Content warning: This article contains graphic language.
It takes a lot to surprise Jeff Tischauser.
A research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project who works to expose the growing normalization of far-right extremism in the United States, Tischauser is used to hardening himself against the activities of the purveyors of hate he tracks.
But when known neo-Nazi Christopher Pohlhaus took his penchant for online harassment live, the cruelty particularly stood out for Tischauser.
The pivot point came in March, when Pohlhaus marshaled members of the violent “Blood Tribe” he founded to hound children and families attending a drag brunch fundraiser for the LGBTQ+ community in small-town Ohio, screaming obscenities and pursuing a call to “give them PTSD.”
“I realized this guy is actually more for real than I thought he was. He’s not just an online podcaster. He’s getting people out into the streets. He is seemingly driven to provoke his perceived political enemies. And that includes children … apparently,” Tischauser said. “Not a lot of things shock me anymore, but they still can turn my stomach. When I heard that, it made me want to find where this guy is so that he can at least be stopped or at least kind of track his activities a little bit more closely.”
With determination typical of the research analysts who work for the Intelligence Project to bring extremists out of the shadows, Tischauser trained his investigative skills on Pohlhaus.
In July, the Intelligence Project published an exposé in its Hatewatch blog showing that Pohlhaus had purchased 10.6 acres deep in the pine forests of northern Maine. The purpose was to build an armed white supremacist training ground for the group he calls “Blut Stamm” – German for “Blood Tribe.” Unnoticed by many people in the community, Pohlhaus had been clearing land he bought in March 2022 and was traveling the country to recruit followers to broaden his network of extremist connections. Soliciting cryptocurrency donations on Telegram, an encrypted messaging board often used by white supremacists, he was using the money to build and stock the enclave, where he flew a giant Nazi flag.
The painstaking SPLC investigation led to media exposure as well as proposed changes in statewide policy around extremists. In October, Pohlhaus sold off the land, went quiet and appears, at least for the time being, to have abandoned his plans in Maine.
Mundane and revelatory
“I had to move somewhere, you know? You guys are so weird,” Pohlhaus said in a voice message responding to a request for comment Tischauser sent via Telegram during his investigation.
“Google, ‘Breaking News: Nazi Buys a Piece of Property.’ Tell everybody. Run the presses: ‘He Owns Property,’” Pohlhaus said. “What the f--- do you expect me to do? Where do you expect me to go? You want me to go to your neighborhood? Why are you guys so g------ awkward. This isn’t a news story.”
But of course, it was. Tischauser’s research demonstrates, as does the SPLC’s latest Year in Hate and Extremism report, that white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are becoming significantly more aggressive, more mainstream and more of a threat to local governments and community institutions. And the result illustrates how, through deep collaboration, groundbreaking investigations employing cutting-edge data science and intelligence techniques and old-fashioned gumshoe reporting, the SPLC is combating the rise of hate and extremism and its seepage into the political discourse of the United States.
The work of the Intelligence Project builds on half a century of investigative expertise by the SPLC, which has continued to sound the alarm about the dangers of far-right extremists even when most policymakers and the public believed them to be fringe groups fading in influence.
“The SPLC’s Intelligence Project hopes to change extremists’ behavior by exposing their activities,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for the Intelligence Project.
“The resources and expertise and time that it takes to unearth the people who want to remain in the shadows, and most importantly their plans, their strategies and tactics, is something that the SPLC has been offering since our founding,” Carroll Rivas said. It is a tool “that communities can use to throw the paper on the podium and say, ‘This is real, this is organized and it’s intentionally harming us.’ It is information necessary to interrupt and organize and bring litigation against these groups, and it’s a time-consuming and deep project.”
‘A needle in a haystack’
It was September 2021 when Tischauser said he first became aware of Pohlhaus – a tattoo artist who calls himself “The Hammer” – and the group he founded. Pohlhaus has ties to the neo-Nazi Nationalist Social Club (NSC-131) and convicted Jan. 6 rioter Riley June Williams. But while Pohlhaus has claimed associations with other neo-Nazi activists and publishers around the country, he had previously been believed to confine his activities to online provocation.
However, Tischauser picked up online chatter from Pohlhaus claiming to be moving to Maine to set up a headquarters for his group. Not knowing anything more, he began combing through property records in Maine county by county.
He was looking, he acknowledged, for “a needle in a haystack.”
About a month after the drag show, Tischauser got a break. An anonymous message came in on an SPLC tip line that Pohlhaus had joined a gym in Penobscot County, Maine. Tischauser began focusing his search on the northern Maine county whose seat is Bangor.
After more than 20 hours of work, Tischauser found records on a database maintained by the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds identifying Pohlhaus and fellow white supremacist and convicted felon Fred Boyd Ramey as the buyers of a property outside a town on the northern edge of the county, Springfield, population 409.
