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4 members of white supremacist group arrested over violent 2017 Charlottesville rally

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clash with counter-protesters as they enter Lee Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Last Updated Oct 3, 2018 4:21 AM EDT

Four members of a militant white supremacist group from California have been arrested on charges they traveled to Virginia last year to incite a riot and attack counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally that turned deadly, federal authorities said Tuesday.

The defendants — Benjamin Drake Daley, Michael Paul Miselis, Thomas Walter Gillen and Cole Evan White — are part of the Rise Above Movement, which espouses anti-Semitic views and meets regularly in public parks to train in boxing and other fighting techniques, according to an affidavit written by an FBI agent.

The affidavit alleges the four men were "among the most violent individuals present in Charlottesville" in August of last year during a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus and a larger rally in downtown the following day. It says photos and video footage shows they attacked counterprotesters, "which in some cases resulted in serious injuries."

The men have also taken part in "acts of violence" at political rallies in Huntington Beach and Berkeley, California, and other places, the affidavit alleges. 

"This is a group that essentially subscribes to an anti-Semitic, racist ideology, and then organizes, trains, and deploys to various political rallies, not only to espouse this particular ideology but also to engage in acts of violence against folks who are taking a contrary point of view," U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said at a news conference in Charlottesville held to announce the charges.

A Los Angeles magistrate judge denied bail for Miselis, finding that he posed a risk to the community.

Miselis' attorney, Angel Navarro, argued fervently for his release, detailing how his client got his master's at UCLA and worked as an engineer at Northrop Grumman for five years before being dismissed after his connection to Charlottesville became public.

"I never thought I would ever in my life quote President Trump but I'm going to quote President Trump. When he said there are good people on both sides, like everybody else, I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," Navarro said. "But ... I know that my client is in many ways a normal person who's lived a normal life until very recently."

Prosecutor David Ryan argued against bail for Miselis, saying agents found smoke bombs, flares, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, mostly for assault weapons, in his home, where he had a wall hanging that said "88," a common abbreviation for "Heil Hitler."

He said Miselis, Daley and other members of their group also traveled to Germany and the Ukraine earlier this year and met with members of well-known violent white supremacy groups.

Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth said she was impressed with Miselis' academic and professional credentials and that "clearly he's an intelligent young man" who until recently had "lived a law-abiding and apparently productive life."

"What I'm concerned about is who he is now and the danger he presents to the community," Rosenbluth said.

While Rosenbluth ordered Miselis held, detention hearings for Gillen and Daley were postponed. Gillen, of Redondo Beach, chewed gum and yawned several times during his hearing, while Daley appeared agitated, frequently fidgeting and at one point turning his back to the courtroom after apparently noticing reporters and courtroom sketch artists watching him.

Both their attorneys declined to comment after the hearings.

Cullen said each defendant faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted on the two counts they each face: traveling to incite riots and conspiracy to riot. However, defendants often get less than the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines.

Cullen said the suspects don't face hate crime charges or civil rights violations, but didn't rule out the possibility of bringing more charges in the future.

The arrests come more than a year after hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Clashes first erupted on Aug. 11, 2017, as a crowd of white nationalists marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting racist slogans encountered a small group of counterprotesters.

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned "Unite The Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11, 2017.

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned "Unite The Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11, 2017.

Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters

The following day, more violence broke out between counterprotesters and attendees of the "Unite the Right" rally, which was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in at least a decade. Street fighting exploded before the event could begin as scheduled and went on for nearly an hour in view of police until authorities forced the crowd to disperse.

Cullen said investigators sifted through "an incredible volume" of video and still photographs to review the movements of the four men and determine whether they could claim they were only defending themselves after being attacked by others at the rally. He said prosecutors believe there was "no provocation" for them to engage in violence that day.

The four men, he said, made their way to the rally with their hands taped, "ready to do street battle."

Then they engaged in punching, kicking, head-butting and pushing, assaulting an African-American man, two women and a minister who was wearing a clerical collar, Cullen said.

"In our view, these four committed particularly violent acts in Charlottesville. Secondly, they committed violent acts in California at other rallies. Therefore, in our view, they were essentially serial rioters," Cullen said.

Cullen said the four men had "extensive and robust" social media profiles and used social media to further their purposes. He called that a "significant aspect of the case."

According to The Anti-Defamation League, Rise Above Movement members believe they are fighting against a "modern world" corrupted by the "destructive cultural influences" of liberals, Jews, Muslims and non-white immigrants. Members refer to themselves as the mixed martial arts club of the "alt-right" fringe movement, a loose mix of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right extremists.

"They very much operate like a street-fighting club," said Oren Segal, director of the ADL's Center on Extremism.

Segal said the group has roots in the racist skinhead movement in southern California.

Daley, of Redondo Beach, figures "prominently" in the organization, according to the affidavit.

About two hours after authorities forced the rally to disband, a woman was killed when a car prosecutors say was driven by a man fascinated by Adolf Hitler plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. The death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event crashed, killing two troopers.

The suspected driver, 21-year-old James Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with federal hate crimes in the death of Heather Heyer, 32. Fields also faces state murder charges; his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 26.

President Trump sparked a public outcry after he blamed both sides for the violence.

An independent report released three months later found serious police and government failures in responding to the mayhem.