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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

FBI: Neo-Nazi leader sought ‘white ethno-state’ in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Justen Watkins of Bad Axe
Authorities allege Justen Watkins of Bad Axe posed for this photo outside a home in Dexter and posted it on social media in an attempt to intimidate a person he thought lived there. (Court records)

LANSING — A Michigan man facing gang-related felony charges was the national leader of a neo-Nazi group working to establish “white ethno states” in the Upper Peninsula and other parts of rural America, according to the FBI.

Justen Watkins, a 25-year-old from Bad Axe, was “elevated from regional cell leader to overall leader" of The Base in early 2020, FBI special agent Jeremy Jaskulski testified Monday in Washtenaw County District Court, where Judge Cedric Simpson denied a motion to release Watkins on bond.

The Base, which organizes virtually and emerged in mid-2018, is primarily active in the United States and is preparing for "an impending race war," according to the Anti-Defamation League. 

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The Base espouses "nihilistic and accelerationist rhetoric — an ideology embraced by white supremacists who have determined that a societal collapse is both imminent and necessary," according to the ADL. 

Watkins initially joined the group as a “recruiter” and later organized “tactical training” exercises known as “hate camps,” Jaskulski said Monday in sworn testimony.

 

He “then used propaganda from the hate camps to recruit” new members, the agent said.

It’s not clear exactly where Watkins was allegedly planning to occupy, but the revelations follow a string of white supremacist activities in the Upper Peninsula in recent years.

Houghton County in the western U.P., for instance, has been the site of white supremacist recruitment at Michigan Technological University and vandalization at a nearby synogogue, Bridge Michigan has reported.

Bridge is investigating extremism in Michigan with grant support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Watkins and a co-defendant, Alfred Gorman, face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of gang membership, stemming from an arrest following a joint domestic terrorism investigation by the FBI and state police. 

Watkins and Gorman allegedly stalked a home in Dexter in an attempt to “threaten, intimidate, and harass” an “Antifa podcast” host who did not actually live there.

They are also charged with using a computer to commit a crime and “unlawful posting” of a message for allegedly uploading a photograph they took at the Dexter home to a social media channel for The Base.

The photo, included in court records, shows a person believed to be Watkins standing in front of the home while wearing a black skull mask, camouflage pants, rifle magazines and a shirt depicting a "Totenkopf," a skull and crossbones design that originated in Germany.

Watkins was initially released on bond, but the judge jailed Watkins this month after he allegedly violated terms of the bond by communicating with another known member of The Base, identified Monday as Thomas Denton. 

Denton had paid Watkins’ bond in February, and the pair allegedly broke into a home in Huron County that following week, according to authorities who have charged both men with breaking and entering in a separate court. 

They had been living together at the Frank's Place Motel & Bar in Bad Axe, Jaskulski testified. 

A search of their shared motel room allegedly revealed a black mask with a white skull, like the one Watkins wore in the earlier picture. 

Jaskulski, the FBI agent, called it a “siege mask” because it is based on artwork from a book called “Siege” that he said is “required reading” for members of The Base. The book’s author, James Mason, is a longtime neo-Nazi organizer. 

Vice News reported on Watkins' interest in the Upper Peninsula this year, publishing encrypted chat communications in which the Michigan man suggested the region was already near a "white-ethnostate" given its lack of diversity. 

The 311,000 residents of the Upper Peninsula are overwhelmingly white, with African-Americans comprising less than 1 percent of the population in some western counties such as Iron and Dickinson.

“We are buying houses and land and fortifying them," Watkins told colleagues in early 2020, according to Vice. “Land is cheap [...]  I’m setting up a community up there. Going to have houses set up to get guys moved in and situated.”

Watkins, who appeared by video feed for Monday’s hearing in Washtenaw County, did not speak as his defense attorney, Olga Yermalenka, asked the judge to release him on the understanding he would move to a hotel nearer his family in Macomb County. 

Yermalenka noted Watkins did not have a criminal record prior to his initial arrest last year, and she said the new breaking and entering charge he is facing in Huron County stems from an attempt to “get his belongings” from the property. 

Simpson, the judge, said he will not consider releasing Watkins on bond again until his family or attorney are able to provide more specifics about his expected living arrangements.

If he is released again in the future, Watkins should be barred from using social media or text messaging apps, argued Assistant Attorney General Sunita Doddamani, head of Nessel's hate crimes and domestic terrorism unit.

Watkins and Gorman are both due back in Washtenaw County court for a probable cause hearing on June 3. 

Watkins was also charged separately in February with possession of steroids. Jaskulski, the FBI agent, testified that a recent search of Watkins’ phone included a notepad memo describing two other medications often used to “circumvent” steroid testing. 

A web browser on Watkins’ phone suggested he had also visited a blog or message board that included an entry related to The Base, Jaskulski said. 

The FBI investigator said the group was founded by Rinaldo Nazzaro, who had reportedly moved to Russia by early 2020. 

Members must be male, identify as “white,” and have a “national socialist or similar ideology to Naziism,” Jaskulski said. 

Denton, accused of helping Watkins break into a Huron County property in February, allegedly admitted to being a member of the group in conversations with Watkins that were recorded by a confidential FBI source.

“Mr. Denton has also participated in Base activities which were observed by FBI surveillance then placed on propaganda websites for The Base,” Jaskulski added. “He has been heavily featured in Base recruitment and propaganda.”

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