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Michigan neo-Nazi leader takes curious path after Charlottesville to become peace advocate

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

In five months, Jeff Schoep went from being the poster boy for American Nazis to being an advocate for peace, love and understanding.

As startling as the transformation was what preceded it.

Schoep's journey from one end of the hate movement to the other ran through a deadly far-right rally in Virginia, a notorious Ku Klux Klan murder in Mississippi and a flimflam man in California who called himself the race whisperer.

Jeff Schoep, 46, of the Metro Detroit area, spent 27 years actively involved in the racist National Socialist Movement, the last 25 years in the movement's leadership. In 2019 he left the hate group and has since been traveling around the country trying to help others get out of the NSM.

Schoep, 46, who lives in a Detroit suburb, was the longtime leader of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States. He now speaks out against white supremacy and helps people leave such groups.

“If someone told me 10 years ago that you’re going to be out of the movement and speaking against it, I would have probably spat in their face,” he said.

But some are skeptical about the metamorphosis. They wonder how someone can change so much so soon.

The fact a federal lawsuit is hanging over his head makes them more skeptical still. People who were injured at the Virginia rally in 2017 are suing Schoep and other white nationalist leaders, saying they conspired to commit violence while planning the event.

Critics believe Schoep might be trumpeting his deradicalization work as a way to reduce his possible liability in the court case.

Jeff Schoep, 46

“I don’t understand it. Why people go from one extreme to another?” said Burt Colucci, who replaced Schoep as commander of the Nazi group. “I don’t see why people trust them.”

But even if Schoep’s motives are impure, others are heartened to see his departure from the alt-right movement. It’s one fewer xenophobe in the world, they say, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll take a few more with him.

Readings influenced views

Growing up in rural Minnesota, Schoep was a history buff. He became fascinated with his grandfather, who fought for the Third Reich in World War II.

He read everything he could about Nazi Germany, including, when he was 16, “Mein Kampf.” Those readings began to influence his views toward Jews and Blacks, he said.

But he didn’t view his fledgling bigotry as hate. Instead, he saw pride in his nationality.

He joined the National Socialist Movement when he was 19 and became the leader two years later. He thought he was helping his race retain its place in the world. He thought he was doing something noble.

Jeff Schoep, then a commander with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, is interviewed by media reporters at a rally in Newnan, Georgia in April of 2018.

He also liked the attention he received running the group, said his ex-wife, Joanna Smith of Henderson, Nevada.

“It boosted his ego,” she said. “(He liked attention) from everybody and anyone who would ever give it to him.”

Schoep moved to a Detroit suburb in 2007 but asked that it not be identified for his safety.

The group, which had 300 members in 2017, worships Hitler, supports an all-white America and opposes legal protections of minorities.

During his 25 years of leadership, the organization remained on the fringes of American society.

That began to change a few years ago when, along with other white-nationalist groups, it reached out to a new generation of racists and anti-Semites.

They tried to show a kinder, gentler side of neo-Nazis by describing themselves as a civil rights group, just like the NAACP but for whites. They stopped attending rallies in full military uniforms. They ditched their main symbol, removing the swastika from its flag in 2016.

They weren’t even “neo-Nazis” anymore. They called themselves “identitarians.”

New era of hate

By August 2017, the alt-right movement seemed to be picking up steam.

The National Socialist Movement and nine other groups attended a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the proposed removal of a Confederate statue from a city park.

Such demonstrations normally draw just a handful of participants. The Virginia rally attracted several hundred.

At the protest, Schoep was accompanied by Deeyah Khan, who was making a documentary about white supremacy in the United States. During the filming, Schoep told her he had just punched a counter-protester who had pushed him.

Jeff Schoep, then a commander with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, speaks during an NSM rally in Shelbyville, Tenn. in 2017. (still frame from video)

“I knocked a guy out. I hit him with Thor’s hammer here,” he said on camera, holding up his fist.

A half-mile away, an Ohio man plowed his Dodge Challenger into a bunch of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 others. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, who had espoused white supremacist views but wasn’t affiliated with Schoep’s group, was later convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Despite the death, Schoep exulted in the alt-right’s large turnout. It showed the movement was getting a toehold in America, he said on Twitter. A new era of hate had arrived.

“It was an Honor to stand with U all in C’ville this weekend,” he wrote. “A glorious day for white solidarity in America.”

Two months after the rally, people injured during the Charlottesville rally sued Schoep and other alleged organizers of the event. The lawsuit, whose trial has been delayed several times, has alt-right groups on the run, said civil rights organizations.

