Federal prosecutors said Brandon Russell is a dangerous Neo-Nazi leader who had lethal bomb-making materials in his Florida apartment.
His mother and grandmother called him a follower who liked to please his friends.
At the end of a four-hour court hearing Tuesday, a federal judge in Tampa sentenced Russell to five years in prison, saying she has to protect the public — while hoping Russell doesn't fall in with the wrong group of people while in prison.
"It's a difficult case," said U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew to the defendant, who wore orange jail clothes and appeared to have a bloom of acne on his neck. "You seem like a very smart young man."
Russell, 22, is a member of the Florida National Guard and a dual citizen of both the U.S. and The Bahamas. He pleaded guilty in September to possession of an unregistered destructive device and improper storage of explosive materials. This was his first arrest, something the judge took into account during sentencing.
The case came to light in May of 2017, when Tampa police were called to an apartment north of downtown. There, they found two dead men. A roommate of one of the men sat outside in fatigues, crying. That turned out to be Russell.
A fourth roommate, Devon Arthurs, was arrested soon after and charged with shooting and killing Andrew Oneschuk and Jeremy Himmelman.
Russell wasn't charged in the killings, and Arthurs said Russell had nothing to do with the deaths. But while detectives investigated, they discovered a stash of highly explosive materials in the apartment, and a cache of Neo-Nazi signs, posters, books and flags. Russell was in the Florida National Guard and had attended the University of South Florida.
Investigators later found that Russell and Arthurs were co-founder of Atomwaffen Divsision, a Neo-Nazi group. Atomwaffen is German for "atomic weapon." On Tuesday, prosecutors showed a photo of Russell's car, which had flyers that said, "Don't prepare for exams, prepare for a race war." Russell also kept a framed photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in his room and read books like “Mein Kampf” and “The Turner Diaries.” An FBI agent testified that both are reading staples of white supremacist extremists.
But the case got stranger as investigators probed.
Arthurs allegedly told detectives he killed his roommates for teasing him about his recent conversion to Islam. He also said he killed his roommates to thwart a terrorist attack by Atomwaffen. He claimed Russell had materials in the house "to kill civilians and target locations like power lines, nuclear reactors, and synagogues," prosecutors said.
"I prevented the deaths of a lot of people," Arthurs said in a rambling statement. Asked why his roommates would plan such an attack, he responded, "Because they want to build a Fourth Reich."
While stressing that Russell had nothing to do with the deaths, defense attorney Ian Goldstein said his client has accepted responsibility and that he wants to move forward with his life. He called Russell's mother, who said the young man was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and for having attention deficit disorder since he was young.
"He was always looking for something to belong to," said a tearful Brigiite Chantalle Russell-Hilts.
Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Russell to 11 years in prison, significantly more than the federal guidelines called for. They said Russell's behavior between the time his roommates were found dead and when he was arrested — he went to another Atomwaffen member's house, then bought guns and drove to South Florida — indicated his propensity for violence.
Prosecutor Josephine Thomas noted that "there have been other violent incidents in this country where people are claiming allegiance to Atomwaffen." When asked about this later, she declined to give specifics.
Goldstein maintained his client was traumatized by the deaths of his roommates and already suffered from mental issues. Prosecutors, he said, wanted to lock Russell up longer "solely because of the things he believes." Although he admitted to having the bomb-making materials, there was no evidence he intended to use them against anyone, Goldstein asserted.
"Put him in jail for 11 years and he's going to get out and be a young, angry, untreated man," he said, suggesting that the judge sentence him to 2 1/2 years in prison. "The longer sentence you impose, the worse outcome you'll have. He'll be in prison with other people who believe the same things."
In a court filing Sunday, prosecutors said Russell drew a diagram of how to make an explosive in a letter he apparently intended to deliver to another "Atomwaffen Division" member outside jail. The FBI obtained copies of other letters in which Russell drew plans for an "Airborne Leaflet Dropping Device" showing Nazi propaganda falling from the sky, prosecutors said.
"In one letter, Russell attached a blurb about a 16-year-old Nazi who in 1962 told a judge, "I don't care HOW long you put me in jail, your Honor, ... as soon as I get out, I will go right back to fight for my White Race and my America!'"
When summoned forward for sentencing, Judge Bucklew asked the young man if he had anything to say.
"I'm sorry for what I have done," Russell said in a soft voice. "I take responsibility for what I have done."