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After Charlottesville riot, Redondo Beach man pleads guilty to conspiracy in deadly rally

Rise Above Movement members attend the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.
Rise Above Movement member Benjamin Drake Daley, center, confronts an unidentified woman at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Cole Evan White, a San Francisco area resident, and Michael Paul Miselis of Lawndale, also are pictured.
(Jason Andrew / Redux)

A Redondo Beach man who trained with a militant white supremacist group pleaded guilty Monday to one count of conspiracy to riot in connection with the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.

Thomas Walter Gillen, 25, is a member of the Rise Above Movement, a white-power group based in Southern California that espouses anti-Semitism and casts itself as an alt-right fight club. Its members meet regularly in public parks to train in physical fitness, including boxing and other street-fighting techniques, according to court documents.

Gillen was one of four California men arrested by federal authorities in October on charges they traveled to Virginia to join hundreds of white nationalists at a rally organized by Richard Spencer, the high-profile leader of a white supremacist think tank, with the intent to incite a riot and commit violence at far-right rallies in Charlottesville.

A spokesperson with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia said Gillen faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

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Benjamin Drake Daley, also of Redondo Beach; Michael Paul Miselis of Lawndale; and Cole Evan White of Clayton, a city in the Bay Area, were charged alongside Gillen in October.

Miselis is expected to plead guilty to the charges on Friday morning during a series of plea hearings in Charlottesville. White pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to riot, and Daley has a tentative jury trial set to start June 17, the spokesperson said.

“The First Amendment protects an individual’s or organization’s right to speak, assemble, and espouse political views, but it does not license insensate acts of violence committed under the guise of First Amendment expression,” Thomas Cullen, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said in a statement.

Trained in California, a white supremacist fight club is accused of bringing violence to Charlottesville »

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On Aug. 11, 2017, the night before the “Unite the Right” rally, authorities said, Gillen and other members of the white supremacy group took part in a torch-lighted march at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The protest, which attracted hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists, centered on the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — culminating in one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in a decade.

Participants chanted “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” in a march that ended near a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where a small group of students gathered to protest white supremacy.

The violence that broke out among the crowd — which was captured in photos and videos — included punching, kicking, swinging torches and spraying chemical irritants. Authorities said Gillen struck multiple individuals with a torch.

“When the defendant conspired to commit violent acts at the Charlottesville rally, he damaged an entire community,” said Special Agent David Archey of the FBI’s Richmond Division.

On Charlottesville anniversary, white nationalists are vastly outnumbered by counter-protesters outside White House »

In another scene laid out in an affidavit prepared by an FBI task force officer during the investigation into the California men, White head-butted a woman, leaving her with a bloody gash on her face.

The agent also said White grabbed a counter-protester by the shoulders and jerked him away before he head-butted a minister wearing a clerical collar. The video also appears to show Miselis, his hands taped, shoving a black man to the ground and then striking him.

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Authorities said the actions were not in self-defense.

The following day, authorities said Gillen and a group of about 40 Rise Above members, with hands wrapped in white athletic tape, assembled for the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in downtown Charlottesville that turned into a riot.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed when a man rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters. Nineteen others were injured.

The driver, James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, was convicted in December of first-degree murder as well as other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and hit-and-run. In March, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 counts of violating the federal hate crime charges. Each of the counts carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.

According to court documents, Fields admitted that he drove into the crowd because of the actual and perceived race, color, national origin and religion of the counter-protesters. He admitted that his actions killed Heyer and that he intended to kill the other victims he struck and injured with his car.

The charges against the California men were not related to Heyer’s death.

What did it take to launch the internet’s most notorious neo-Nazi site? A little help from Dad »

The Rise Above Movement, which is primarily headquartered in Orange and San Diego counties, has caused trouble across California at political rallies in places such as Berkeley, Huntington Beach and San Bernardino, prosecutors said.

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“Rise Above Movement is essentially a white supremacist organization that operates like an alt-right fight club,” Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism in Los Angeles, told The Times in October. “They romanticize themselves as these foot soldiers to fend off against the elements that threaten their white existence.”

In 2017, Gillen attended rallies in Huntington Beach and Berkeley in which Rise Above members pursued and assaulted protesters and others, and later celebrated the news coverage depicting photographs of the assaults, authorities said.

During the course of the investigation, authorities said the FBI and the Virginia State Police waded through an “incredible” volume of digital evidence — more even than during the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.


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