from sentencing guidelines that recommended 33 months.
Coughenour didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name but said it has been troubling to see officials at “the highest levels of our government” refer to journalists as “enemies of the people.”
“Referring to journalism and the press and media as ‘fake news’ enables people who are vulnerable to suggestions like this, very young people … that this kind of conduct is appropriate,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Woods said many members of the community that Garza targeted have lost faith in the principle, articulated by Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
“How terrifying that must have been,” Woods said. “How exhausting it must feel not to be safe in one’s home.”
Defense attorney Seth Apfel said the case tested him personally “on a lot of levels” because he is Jewish, married to a Black woman and has been a victim of anti-Semitism. But he said Garza has made a “complete and sincere change” in his life.
Garza “not just disavowed the views that he had, but really embraced a new way of being,” Apfel said.
Apfel urged the judge to spare Garza from prison. But Coughenour ruled out a sentence of probation, saying he wanted to avoid possible disparities in the punishment that Garza’s co-defendants could face.
“If I were to give him straight probation, it would make it very difficult to deal with the other persons appropriately,” the judge said.
The court did not immediately set a date for Garza to report to prison.
Garza, of Queen Creek, Arizona, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to mail threatening communications and commit cyberstalking. Taylor Ashley Parker-Dipeppe, of Spring Hill, Florida, pleaded guilty in September to a related charge and is scheduled to be sentenced in February.
Cameron Brandon Shea, of Redmond, Washington, and Kaleb J. Cole, of Montgomery, Texas, also were charged in the Seattle case in February and are scheduled to be tried in March 2021.
Also in February, a man described by authorities as a founding member and former leader of Atomwaffen was arrested in Texas on related charges in Virginia that he participated in a series of hoax bomb threats against targets including a ProPublica journalist and a former Cabinet official. John Cameron Denton, of Montgomery, Texas, faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty in July to conspiring to transmit threats.