Federal authorities have accused a Camden County man of ordering the vandalism of two Midwestern synagogues earlier this year, making him the latest target of a law enforcement crackdown against alleged white nationalists in South Jersey.
Investigators say Richard Tobin, 18, of Brooklawn, used the neo-Nazi social network The Base to recruit the perpetrators who carried out the September attacks on synagogues in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Though FBI agents have linked Tobin to only those two incidents, he allegedly said he envisioned them as part of a nationwide campaign he had dubbed “Operation Kristallnacht” — a reference to the organized ransacking of Jewish homes, schools, and hospitals by Nazi paramilitaries and civilians in Germany in 1938.
Court documents say Tobin also confessed to obsessively plotting more violent action and, in one case, got as far as sitting in the parking lot of the Menlo Park Mall in Middlesex County with a machete willing himself to “let loose” on black shoppers.
“Tobin said that he was triggered by the state of the country, such as when he saw a Pride parade or a large number of African Americans in one location,” FBI Special Agent Jason D. Novick wrote. “There were so many African Americans around [the mall] that enraged him.”
The case against Tobin comes amid a rise in the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents nationwide and as the Justice Department has launched a spate of new investigations out of concern about a possible surge in white nationalist violence in advance of the 2020 election.
DOJ officials said the FBI has about 850 open investigations across the United States, including at least one involving a Salem, N.J., man who worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Fred Arena, 41, was charged last month with hiding his ties to white nationalist groups on an application for a national security clearance.
Local authorities have also tuned in to the risk. In September, Camden County prosecutors seized the rifle of a Gloucester Township man under a new state law — the “Extreme Risk Protective Order Act” — that allows police to seize guns from people shown to be a potential risk.
Their target, 51-year-old David Greco, has challenged the seizure in court, arguing that his social media threats of violence against Jews and celebrations of mass shootings in Pittsburgh and New Zealand online do not make him a real-world threat.
How the FBI linked Tobin to the September synagogue vandalisms in Michigan and Wisconsin — more than 800 miles from his home — remains unclear. Authorities declined to discuss the details of their investigation.
But filings in his case indicate that once they found him, he was more than willing to discuss his role in the attacks.
He spoke openly, the documents say, about his involvement in an online forum for white supremacists identified in court papers only as “Group 1.”
Details from that affidavit correspond to an invitation-only social media network known as The Base, which caught the attention of extremism watchdogs last year. The network was founded by a purported veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the goal of uniting white supremacists across the country and inspiring them to carry out violent attacks.
Describing itself as a “white protection league,” the site preaches an extreme form of “doomsday prepping” and encourages attendance at real-world military training camps organized by its members to resist “our people’s extinction.”
Its pages are filled with a trove of manuals on carrying out lone-wolf terror tactics, gunsmithing, data mining, interrogation tactics, counter-surveillance, bomb-making, chemical weapons, and guerrilla warfare.
Investigators found many of those documents on Tobin’s computers along with neo-Nazi imagery and memes, including gory footage of Muslims being gunned down in the March attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, set to the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust.”
They also discovered how-to guides on making plastic explosives and how to arrange barrels inside a Ryder truck to make an effective truck bomb, court documents say. Tobin allegedly told them that he compulsively thought about committing “suicide by cop” and that he thought carrying out a suicide bombing would be “pretty badass.”
As for the synagogue vandalisms, prosecutors say Tobin admitted to orchestrating both incidents with coconspirators in what he described as The Base’s “Great Lakes Cell.”
“If there’s a window that wants to be broken, don’t be shy,” he said, according to court filings, describing the attack.
The first target — Temple Jacob in Hancock, Mich., on the state’s upper peninsula — was hit Sept. 21, leaving congregants to scrub off the swastika and Nazi iconography spray-painted on their building’s façade.
The next day, the Beth Israel Sinai Congregation in Racine, Wis. — six hours away, down the coast of Lake Michigan — was also targeted.
Prosecutors did not identify the actual perpetrators of either attack in their filings in federal court in Camden this week.
David Holden, president of the Temple Jacob congregation in Michigan, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey notified him after Tobin’s arrest on Wednesday. He was surprised to learn that the vandalism of his synagogue was part of an organized attack.
“We’re pleased with the work from the FBI for what they’ve done so far,” he said. “I look forward to them arresting the coconspirators.”
Tobin, meanwhile, remains in federal custody.
During a brief hearing Friday in federal court in Camden, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen M. Williams ordered him detained pending a mental health evaluation and said she would revisit the issue of his potential release on bail next month.
As for investigators’ account in court filings of Tobin’s violently racist impulses, Holden said: “You can’t read that and not be disturbed, but I guess this is where we are now.”