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Four Californian men charged with inciting violence at 2017 Charlottesville rally

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four Californian men described by prosecutors as members of a militant white supremacist group were arrested on Tuesday on charges of instigating violence during a white nationalist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.

The criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville charged each of the four - Benjamin Drake Daley, 25, Michael Paul Miselis, 29, Thomas Walter Gillen, 34, and Cole Evan White, 24 - with violating the federal riots statute and conspiracy to riot.

Each defendant faces 10 years in prison if convicted of both counts, authorities said. No pleas were entered.

Authorities said all four men flew from the west coast in August 2017 to participate in the “Unite the Right” rally protesting against the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War.

They are accused of physically assaulting counter-protesters they encountered during the Aug. 12 rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, and during a torch-lit march the night before through the University of Virginia campus, where hundreds of Unite the Right demonstrators chanted “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”

The Aug. 12 event ended with a man plowing his car into a crowd, killing one counter-demonstrator, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring dozens of others. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., was charged with the killing in June. He has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. President Donald Trump drew condemnation from Democratic and Republican political leaders for saying that “many sides” were to blame for the violence.

All four of the men newly accused of inciting violence were identified in an FBI affidavit as members and associates of the California-based Rise Above Movement, described as a “militant white supremacist organization.”

FILE PHOTO: White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith/File Photo


Prosecutors said their participation in beatings of counter-protesters was corroborated by photographs and video footage from the events, some excerpted in a collection of still images printed in the affidavit.

The defendants were also accused of having “engaged in acts of violence” at previous political rallies in Huntington Beach and Berkeley, California.

Daley, Miselis and Gillen, all from Southern California, were presented with the charges during separate court appearances on Tuesday before a federal magistrate in Los Angeles. Each was ordered to remain held by the U.S. Marshals Service pending further proceedings.

White, a San Francisco-area resident, was scheduled for his initial court hearing in Oakland on Wednesday.

All four will end up either transported in federal custody back to Virginia or, if freed on bond, ordered to appear for future court dates there.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth denied bond for Miselis, who according to prosecutors had traveled with Daley to Germany, Italy and Ukraine to meet white nationalists abroad.

Federal prosecutor David Ryan said thousands of rounds of ammunition, smoke bombs and flares were found at the home of Miselis at the time of his arrest. The judge cited a photograph showing him kicking someone who had fallen to the ground.

Miselis’ lawyer, Angel Navarro, described his client in court as having been a well-educated, law-biding citizen who earned a graduate degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. Navarro later told reporters the defendants were all entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Attorneys for the others either declined to discuss the case with reporters or were unavailable following the proceedings.

Thomas Cullen, U.S. Attorney for the western district of Virginia, said he expected the four could stand trial by year’s end.

“This case should serve as another example of the Department of Justice’s commitment to protecting the life, liberty, and civil rights of all our citizens,” Cullen told a news conference.

He said prosecutors chose to pursue a case against the four men as a violation of U.S. riot statutes rather than as hate crimes but he did not rule out the possibility of bringing further charges. At least two defense lawyers said they expected a federal indictment to be returned in the case soon.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Trott, Toni Reinhold and Paul Tait