SEATTLE — When Kaleb J. Cole landed at Chicago O’Hare International Airport after a trip to Europe last year, federal officials were waiting at the gate for a chance to question him. In his luggage was the trefoil flag of a neo-Nazi hate group. On his phone, a photo of two people posing at the site of the Auschwitz death camp.
The officials did not charge Cole with any crimes that day, or in the months to come, despite information that he was a leader of the Atomwaffen Division, one of the most violent extremist groups in the country. But last month, according to records provided by a prosecutor’s office Thursday, the authorities in Seattle moved to seize a cache of weapons from Cole, using a state law intended to prevent gun violence.
“This was an individual who had access to firearms and was preparing for a race war,” Kimberly Wyatt, a prosecutor in King County, Washington, said Thursday.
The move was part of a larger effort by investigators around the country, including the FBI, to crack down on members of Atomwaffen, as officials seek to counter the rising threat from hate groups. The Atomwaffen Division has been linked to a series of killings.
The group’s members are scattered in cells nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes the group as seeking a societal collapse and race war to achieve its goals.
In petitioning to seize Cole’s weapons, law enforcement officials said Cole was believed to be the cell leader of Atomwaffen’s chapter in Washington state. They wrote that Cole had participated in firearms training and recruiting at “hate camps,” where members performed military-style exercises and wore skull masks over their faces. In a video, they chanted anti-Semitic slurs and “race war now.”
Officials seized the firearms using a so-called red-flag law, which in a number of states including Washington allows law enforcement or civilians to get a court order to confiscate weapons when there is evidence that people are at high risk of harming themselves or others. Wyatt said the law provided a temporary intervention, allowing the seizure of the guns for up to a year.
At the end of 2018, Cole went on a 25-day trip that took him throughout Eastern Europe, according to the records filed by Seattle officials. He told federal officials who stopped him on his way home that the main reason was to see historical architecture and museums.
In a report filed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection about that day, officials wrote that Cole identified himself as an Atomwaffen member who had fascist ideology and that he had been carrying the group’s flag.
Federal officials also examined Cole’s cellphone, finding a recent image of a group of people performing Nazi salutes while holding the Atomwaffen flag, and another of two people standing on the railroad tracks leading into the complex that housed the Auschwitz concentration camp operated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Seattle officials filed their petition on Sept. 26 and seized the guns from Cole in Snohomish County the same day, Wyatt said. He did not show up for a subsequent hearing. Cole could not be reached for comment Thursday and did not appear to have an attorney.
Wyatt said law enforcement officials have continued discussing what criminal laws might apply to Cole’s case. She said criminal statutes focus on threats made to an intended victim.
“What do you do when there’s a general threat versus one specific individual?” Wyatt said. She said officials were discussing their options under state law.
Federal investigators have also faced this issue as they struggle to balance First Amendment protections that allow hate speech and actions that could be an indicator of future violence. In some cases, the FBI has turned to local prosecutors to handle the cases.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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