The wrong house

Neo-Nazis got caught up in a case of mistaken identity in Michigan. Now the FBI is involved.

Hello, and welcome to the first issue of The Informant, a publication about hate and extremism in America, written and edited by me, Nick R. Martin.

Today I’m bringing you the first of a two-part investigation into a case of mistaken identity in Michigan involving neo-Nazis, a terrified family with a newborn baby, and two people who share the name Daniel Harper. I’ve never reported on a story quite like this. Part two will be published next week.

Each Monday, you can expect The Informant to bring you an in-depth piece of original journalism on the topics of hate and extremism. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll give you special intelligence briefings on other developments in this important space. The briefings will mix original journalism with links to articles and analysis to ensure you remain up to date on all major developments on the beat. Read The Informant and you will never be behind on this critical topic. That is The Informant promise.

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The wrong house

Dawn Shea was home at night, nursing her newborn, when she first saw a flicker of light outside.

She and her husband, Rich, had just brought their one-day-old baby home from the hospital and were settling in for what they hoped would be a quiet night in Dexter, Michigan, a placid city of 4,000 just northwest of Ann Arbor. 

A moment passed.

The light outside flickered again.

Dawn asked Rich to go see what it might be.

Rich went to look outside. 

In the darkness, he saw two young men in front of their house, both dressed in black. At least one of the men was wearing a mask with a white skull printed on the front. 

The man in the skull mask stepped onto the porch. The other stood in front of the house taking photos. His camera flashed.

The Sheas called law enforcement for help, but the men were long gone by the time someone arrived a half hour later. The Sheas were told that there wasn't much that could be done but that they should call again if the men returned.

What neither the Sheas nor law enforcement knew at the time was that the mysterious visitors were part of an international neo-Nazi group known as The Base. It's an organization that advocates terrorism and mass murder as a means to bring about the collapse of modern civilization and the eventual creation of an all-white ethnostate.

So why did The Base end up at the Sheas' front door on the night of December 11?

The answer is complicated, but it all really boils down to this: The neo-Nazis were at the wrong house.

It became clear in the early hours of the following morning that The Base members thought they were targeting someone else.

A grainy black-and-white photo appeared on the social network Telegram. It showed a man in a skull mask and tactical vest, pointing to the numbers tacked up on the Sheas’ front porch.

The caption read: “The Base sends greetings to Daniel Harper of the Antifa podcast ‘I Don’t Speak German.’”

The spark

This is essentially the worst possibility of mistaken identity, a tale of two men with the same name, a botched attempt to silence one of them, and a window into the world of neo-Nazis who encourage each other to commit acts of violence to further their perverted ideology.

It also shows the remarkable danger of doxing, a favorite tool of white supremacists who try to intimidate and harass people by posting their private and personal information online, and how it can go horribly awry. 

The situation has drawn the attention of local law enforcement in Michigan, as well as the FBI. It has also become an embarrassment for some fairly well-known neo-Nazis who tacitly called upon their followers to harass and threaten someone at the wrong address.

It’s a complex story, so I’m going to unwind it as carefully and clearly as possible.

The first thing to know is that, yes, there is a Daniel Harper who lives in Michigan and who co-hosts a podcast called “I Don’t Speak German.” As I explained in October in a piece for The Daily Beast, it may be the most important podcast countering the white supremacist movement today.

Harper started the podcast with co-host Jack Graham about a year ago, and it quickly earned a loyal fanbase of listeners eager to hear them dig into topics involving white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the racist “alt-right” and more. Graham acts as the interviewer on most episodes while Harper, who has spent years obsessively researching white supremacy, is the in-house expert, explaining the nuances and histories of the topics at hand. 

Harper approaches the show with a mix of humor and deep knowledge on the subjects, a combination that has made “I Don’t Speak German” a favorite among researchers and journalists who cover the radical right. The show, which Harper researches and records in his spare time, has led would-be white supremacists to step back from the brink of radicalization. And it has made Harper a target of some of the very people he talks about on the show.

To understand how members of The Base ended up on the Sheas’ front porch, we have to go back to September, when “I Don’t Speak German” released two episodes that focused on relatively new form of neo-Nazism that has emerged in the past decade. The episodes were titled “The Siege Pill” and “Siege Pill 2, Fascistic Boogaloo.”

As Harper explained in the episodes, adherents to this form of neo-Nazism uphold the racist book “Siege” as their bible and subscribe to a tactic known as “accelerationism.” The tactic is based on the idea that modern society is headed towards collapse and that followers of various extremist ideologies should do things like engage in and encourage terrorism and mass murder to hasten that collapse.

“In the end, all of these guys do have fantasies, essentially, of like – they will go and just walk into the ghettos and just mow down every black person,” Harper explained in the first “Siege Pill” episode, which was released on September 4.

The “Siege Pill 2” episode, released on September 11, focused on a neo-Nazi group that calls itself the Bowl Patrol.

The group’s name is derived from the bowlcut hair style worn by the white supremacist who gunned down multiple black worshipers at a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015. The group mostly convenes in online chats and occasionally records a podcast called “The Bowlcast.” Its ideology is similar to that of groups like Atomwaffen Division and The Base, which are better known for their real-life actions and paramilitary training. But there is also overlap in membership among the groups.

