Before Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida in 2017, Tyler TenBrink mused on Facebook, “I might just stay in Florida.”
The resident of Richmond, Texas, now doesn’t have any choice.
A judge on Wednesday sentenced the 30-year-old TenBrink, a member of the Three Percenter movement, to 15 years in prison. Earlier that day, TenBrink pleaded no contest to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a weapon with ammunition by a felon.
The charges stemmed from TenBrink firing at a group of protesters in October 2017, following Spencer’s speech.
The case is among the last remnants of Spencer’s ill-received college speaking tour, which ended in 2018 after an outbreak of violence outside his poorly attended speech at Michigan State University in March. The series of speeches sparked legal battles with universities around the country.
At the University of Florida, hecklers chanted, “Go home, Richard, go home,” booed and shouted as Spencer and other racists tried to address the crowd.
TenBrink, along with two brothers, William and Colton Fears, made the 855-mile drive along the Gulf Coast from Houston to Gainesville, Florida, to hear Spencer speak. TenBrink chronicled much of it on his Facebook page, promising “Hurricane Spencer” at the event.
The Facebook video provided the first confirmation that TenBrink was associated with a Three Percenter group known as the “Ghost Squad – Texas Division.”
Three Percenters generally rally around antigovernment and anti-gun regulation issues, claiming unrestricted gun ownership is the key to saving the Republic. The Three Percenter movement was founded in 2008 by longtime Alabama militia veteran Michael Brian Vanderboegh, in response to the election of Barack Obama.
During the livestreamed road trip, TenBrink and the Fears brothers stopped outside a Buc-ee’s truck stop in Baytown, Texas. While there, TenBrink repeated the phrase “Hurricane Spencer” as the Fears brothers threw “heil” salutes to the camera. TenBrink then flashed three fingers to the camera – symbolizing the belief among Three Percenters in the disputed claim that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British in the American Revolution. “See y’all in Gainesville,” he said.
“If you got hate in your heart, let it out,” TenBrink said during a Facebook live video as the group drove through Louisiana. “White power.”
After the speech, TenBrink was riding in a silver Jeep with the Fears brothers and a fourth person when the group got in a confrontation with protesters who came to oppose Spencer’s message.
According to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office arrest report, “One of the passengers began yelling Hail Hitler and other chants.” After one of the protesters hit the back of vehicle with a baton, the report says, TenBrink came out with a handgun.
Witnesses said Fears and his brother started yelling, “I’m going to f------ kill you,” “kill them” and “shoot them,” and TenBrink fired a shot.
Police said the bullet missed the group of protesters and struck the building behind them. The three men got back in the car, fled the scene and were picked up by police a few hours later.
TenBrink and 30-year-old Colton Fears were arrested on attempted murder charges. William Fears was also arrested but later released to face criminal charges in Texas.
Colton Fears pleaded guilty to accessory to attempted murder in August 2018. His sentencing is pending. He is due back in court in March. The Texas case against William Fears is also pending.
In the months leading up to the Gainesville appearance, Spencer, the self-described intellectual leader of the “alt-right” movement, had been speaking – and attempting to speak at – college campuses around the country.
The speeches usually followed a pattern: Spencer and his booking agent, Cameron C. Padgett, would select a school to hold an event.
The pair would also choose a provocative date or location on campus, then push the university to allow the speech to go forward.
At Texas A&M, the pair sought to use a hall named to honor World War I and World War II veterans. At Kent State University in Ohio, they requested to speak on May 4 – on what would have been the 48th anniversary of the shooting deaths of four students perpetrated by the Ohio National Guard. If the university didn’t accede to Spencer’s demands, Padgett would file suit.
Universities have generally agreed to settlements with Spencer, which involve paying some legal fees – $27,000 at Michigan State – and providing security for the event.
The universities Spencer targeted would often be left with a public relations nightmare, with complaints from the community and alumni about allowing a white nationalist to commandeer space on campus.
Schools grew wise to Spencer’s plan. They began trying to schedule him when students were off campus and allowing the speeches in remote areas, such as an agricultural arena at Michigan State. Spencer dropped the plan in March 2018, saying he needed to rethink the strategy.
Reluctant witness and a plea
TenBrink had been scheduled for trial March 11 but reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Two days before the no contest plea, an inmate scheduled to testify against TenBrink wrote prosecutors that he didn’t want to appear at trial. Jason Desaulniers, who is serving 30-month sentence on drug and gun charges in Florida, said in a letter that he was “asking to please be left alone” and not transferred from Walton Correctional Institute in Quincy, Florida, to Gainesville.
“Please do not sent me back to the jail or ask me to come and do anything more with the case,” Desaulniers wrote. “I don’t really know anything about the case. I told you what I knew on the phone.”
It is unclear why prosecutors wanted Desaulniers to testify or what prompted his decision to write prosecutors. It is also unclear if the letter had any impact on TenBrink’s plea negotiations.
After pleading no contest, TenBrink asked Alachua County Circuit Judge James Colaw to allow the sentence to be served in Texas, according to The Gainesville Sun.
“That would be ideal to be closer to my family and my children,” said Tenbrink, wearing a red-and-white striped jail jumpsuit.
There’s no documentation in TenBrink’s court file that the request will be fulfilled.
Instead, there’s a notation that TenBrink has been given a packet of information about the Florida Department of Corrections. He did not have a prison assignment as of Thursday afternoon.
Photo by the Washington Post/Getty Images