Cantwell Trial Day 2: Bowl Patrol under oath
The alleged victim in the case had a lot to explain to the jury, beginning with his racist and antisemitic online presence.
CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE — The second day of testimony in the federal criminal case against neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell did not disappoint. After the FBI agent assigned to the case finished up his testimony, another neo-Nazi who is the alleged victim in the case took the stand.
1. An avatar comes to life
At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Benjamin Lambert, the alleged victim in the case, was sworn in, took the stand, and was immediately asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Davis if he had an online alias. “I went by CheddarMane,” Lambert said.
“I’ve never been in the same room with him. Until today,” Lambert testified, before identifying Christopher Cantwell as the defendant.
“It’s a chat room and it’s people who make memes and have reverence for Dylann Roof,” Lambert testified when asked to describe the neo-Nazi group known as the Bowl Patrol. “We made memes and we had a podcast called the Bowlcast.”
Lambert testified briefly about non-CheddarMane life: married for 11 years with three young children and a fourth on the way.
(Lambert’s wife was initially expected to testify, but the government had moved to have her testimony by video based on her doctor’s recommendation that she not travel. The judge denied the government’s request, and she is no longer expected to testify in the case.)
2. Connecting the Nazi dots
Wednesday’s testimony shed light on how Lambert came to know and be involved with Cantwell and Bowl Patrol.
Lambert testified that he came to be familiar with Cantwell in approximately mid 2018 through Thomas Gipson, a Bowl Patrol member who uses the online alias “Hardmaus,” and who is a close friend of Lambert in Missouri. Lambert said Gipson “helped build [Cantwell’s] radio server” and “had been working on a VPN service with [Cantwell].”
Lambert testified that he was a member from early 2018 through the fall of 2019 but that he wasn’t a “founding member.” He said he became involved with Bowl Patrol through Robert Kehne Moeller, a Bowl Patrol member who went by the nickname “Tactical Bowlcut.” (Moeller has been previously identified by anti-racist activists.) Lambert said he found Moeller’s YouTube channel, then became friends with him on Facebook. “And it went from there.”
And who arranged for Cantwell to be the first guest on the Bowl Patrol’s podcast? Lambert said he coordinated Cantwell’s Bowlcast appearance himself. “I put Cantwell in touch with Vic Mackey,” he testified.
3. FBI Testimony
Shayne Tongbua, the FBI case agent whose testimony began on Tuesday continued on the stand under cross examination by Cantwell’s defense attorney Jeff Levin. Tongbua began by clarifying that Cantwell was under investigation, and under surveillance, since at least late 2018 or early 2019 when Tongbua took over the case. It wasn’t entirely clear whether the investigation might have dated back even further than that.
As we learned on the opening day of the trial, and as many have speculated long before that, 2019 was a very busy year for Cantwell in terms of contacting various law enforcement agencies. Under redirect, Tongbua told jurors that during the summer of 2019, Cantwell “just flooded the FBI with information.”
But, Tongbua added, it wasn’t until the FBI asked Cantwell if he had any identifying information about members of Bowl Patrol that Cantwell actually provided the photos prosecutors say he used in June 2019 to extort Lambert. The defense’s point was basically that their client loves to talk to law enforcement and offered all kinds of proactive help. But the government has presented the idea that Cantwell’s offer of information to the government, while “voluminous,” was neither straightforward nor complete.
Tongbua also offered some additional information about Cantwell’s September 2019 meeting with the FBI. Cantwell shared information about Lambert (who he knew then only as “CheddarMane”) but he also spoke about a number of other individuals over the course of three hours, according to Tongbua. And Tongbua confirmed that Cantwell had been subject to prank calls and rampant posting of “insulting photos of Mr. Cantwell.”
Tongbua also offered additional details of the FBI’s October 2019 Missouri field trip, during which they paid Lambert a surprise visit. Four agents from New Hampshire traveled to Missouri and showed up at the Lambert home unannounced. Lambert’s wife directed them to his place of employment. We already learned from earlier filings in the case that when agents arrived at Lambert’s work, he was wearing a sweatshirt with a “bowl cut” insignia. From there, Tongbua said, agents took Lambert in a vehicle and traveled to the Lincoln County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Office, where a videotaped interview was conducted. (The video wasn’t shown in court.)
According to Tongbua, Lambert was told “he was not under investigation” and “wasn’t charged with any crime.” Tongbua further stressed that he has “absolutely not” been offered any financial assistance by the FBI, and that there has been “no discussion” with Lambert about becoming “a paid confidential informant.”