Harper used part of the "Siege Pill 2" episode to talk about a number of people associated with the Bowl Patrol, including the group’s leader, who uses the fictitious name “Vic Mackey.” Also mentioned in the episode was Paul Nehlen, a former Republican congressional candidate in Wisconsin who has fully embraced neo-Nazism and the Bowl Patrol, even posting images of himself with a photoshopped bowlcut.

(Mackey and Nehlen are two of the better-known adherents to this new form of neo-Nazism and would later play key roles in misidentifying Harper’s house.)

Harper talked about Mackey’s penchant for trafficking in obscene rape and death threats and called out Nehlen as “a vicious, horrible human being.” He also predicted that the Bowl Patrol would come after him for even talking about the group on the podcast.

He was right.

The day the “Siege Pill 2” episode was posted online, an anonymous message appeared in the Bowl Patrol’s main public channel on Telegram.

“Thanks for the free press, Daniel Harper,” the message said. It went on to encourage people to send “fan mail” to the address in Dexter where the group believed Harper lived.

That message wouldn’t be the last time neo-Nazis would associate the wrong address in Dexter with the “I Don’t Speak German” host.

Inching closer

I recently spoke to Harper, who believes his sin in the “Siege Pill 2” episode of his podcast, what really set the neo-Nazis off, was that he spoke their names. 

“They decided that’s the instigating incident or that’s the point of no return,” Harper told me. “They decided I was poking them in they eyes and they were going to poke back.”

On September 12, the day after the Bowl Patrol first posted the Dexter address online, another message appeared on the group’s public Telegram channel. It marked an escalation from online harassment to real-world action.

It was a nine-second video, shot from inside a vehicle. Someone had driven by the Dexter address and filmed the front of the house, which had a dark-colored SUV parked in the driveway.

“Howdy, antifascist activist Daniel Harper,” the text of the message said. “Nice place you've got there.”

Again, the address of the Dexter house was included in the message.

Online, the neo-Nazis celebrated the act, oblivious to the fact that they had the wrong address. In the weeks that followed, they talked about the video in multiple YouTube livestreams. Mackey, the leader of the Bowl Patrol, even read the address aloud during at least one livestream and also included the license plate of the SUV for good measure.

“Manicured lawn, great location. It seems like he got it for a nice price,” one of Mackey’s associates said during an episode of the neo-Nazi show “Goy Talk Live.” “A couple sun spots you can fix up, maybe a little oil spill on the driveway. But other than that, beautiful neighborhood. Trees, nice paved road. This is great, man.”

The message the neo-Nazis were trying to send was that they knew where Harper lived. They were, of course, wrong. 

To Harper, it was still alarming because he knew those weren’t his sun spots, his oil spill or his house. It all belonged to someone else. But who?

“As soon as I saw the drive-by, my immediate response was to reach out through channels to the FBI and to contact local law enforcement,” Harper told me.

He was assured someone in law enforcement was on the case. 

Then on September 21, something surprising happened.

The FBI arrested a U.S. Army soldier named Jarrett William Smith, who was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. The feds alleged in court papers that Smith, a self-proclaimed satanic neo-Nazi, had been sounding off about multiple things on Telegram under the username “Anti-Kosmik 2182” and that some of those things amounted to crimes.

Prosecutors alleged that Smith had shared bomb-making instructions and talked about targets like CNN headquarters and former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. They also alleged that he’d threatened to set fire to the Michigan house of someone identified only in court documents by the initials D.H.

The Telegram postings by “Anti-Kosmik 2182,” which I’ve read through, make it clear he was talking about Harper, and specifically responding to the September 12 video that was posted by the Bowl Patrol.

“Ditch the car somewhere a few blocks away, take back alleys, trails in the woods, etc., and then come up on the house wearing a mask,” he wrote in a Telegram chat about the September 12 video. “I’m not saying do anything illegal, but I am saying it would be a real shame if all he has went up in literal flames.”

Smith has since pleaded not guilty to three federal charges and is being held without bail while awaiting trial.

If anyone thought the arrest would have thrown cold water on the Bowl Patrol gang and its targeting of Harper and the Dexter address, however, they would soon be proven wrong.

On October 27, about a month after Smith’s arrest, a new drive-by video was posted on Telegram, this time on the public channel belonging to Paul Nehlen. The video began by showing a Bowl Patrol patch affixed to the visor of the vehicle. Then it panned over to the driver’s side window to show the Dexter house.

Again, the text of the Telegram posting incorrectly identified the house as belonging to “antifascist activist Daniel Harper.” And again, it repeated the phrase: “Nice place you've got there." It also included the address of the house.

Connecting the dots

Harper was alarmed again by the new video, worried for whoever lived at the house. But at the same time, he was essentially helpless to do anything other than hope that law enforcement would intervene.

There was, of course, always the option that Harper could go public with the fact that the neo-Nazis had the wrong address. But that was a Sophie’s choice. It could end up pointing the neo-Nazis closer to his real address. And it may have unintended consequences for whoever lived at the house. After all, the Bowl Patrol and groups like it are chaos agents. They may not care that they have the wrong house. They might find it funny and continue targeting the place.

