A former Navy Yard employee who marched alongside torch-bearing white supremacists in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., admitted Tuesday that he had repeatedly lied to federal agents about his ties to extremist groups.

Fred C. Arena, 41, of Salem, N.J., told a judge that he failed to disclose his affiliation with the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America on an application for national security clearance he needed for his job. When agents later questioned him about his membership, he denied it.

His guilty plea to charges of making false statements to government officials makes him the latest defendant convicted in a nationwide crackdown on potentially violent domestic extremists, and could send him to prison for up to five years on each of the five counts he faces.

During Tuesday’s brief hearing in federal court in Philadelphia, Arena showed none of the exaggerated disdain for the prosecutor’s allegations that he had displayed during previous proceedings.

When the government moved last month to hold Arena without bail, calling him a danger to the community and potential witnesses, he spent most of his time in court smirking, scoffing, and mouthing “no” to anyone who could see him.

In contrast, when U.S. District Judge John R. Padova paused Tuesday to ask him whether he had anything more he wanted to tell the court about his guilty plea, Arena simply answered: “No, not at this time.”

His lawyer, Brian J. Zeiger, was vigorously shaking his head.

Prosecutors say this photo taken from one of Fred C. Arena's social media accounts depicts him at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., where clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters left one woman dead.
Facebook photo taken from court filings
Prosecutors say this photo taken from one of Fred C. Arena's social media accounts depicts him at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., where clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters left one woman dead.

It was Arena’s outspokenness, especially in white supremacist online forums, that first drew the FBI’s attention. In one 2018 chat log, uncovered by the alternative media site Unicorn Riot, Arena complained under the pseudonym “McCormick H. Foley” that many of his alt-right colleagues had become “too [expletive] nice.”

Agents later uncovered a long history of Arena’s racist rhetoric online, threatening violence and boasting of his harassment of minorities and people he perceived to have betrayed the alt-right.

His Facebook page was filled with photos of him brandishing automatic weapons with captions like “coming to a synagogue near you” or referring to Muslims with derogatory slurs.

In one case, Arena boasted to others of his efforts to harass and threaten a member of his own alt-right movement who he believed had betrayed the group and was cooperating with the FBI.

“We drove [him] so crazy, he was ready to kill himself,” Arena wrote.

A photo taken from Fred Arena's Facebook page in which he is depicted brandishing a knife and threatening Muslims. Arena, a Navy Yard employee, is charged with lying to federal agents about his ties to white supremacist groups.
Facebook photo taken from court filings
A photo taken from Fred Arena's Facebook page in which he is depicted brandishing a knife and threatening Muslims. Arena, a Navy Yard employee, is charged with lying to federal agents about his ties to white supremacist groups.

Agents first approached Arena in 2018 at the Navy Yard, where he worked for a government contractor, after Unicorn Riot identified him as the person behind the Foley pseudonym. But Arena denied any affiliation with Vanguard America at the time — a lie he maintained in subsequent interviews this year and on his application for national security clearance.

Asked Tuesday what prompted his client to suddenly reverse course and plead guilty, the defense lawyer said only that Arena “fully accepted responsibility.” Zeiger reiterated an argument that the government sought to imprison his client before trial solely for his extremist opinions.

“He has a right to hold his crazy views,” the lawyer said. “He has a right to own weapons — well, at least until his conviction.”

Though membership in domestic extremist groups is not illegal, the Justice Department has increasingly turned to charges like lying to the FBI to prosecute members who could pose an imminent threat.

Unlike cases of international terrorism — where charges such as providing material support to terrorists enable agents to intervene early, and carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison — there is no specific domestic terrorism charge.

Nevertheless, federal authorities have lodged high-profile cases against white nationalists on lesser charges in recent months, while warning of a potential outbreak of extremist violence in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Last month, federal prosecutors in New Jersey charged Richard Tobin, an 18-year-old Camden County man, with directing vandalism attacks on two Midwestern synagogues last year. Tobin, they said, also disclosed in interviews with agents that he thought dying in a suicide attack would be “pretty badass” and boasted that he once nearly attacked a crowd of black shoppers at a New Jersey mall with a machete.

Tobin remains in custody and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.