The federal investigation into last month’s shooting rampage in Charleston, S.C., has expanded to include groups that espouse white nationalist ideologies, according to a key figure in the movement.
Don Black, founder of the online forum Stormfront, said an FBI agent and a sheriff’s detective visited him at his West Palm Beach, Fla., home last week to question him about accused shooter Dylann Roof.
Black said in an interview that other white nationalist organizations also have been contacted by federal authorities.
“They definitely have been visited,” he said. “I can’t comment on whoever else has been. The FBI obviously has whatever Roof had computer-wise, so they’re getting their leads from there.”
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Black said authorities’ questions led him to believe they thought Roof had visited and posted on the Stormfront website, but the extent of any involvement with the group is unclear.
“I’ve seen nothing that would indicate anything with him,” Black said. “The FBI seems to think there might be. But nobody on Stormfront has used that name, and there’s no indication.”
The authorities who visited him did not have a search warrant, Black said. He said the chances that he’ll be served a subpoena were “very possible” but later said he could not comment on whether that had happened.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said in an email Friday that he could not comment on the investigation.
The Kansas City Star wrote about Stormfront — the largest online white nationalist forum in the country — and other such sites in a series about domestic terrorism published earlier this year.
Black announced on Stormfront on July 4 that he was establishing a legal defense fund to help offset any expenses incurred should the group become further involved in the Charleston investigation. He told The Star he had raised more than $2,000 in the first few days. He said Stormfront — whose motto is “White Pride World Wide — has about 800 financial supporters and 40,000 daily visitors.
Roof, 21, is charged with killing nine people during a June 17 Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Within days of the massacre, a manifesto surfaced online that appears to have been written by Roof. Stormfront was not mentioned in the document, but another group — the Council of Conservative Citizens, a St.-Louis based organization that promotes the preservation of the white race — was noted as one whose website the writer came across that ushered him into the white nationalist movement.
Officials with the council did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation. The group issued a statement after the shootings saying it “unequivocally condemns Roof’s murderous actions.” But its president, Earl Holt III, added that the organization was not responsible “for the actions of this deranged individual merely because he gleaned accurate information from our website.”
Another website, the Daily Stormer, drew attention last month when the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Roof may have posted comments on the site under the name AryanBlood1488.
The site publisher, Andrew Anglin, responded on his website that “this isn’t particularly surprising, given that anyone reading about Black crime or other racial issues on the internet would necessarily have come across this site.”
Anglin condemned the shootings but blamed society.
“Instead of looking at the actions of one man who had a few screws loose, or the result of some kind of nonsensical White racist conspiracy against Black people, we need to look at the whole of a society which would produce this type of an individual,” he wrote on his site.
Other prominent white nationalist figures told The Star that they had not been contacted by authorities regarding the shootings. Among their groups: The Knights Party — formerly the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — and the National Socialist Movement.
“We haven’t been contacted and would not expect to be,” said Rachel Pendergraft, national organizer of The Knights Party, adding that “a maniac like Roof is scarce.”
“But the attempt will be made to suggest that he is emblematic of virtually everyone right of center.”
Brian Culpepper, public relations director for the National Socialist Movement, called the investigation an “underhanded smear tactic.”
“It’s a witch hunt for anyone that’s pro-white and trying to stand up on behalf of the white race,” he said.
Legal experts say an investigation of white nationalist groups and online sites could raise constitutional issues.
If authorities simply ask an organization for all of Roof’s postings on its site and any communication users have had with him because it’s part of the evidence in their case against him, “then I think they could probably get it,” said Richard E. Levy, a constitutional law professor at the University of Kansas.
“That’s not targeting the site; it’s targeting a particular individual where you clearly have probable cause.”
But, Levy said, if a criminal investigation were to look for links between a shooter and another organization, there is a Fourth Amendment issue.
“Normally you need to have a warrant before you can conduct a search to get information from a private person, whether we’re talking about a website or other kinds of information. And to get the warrant, you would need to show some sort of probable cause to believe that there was evidence to support the connection.”
If probable cause is established, Levy said, First Amendment issues can come into play.
“Let’s say the only connection is that the shooter visited websites,” he said. “Then the argument from the government is, well, he was incited to take this action by the website. That’s a classic sort of First Amendment problem.”
Typically, in order to prosecute someone for incitement, a strict standard must be met, Levy said. It would require proof that the website published material that was intended and was likely to incite imminent, unlawful action.
“The fact that it might inadvertently do it is not enough,” Levy said. “Unless someone on the site came out and explicitly said, ‘Go shoot up a black church,’ it’s pretty difficult to meet this standard.”
Black, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said he thinks the investigation could turn into a fishing expedition.
“The impression I have at this point is it could become overly broad rather than just investigating Dylann Roof,” he said. “Of course, they have a legitimate law enforcement interest in that. But the idea of looking into online associates, that could have a chilling effect on anyone that wants to post their opinion online, if they might accidentally become an associate of somebody like Dylann Roof.”
As federal authorities continue their investigation, most white nationalist groups have distanced themselves from Roof and issued statements condemning the shootings. Others, however, have done the opposite.
Alex Linder, founder of the Vanguard News Network, a racist online site in Kirksville, Mo., has posted comments about the shooting on his Web forum and talked about it on his radio show.
“We have the CCC (Council of Conservative Citizens) and people at these other sites … all apologizing or laying wreaths at this black church because, oh, the tragedy,” Linder said on his radio show July 1. “Who cares about them? There’s tragedy every day of the damned year.”
And Morris Gulett, head of the Aryan Nations in Converse, La., praised Roof in a post on his group’s website.
“I, for one, am very glad to see young people like Dylann Roof acting like men instead of the old 60’s era hippies stoned on weed and interracial love,” Gulett wrote.
To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.