Anything was possible. 

So Harper continued to trust that the system would work and hope that drive-by videos were as far as the neo-Nazis would take it.

That changed just before Thanksgiving when Harper received a private message on Twitter.

It was from a man who was also named Daniel Harper. It turned out he and his wife used to own the house that the neo-Nazis had been targeting, but they had sold it in August to another family — the Sheas.

And suddenly, it all became clear. The neo-Nazis had found the Daniel Harper that lived in Dexter and assumed he was the podcaster. They not only had the wrong house, but they had the wrong Daniel Harper.

The second Daniel Harper and his family had moved out of state after selling the house. But he told the podcaster that he’d recently received a handwritten letter that was forwarded to him by the new owners. The letter was clearly meant for the podcaster.

“This letter is merely to display that we know where you live,” it said, “and while it’s easy to excuse us all as these terrible people and terrorists, we’re pretty cool once you’d get to know us.”

The letter made references to the Bowl Patrol and neo-Nazi YouTube shows. It praised Hitler and several notorious neo-Nazis, and it contained a crudely drawn swastika. It was signed, “Yours truly, the Cüm Bomber.”

The second Daniel Harper told the first that he’d found him by googling some of the keywords in the letter along with their shared name. He eventually found the “I Don’t Speak German” podcast.

For the podcaster Daniel Harper, it was a revelation.

“This was the first I found out about the family,” he told me, referring to the Sheas. “I didn’t even know their name or anything.”

He saw the letter as a “clear escalation” and encouraged the other Daniel Harper to contact the FBI about it. He also tried to reach out to the FBI himself, to no avail.

While clearly an attempt to intimidate the podcaster, the letter had an unintended effect, too. It essentially created a network between the current owners of the house, the former owners of the house and the podcaster. And in reality, all three of them had been victims in one way or another of the neo-Nazi harrassment campaign.

Now the difficulty was to get law enforcement to take a greater interest in the situation.

The fallout

Dawn Shea was distraught when she decided to write an email to the podcaster Daniel Harper on December 12.

Neo-Nazis from The Base had just visited her house the night before and the police seemed to be of no help. She was looking for a way, any way, to put an end to this.

“We understand that your podcast and research are intended to shed light on a dangerous and significant rising culture in our society. We appreciate your concern,” she wrote. “However your work is putting 2 completely uninvolved and innocent families at risk and in fear for our safety and our children’s lives.”

Shea asked Harper to make some kind of public statement to make it clear that the neo-Nazis were targeting the wrong house in Dexter.

“Your words make a difference. Please use them for good,” she wrote.

When Harper received that email, he really didn’t know what to do. He had already considered doing exactly what Shea was asking of him. But it was an impossible decision. There was no telling how the neo-Nazis would react. And even though the Sheas believed it would help them for Harper to go public, what if they were wrong?

“It’s a really complicated situation,” Harper told me recently. “I had no desire to let them take the brunt of this if I could save them from it. But I was trying to work out the best option as to how to keep everybody safe.”

Harper reached out to friends and people he trusted for advice. He got conflicting answers. It didn’t make the decision any easier. Ultimately, he decided to use whatever contacts he had to try to get the FBI and local law enforcement to pay attention. He asked people he knew to reach out to their own contacts and rattle some cages until authorities would finally intervene.

Harper’s strategy worked, too, at least initially. Both the FBI and the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan sent investigators to the Shea’s house. And a special agent from the FBI eventually visited the other Daniel Harper to pick up the handwritten letter.

The Sheas ultimately decided it was in their interest to go public with what had happened. They hoped to use the local media to tell the neo-Nazis to back off.

On December 24, two local newspapers ran articles about the situation. The Sun Times News in Chelsea, Michigan ran an article headlined, “Dexter family wrongly targeted,” and The Ann Arbor News in Ann Arbor, Michigan followed it with an article headlined, “White supremacists target Dexter home by mistake.” Neither article has been mentioned on the main Telegram channels for the Bowl Patrol or Paul Nehlen, and it’s unclear whether any of the neo-Nazis saw the articles.

An FBI spokesperson in Detroit referred all questions about the matter to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, which didn’t return calls for this article. In a statement to the Ann Arbor News, the sheriff’s office described the situation as involving “non-threatening photographs and statements,” a quote that seems oblivious to the history of the groups involved.

The Sheas declined to be interviewed for this article. Rich Shea told me by text message that all the local coverage had felt “a little overwhelming” and that his family wanted “to take a step back from the media for a bit,” which is understandable.

The other Daniel Harper talked to me in-depth, and you can read about our discussion in part two of this investigation, which will be published on January 13.

Since some of the information had already been made public by the local newspapers, Daniel Harper, the podcaster, decided to go on the record with me in hopes that the story would be told fairly and accurately and so that maybe the neo-Nazis would leave the Sheas and the other Daniel Harper alone.

He also expressed some regret for the way everything went down.

“I do feel really guilty and I do feel really bad,” Harper told me. “I still don’t know what the best option was.”

“I honestly did not know what to do.”


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