This story was co-published with Frontline PBS.
The 18-year-old, excited by his handiwork at the bloody rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, quickly went online to boast. He used the handle VasillistheGreek.
“Today cracked 3 skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” the young man wrote on Aug. 12, 2017.
Vasillios Pistolis had come to the now infamous Unite the Right rally eager for such violence. He belonged to a white supremacist group known as Atomwaffen Division, a secretive neo-Nazi organization whose members say they are preparing for a coming race war in the U.S. In online chats leading up to the rally, Pistolis had been encouraged to be vicious with any counter-protestors, maybe even sodomize someone with a knife. He’d responded by saying he was prepared to kill someone “if shit goes down.”
One of Pistolis’ victims that weekend was Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and trans woman from Charlottesville who had shown up to confront the rally’s hundreds of white supremacists. In an online post, Pistolis delighted in how he had “drop kicked” that “tranny” during a violent nighttime march on the campus of the University of Virginia. He also wrote about a blood-soaked flag he’d kept as a memento.
“Not my blood,” he took care to note.


At the end of the weekend that shocked much of the country, Pistolis returned to his everyday life: serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Of the many white supremacist organizations that have sprung up in the past few years, Atomwaffen is among the more extreme, espousing the overthrow of the U.S. government through acts of political violence and guerrilla warfare.
Journalists with ProPublica and Frontline gained insight into Atomwaffen’s ideology, aims and membership after obtaining seven months of messages from a confidential chat room used by the group’s members. The chat logs, as well as interviews with a former member, reveal Atomwaffen has attracted a mixture of young men — fans of fringe heavy metal music, a private investigator, firearms aficionados — living in more than 20 states.
But a number are current or former members of the U.S. military. ProPublica and Frontline have identified three Atomwaffen members or associates who are currently employed by the Army or Navy. Another three served in the armed forces in the past. Pistolis, who remains an active-duty Marine, left Atomwaffen in a dispute late in 2017 and joined up with another white supremacist group. Reporters made the identifications through dozens of interviews, a range of social media and other online posts, and a review of the 250,000 confidential messages obtained earlier this year.




Pistolis in his Marine Corps dress uniform. He posted this selfie to his Facebook page.

Joshua Beckett, who trained Atomwaffen members in firearms and hand-to-hand combat last fall, served in the Army from 2011 to 2015, according to service records. Online, Beckett, 26, has said that he worked as a combat engineer while in the army. Combat engineers are the army’s demolitions experts.
In Atomwaffen chats, Beckett, using the handle Johann Donarsson, said he was building assault rifles and would happily construct weapons for his fellow members. “Give me the parts and the receiver and I’ll get it all together for you,” Beckett wrote in August 2017.
Beckett also wrote about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of combat in Afghanistan, and how his time in uniform caused him to radically revise his political beliefs, prompting him to abandon mainstream conservatism in favor of National Socialism.
In online discussions, Beckett encouraged Atomwaffen members to enlist in the military, so as to become proficient in the use of weaponry, and then turn their expertise against the U.S. government, which he believed to be controlled by a secret cabal of Jews.
“The army itself woke me up to race and the war woke me up to the Jews,” Beckett wrote, adding, “The US military gives great training…you learn how to fight, and survive.”
Another Atomwaffen member used the chats to talk about the combat he saw during the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan.
“I was in the infantry in the army in Afghanistan and did a lot of…shit,” the member wrote. He said the Army wanted him to become a chemical weapons specialist, but he chose to join the infantry. He spent his time, he wrote, blasting “lead into sand niggers.”
ProPublica and Frontline specifically identified Pistolis and Beckett through interviews with a former Atomwaffen member who knew them, the group's internal records, and the men's digital footprints. In his online activities, Pistolis left many clues to his identity, including pictures of himself he uploaded to private white supremacist chat rooms and photos of himself on his public Facebook page. Beckett’s internet handles and Facebook content also helped us to confirm him as the man who had spent five years in the Army before joining Atomwaffen.






Reporters contacted Beckett via phone and Facebook messages, but did not get a response. Beckett’s Facebook page features an image of Donald Trump driving a white convertible emblazoned with the number 1488, a white supremacist code, and a call for whites to jump in the car.
In a series of phone and email exchanges, Pistolis claimed he did not attend the Charlottesville rally and did not assault Gorcenski or anyone else. His online messages about Gorcenski, he said, were nothing more than jokes. He admitted to harboring “alt right” or white supremacist beliefs, though he claimed he had “infiltrated” Atomwaffen on behalf of another extremist group and was never actually a member.
Pistolis, who indicated to reporters that he is stationed in North Carolina, pulled down his personal Twitter account shortly after being contacted by ProPublica and Frontline. He also took down his account on Gab, a discussion channel favored by white supremacists, many of whom have been banned from Twitter and other social media platforms. His postings indicate that after leaving Atomwaffen last November — other members accused him of risking unwanted attention for the group by showing up with Atomwaffen flag at a rally in Tennessee — he became an active participant in online forums involving the Traditionalist Workers Party,  another neo-Nazi group.
Since May 2017, three people involved with Atomwaffen have been charged with five murders. Devon Arthurs, an early Atomwaffen recruit, is facing trial for allegedly murdering two other members of the group in Florida. A teenager in Virginia stands accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents, who had tried to keep their daughter away from him; the 17-year-old, who was in the process of joining Atomwaffen, is being tried as a juvenile. Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty in the slaying of Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish college student whose body was discovered in a Southern California park early this year. Authorities believe Woodward stabbed Bernstein more than 20 times.
Despite the mounting body count, it is unclear just how aggressive law enforcement — at the federal or local level — has been in investigating the group. None of the men charged in the homicides had a military background.
The FBI had no comment when asked about Atomwaffen.
One Atomwaffen member caught up in a high-profile criminal case has a quite direct link to the armed forces.
Atomwaffen’s founder, Brandon Russell, 22, was arrested last year after investigators discovered a cache of weapons, detonators and volatile chemical compounds in his home, including a cooler full of HMTD, a powerful explosive often used by bomb-makers, and ammonium nitrate, the substance used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City attack. Russell was also in possession of two radioactive isotopes, americium and thorium. In September 2017, he pleaded guilty to a single charge of unlawful possession of explosives and was later sentenced to five years in federal prison.
At the time of his arrest, Russell, 22, had been serving in the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion of Florida’s Army National Guard. A spokesman for the Marine Corps, Major Brian Block, said the corps would be looking into Pistolis and would likely open a formal probe into his activities last summer.
“There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” Block said in a written statement. “Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary our core values.”