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Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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How did Florida National Guard miss soldier's neo-Nazi leanings?

Brandon Russell, a private first class assigned to Company C of the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion in Pinellas Park, has been in the Florida National Guard since February 2016.

All the while, authorities said, he was a self-professed neo-Nazi who led a group of like-minded individuals calling themselves the Atomwaffen Division.

So how did he escape the attention of Guard officials?

At this point, it's unclear. Maj. Caitlin Brown, a spokeswoman for the Guard, said Russell's unit has opened an investigation into "the situation," which she described as ongoing.

But the Guard takes numerous steps to check on the backgrounds of its recruits, Brown said in an email.

A check of public records shows that Russell, 21, had no criminal history before his arrest Sunday on charges of illegal possession of explosives. He was picked up two days after two of his roommates were fatally shot at their Tampa Palms apartment, where authorities found bomb materials stocked in the garage.

However, posting under the name "Odin,'' Russell had a presence on IronMarch.org, a neo-Nazi website, where he announced the creation of the Atomwaffen Division in 2015 — months before he joined the Florida National Guard.

Brown defended the way recruits are vetted.

Each has a local law enforcement check done on them in any area where they've lived or worked for the past three years, she said. Additionally, their fingerprints are run nationally to pick up anything that was missed. They also are run through the national sexual assault database to look for any criminal background there.

Lastly, they are required to fill out a detailed questionnaire that asks about their background, any groups/organizations they affiliate with, any prior convictions, even traffic tickets.

Depending on the level of security clearance they need, they may have additional requirements, Brown said.

The Atomwaffen Division is a small, loose group of neo-Nazis that formed in the past couple of years, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Considered a hate group by the league and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Atomwaffen Division circulates white supremacist fliers urging students to join local Nazis on college campuses around the country. Universities targeted include the University of Central Florida and State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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