For the past year, Brandon Russell has saluted the flag and worn the uniform of the Florida National Guard while serving his country as a private first class. But in his suburban Tampa apartment, Russell and his three roommates pledged allegiance to a whole different ideal. Russell's bedroom was decorated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist propaganda and a framed photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. His garage was full of guns, ammo, and high-powered materials for bomb-making.
Russell is now in federal custody after Monroe County Sheriff's deputies arrested him in Key Largo this past Sunday. He was busted after a bizarre and bloody massacre last Friday, when one of his three neo-Nazi roommates — 18-year-old Devon Arthurs — apparently converted to Islam and then executed their other two housemates.
Federal agents say Russell wasn't just a dangerously bigoted member of the armed forces. He also had legit bomb-making supplies and even radioactive materials, and claimed to be a member of the Atomwaffen: a splinter group of neo-Nazis whose name means "atomic weapon."
Details are still slim on Russell's background, but he joined the Florida National Guard in February 2016 and was assigned to Company C of the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, based out of Pinellas Park, says William Manley, a spokesperson for the Florida Guard. Russell's job was a systems operator maintainer, which means he helped lay cables and other infrastructure for communications teams.
"He has no deployment history at all," Manley tells New Times. "He's probably been to about a dozen trainings with his unit at most."
In Tampa Palms, a suburb north of the Gulf Coast city, he lived in an apartment with Arthurs and two other men — Jeremy Himmelman, 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, 18 — who all shared his neo-Nazi beliefs, he later told federal agents. But last Friday, Russell returned from his National Guard training to find a bloodbath.
Arthurs had shot both Himmelman and Oneschuk multiple times and then taken hostages at a smoke shop before police talked him down and arrested him. Arthurs told police that he had recently converted to Islam and that the two roommates had "disrespected his Muslim faith." Police found Russell crying at the apartment and apparently let him go.
But when FBI agents searched the apartment, they discovered disturbing evidence, according to an arrest affidavit filed in federal court. In addition to possessing a stash of violent white-supremacist literature and propaganda, the National Guardsman also had an array of weapons.
They found inside a cooler a white cake-like substance that tested positive for HMTD, a potent explosive. Nearby, agents also ID'ed potassium chlorate, potassium nitrate, ammonia nitrate, and other bomb-making chemicals next to devices that could be used as detonators. Inside Russell's bedroom, two radioactive materials — thorium and americium — were detected.
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Russell claimed the explosives were leftover from an amateur rocket he'd built for a class at the University of South Florida, but the feds say the explosives are too powerful to be used for that purpose.
The National Guardsman didn't hide his beliefs, though: He told agents about his neo-Nazi affiliation and his membership in the Atomwaffen, a group promoted on the Daily Stormer website.
By Sunday, the FBI issued a "be on the lookout" alert to local cops for Russell. A pair of Monroe County deputies found him on Sunday at a Burger King in Key Largo with a "large amount of items" in his car, according to police records. When he left the fast food restaurant, they arrested him and handed him over to the feds.
Russell faces weapons and explosives charges in Tampa's federal courthouse. Arthurs has been booked on multiple counts of murder. And Floridians are left wondering what the four roommates might have had planned with their cache of weapons and explosives if their own house hadn't exploded in bloodshed.