‘What community journalism is all about’
Meanwhile, a local newspaper reporter was also picking up concerning signs. Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli had moved to Maine three years before from New York with her husband and taken a job as a staff writer with the Bangor Daily News. A reporter and photographer with an investigative bent, Phalen Tomaselli had a track record at her previous reporting jobs for exposing white nationalist groups. As a reporter at the Reading Eagle and now-defunct Reading Times in Berks County, Pennsylvania, she had written about the East Coast headquarters of the Aryan Nations group.
Phalen Tomaselli said her inquiries about chatter she had seen that a neo-Nazi planned to build “an ethnostate” in Maine were meeting skepticism and hitting dead ends. Until, searching for anything she could find on Pohlhaus, she saw Tischauser’s story on the SPLC website.
Phalen Tomaselli had an advantage Tischauser did not. She lived within two hours of the site the SPLC researcher had identified, and she was able to draw on the knowledge of residents to find its exact location, which had no listed address. Early one August day, she set off in search of the property on her own.
Off a narrow, remote, dirt and stone road in the middle of dense pine forest with no cell service, she spotted a blur of white. It was a dilapidated white trailer that matched the photos of a trailer in videos Pohlhaus had posted of the camp online. Surrounding it, according to Phalen Tomaselli, were acres of nearly cleared land.
Pohlhaus had begun recruiting men to prepare to build cabins for Blood Tribe followers. In multiple Telegram postings, Pohlhaus said they were camping in tents in the winter and training to become Blood Tribe soldiers. He frequently posted clips of his inner circle initiation ritual. In it, men pierce their palm with a spear to draw blood and then wipe it on the spear handle over the blood of the others.
“I’ll be honest, it was a little scary,” Phalen Tomaselli said.
Putting her fear aside, she took photographs from outside the property, took notes and shared what she had seen with both Tischauser and her readers in an article published Aug. 7.
“If a Nazi is trying to set up a military training camp in your community, you should know,” Phalen Tomaselli said. “It’s our job. For me, it’s my responsibility to do this for the people, for the public, I guess. It’s what community journalism is all about.”
Phalen Tomaselli’s story, and others that followed, drew the attention of residents, community leaders and politicians. The Planet Fitness location in Bangor – the gym where Pohlhaus had been spotted – banned him from its facilities. After the owner of a Maine rental home wrote an opinion piece in the Lincoln News in support of Pohlhaus, who is a frequent guest, her listings were removed from the Airbnb booking platform. Community leaders, including officials at a local Jewish synagogue, expressed alarm about Pohlhaus’ plans. World War II veterans interviewed by Phalen Tomaselli said they worried about history repeating itself.
‘A blight on the community’
As the community concerns grew, several Maine lawmakers proposed legislation to beef up Maine’s anti-militia laws and to outlaw paramilitary training encampments. Among them was state Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor, who drafted legislation that would make it a criminal offense to offer training in firearms, explosives or other tactics with the intent of causing a “civil disorder.” The prohibition would not apply to training for law enforcement, self-defense programs, military science students, firearms instruction on safe use of guns or any legal shooting sports.
After Baldacci spoke out and introduced the legislation, Pohlhaus posted an online image of an assault rifle with the words, “Baldacci isn’t gonna stop us.”
“He’s a scary guy,” Baldacci said of Pohlhaus.
“Wherever [Pohlhaus] is he’s a blight on the community that he’s in,” Baldacci said. “It was a blight that I thought was unacceptable in Maine.”
The community response, the proposed policy actions and the media coverage of Pohlhaus’ plans are emblematic of the SPLC’s mission to work in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, Carroll Rivas said.
“Communities know what is happening to them,” Carroll Rivas said. With its investigative resources, the SPLC “can help put together in a national picture the pain and harm they are experiencing from hate groups.”
Despite the success they have had in foiling Pohlhaus’ plans, Tischauser and Phalen Tomaselli worry that Maine, the whitest state in the country, and one with a deep tradition of both gun ownership and conservative politics, has not seen the last of the white supremacist. They vow to keep tracking him and others of his ilk.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm bells about these really violent people in our communities and trying to shine a light on their activities,” Tischauser said of the SPLC’s efforts. “And we wish people would listen. Because when you let in a Nazi to your dinner party and there’s one Nazi at that dinner table, it’s now a Nazi dinner party. And more Nazis are going to come next time. And then guess what? Pretty soon that whole table is going to be full of Nazis.”
Illustration at top: The flag of Maine is outlined in a map of the state, with crosshairs on the town of Springfield, where known neo-Nazi Christopher Pohlhaus was planning to build a white nationalist “ethnostate” until an investigation by the SPLC and a local reporter exposed it. (SPLC)