Rachel Gendreau thought the call from “Wachovia” from a Virginia number involved an issue with a check.
Instead, what Gendreau heard was a two-minute rant calling for black people to be sent to Africa and white supremacist pseudoscience.
“It was ugly,” said Gendreau, who works at a restaurant in downtown Charlottesville. “And, it was not short.”
The call, which ended with a request to go to the website of Idaho racist Scott D. Rhodes, hit about a dozen businesses just days after the city of 48,000 came through a tense weekend marking the first anniversary of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally.
The initial rally on August 11 and 12, 2017 saw 32-year-old Heather Heyer killed and two Virginia State Police officers die when their helicopter used to monitor the event crashed. And, the calls came just before the first felony sentencing hearings stemming from the event, which devolved into a riot with white nationalists, racists, neo-Nazis and their sympathizers overrunning the downtown area,
While the city stayed quiet during the anniversary weekend, the robocalls turned up the emotions and memories from the 2017 rally,
“It’s not just coincidental,” Gendreau said.
‘Just hang up’
Rhodes, a resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, has been previously linked by police to the distribution of racist literature, including CDs, in the north Idaho community.
Rhodes also was identified as a person of interest by police in Alexandria, Virginia, last year after the mayor and city council members began receiving racist, antisemitic phone calls, and racist literature was distributed. A criminal investigation was launched, but no charges were filed.
Rhodes has also been linked to racist robocalls targeting U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Captain Darrell Byers of the Albemarle County Police Department said there have been multiple reports of the calls, but because the caller is using a “spoofed” number, investigators can’t do much.
“It’s difficult for us to backtrack that information,” Byers said. “It’s just like a political candidate doing robocalls.”
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney did not return a message seeking comment. Gendreau estimated that at least a dozen businesses in Charlottesville received the call.
By spoofing a phone number out of Danville, Virginia, Rhodes made the number appear local and hid the origin of the call. The number, provided to Hatewatch by several recipients of the call, is registered to a resident in that city.
The number used in the calls to Charlottesville also ends in the digits “1488,” a significant number in the neo-Nazi culture. The “14” refers to white supremacist David Lane’s directive, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The “88” is an homage to the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler. “H” is the eight letter of the alphabet and the “88” stands for “HH” or “heil Hitler.”
Byers said as the calls are reported to police, that information is shared with other law enforcement agencies. But, for now, Byers said, there’s not much law enforcement can do about the calls.
“At the end of the day, just hang up,” Byers said.
Horrifying, chilling call
A year ago, Gendreau and her co-workers watched as neo-Nazis and others rampaged through downtown. Gendreau even saw 21-years-old James Alex Fields drive by their restaurant, moments before Heyer was hit and killed. Fields faces first-degree murder charges and federal hate crime charges stemming from the death.
What happened that weekend is still real to Gendreau and others who witnessed it. Getting the robocall brought back many memories of that day, Gendreau said.
The recording repeatedly referenced “negroes” and other racial slurs and had music playing in the background, Gendreau said.
And, the call was surprising for more than just its content, Gendreau said. The recording sounded quite professional, with what may have been a voice actor reading a script, she said.
The owner of a downtown business, who did not want to be named, said the message of the recording was a call to violence by white people.
“What this guy had was a call for jihad,” the business owner said.
“It was horrifying,” said Gendreau, who noted that she cried after hearing the recording.
Gendreau and other business owners are frustrated that not much can be done about the calls, even though a few Google searches led them to Rhodes as the person likely making the calls.
For now, at least, they plan to follow Byers’ advice should another similar call come in — just hang up.