4. The honor of using your real name
At several points during Wednesday’s testimony, Cantwell’s defense attorneys noted that members of Bowl Patrol hid behind pseudonyms while their client used his legal name.
“He doesn’t hide behind an avatar,” Levin said today.
5. LSD? Maybe not
At the heart of the alleged crime is Cantwell’s threat to contact child protective services in Missouri and report Lambert for being a drug user and potentially endangering his children. (We learned yesterday that Cantwell did, in fact, contact child protective services.) Cantwell’s basis for the allegation was a photo Lambert took of himself, with what Cantwell was sure was LSD on his tongue. Lambert testified on Wednesday that those were strips of construction paper and the selfie was a joke.
6. Avatars, memes, and rape jokes
Imagine, for a moment, testifying under oath about the dirtiest joke you’ve ever told or the memes you’ve shared (if you’re into that kind of thing.) Now, imagine testifying under oath in a federal courtroom about the avatar you had on a profile you never thought would be linked to your actual name that you used to post hateful, violent, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic memes onto a Telegram channel chock full of like-minded neo-Nazis. Ben Lambert, the Bowl Patrol member formerly known as CheddarMane, spent a significant portion of his afternoon doing just that.
During cross examination by Eric Wolpin, one of two federal defenders representing Cantwell, Lambert was asked to explain, under oath, the details of his avatar. The CheddarMane avatar presented to the jury isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen — it’s kind of your basic skull mask, gun-wielding “scary guy” in “scary colors” (a classic black-and-red Nazi motif.) The defense attorneys also presented an alternative image, which shows the same avatar “accessorized” with a headband photoshopped on the person’s head. Bowl Patrol often used the headband on their avatars. The text on the headband reads: “Kill Jews.”
Since I know some members of the white nationalist movement will read this, I’m going to take this opportunity to offer a bit of free advice. Pause, and consider your current avatar, as well as all your prior avatars. Now, close your eyes and imagine sitting in a federal courtroom, explaining why you chose this avatar, to a room of attorneys, jurors, FBI agents, and reporters.
Rape jokes were also discussed, with Lambert testifying that, “yes,” Bowl Patrol trafficked in this type of humor.
7. Paul Nehlen goes to court
Twice-failed Wisconsin congressional candidate and government witness Paul Nehlen, who goes by the nickname “Uncle Paul,” drove from his home in Wisconsin to make his appearance on Wednesday. Nehlen spent the afternoon sitting outside the courtroom, waiting for his turn. But things ran long listening to audio clips of Bowl Patrol pranks, so Nehlen will be testifying on Thursday instead.
We did, however, get a better sense today of what Nehlen may be testifying about. Lambert testified that in June 2019, after receiving the alleged threats from Cantwell, he turned to Nehlen for advice. Lambert said Nehlen was in the Bowl Patrol chat online and that he was someone Lambert admired. (Nehlen is also someone who loved that “Kill Jews” headband as much as anyone. In recent weeks, Nehlen still used a photo of himself with that very headband as his avatar.) But before making the trek to New Hampshire, Nehlen cleared out the vast majority of the posts in his Telegram channel. Strangely, Nehlen didn’t see the need to change the title of the channel, which still includes the well-worn neo-Nazi acronym GTKRWN, which includes an anti-Jewish slur and stands for “Gas The K***s, Race War Now.”
I almost forgot! The defense made an unexpected — and not entirely terrible — point later in the day. If Lambert so despised doxing, how could he have looked up to and admired Nehlen? After all, isn’t Nehlen known for having doxed Douglass Mackey, aka Ricky Vaughn? Before Lambert could answer, testimony came to a halt. The judge and attorneys spoke briefly in hushed tones before the defense moved on to the next topic. To be honest, the scene wasn’t entirely unlike what happens when the same dox gets mentioned on Twitter.
8. A small mystery, solved
I had wondered which individual Lambert spoke to by phone on a recorded jail line, as referenced in pre-trial filings. Lambert testified that the man was Robert Kehne Moeller. (We didn’t hear those recordings, and it’s not clear we will.)
9. Bowlcast: The federal court excerpts
The only thing more bizarre than experiencing the Bowlcast for the very first time has to be doing so as a juror in a federal courtroom. But this afternoon, the voice of Bowl Patrol leader Vic Mackey (who has been identified as Andrew Casarez) was played, loud and clear, along with Lambert’s, in a series of clips from various episodes.
10. A preview of Thursday
Lambert’s cross examination is expected to continue on Thursday morning. Nehlen is expected to testify after that. And then the government will call additional witnesses.
Hilary Sargent is a freelance journalist. She has written for The New York Times, QUARTZ, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsarg.
Illustration by Colleen Tighe.
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