Schoep faced mounting legal bills in the court case, he said. His members were quitting. He struggled to attract new ones after the group was kicked off social media in 2018.

Credit card companies wouldn’t process online transactions for his business, NSM88 Records, which sells white-power music and Nazi paraphernalia, he said.

The group’s legal defense fund raised $280 of its $40,000 goal. Forget the legal fund. Schoep couldn’t even get members to pay their dues, which was $20 a month, he said.

In a December 2017 letter to members, he lamented the lack of financial support, saying he had given so much of himself, in blood and money, to the movement for decades.

“If any of you cannot spare 70 cents a day for the Party YOU joined, you can get the f--- out right now!” he wrote. “We should not be struggling and having to drain every last cent we have to pay our Lawyer.”

Wanted to leave movement

Schoep knew few people outside the group. One was the late James Stern, a twice-convicted felon who was Black.

They had met in 2013 through a mutual acquaintance, Edgar Ray Killen, a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan who was convicted of arranging the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 in Mississippi. The deaths inspired the movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Schoep knew Killen from the white supremacist movement, he said. Stern knew him from prison. When Stern was convicted of wire fraud in 2004, he was sentenced to the same Mississippi correctional facility that held Killen.

Killen frequently called Stern the N-word but, despite that, he befriended the elderly Klan member and eventually persuaded him to sign a sworn affidavit giving Stern power of attorney over his estate and life story, Stern told the Washington Post last year. In return, Stern promised to get Killen a book and movie deal.    

Killen’s family said the affidavit was a forgery, but Stern used the document to later dissolve a Klan chapter that Killen had helped start, said the paper.

In 2013, Stern was out of prison and working as a community activist in California when he invited Schoep to speak at a race summit in the state.

The two kept in touch, and Schoep shared his growing concern about the Charlottesville lawsuit during a series of phone calls in late 2018 and early 2019, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs received a copy of the phone calls from Stern, who had recorded them without telling Schoep.

Schoep told Stern lawyers and politicians were gunning for the alt-right movement, according to the lawsuit. He was worried about losing his home, his business, his “financials.”

“That’s the whole idea behind the lawsuit, to financially break the organization,” Schoep told Stern. “It’s not good for me. It’s affecting my health.”

Jeff Schoep, right, speaks about leaving extremism at the International Symposium on Radicalization and Extremism in Ankara Turkey, October 2019. Joining him on stage are Jason Walters, left, and Jesse Morton of Parallel Networks. cemter. (still frame from video)

Schoep said he felt stuck. He wanted to leave the movement, but it also was his sole income. Without NSM88 Records, he couldn’t continue paying his legal fees.

'Anything less... a sham'

During one of the phone calls, Stern offered a possible solution, according to the lawsuit. Give the group to him. That would show the plaintiffs that Schoep was serious about turning his back on white supremacy. Stern would then ask them to drop Schoep from the lawsuit.

Stern talked to the plaintiffs’ lawyers and told Schoep they wanted an extra assurance before agreeing to the deal: a sworn affidavit signed by Schoep agreeing to give the group to Stern.

Schoep knew what Stern had done with Killen but went ahead with the plan anyway, he told The Detroit News. He said he considered Stern a friend.

“He was good at it,” he said. “I thought I could read people.”

Without telling any members, Schoep removed the officers from the group’s incorporation papers and replaced them with Stern in January 2019.

Schoep then fired his lawyers in the lawsuit and replaced them with Stern, who isn’t an attorney.

One month later, Stern filed a motion in the court proceeding, but it wasn’t to help Schoep. It was to bury him. Stern asked the judge to issue a summary judgment against the Nazi group, finding it responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.

But the judge wouldn’t allow Stern to become involved in the court case. Stern’s ruse, which he later told the Post was an attempt to destroy the Nazi group, fizzled.

Integrity First For America, a civil rights group that is paying for the plaintiffs' lawyers, said they had never agreed to any deal involving Schoep. The attorneys received one call from Stern but had ignored his entreaties, said Amy Spitalnick, the group's executive director.

As for Schoep's rejection of his past, Spitalnick said she was skeptical because he has resisted the plaintiffs' requests for information about his actions related to the Charlottesville rally.

“If Mr. Schoep truly wants to change, there is one way for him to do so: tell the truth about his role," she said. "Anything less is a sham."

Schoep said he wasn't involved in planning the rally and has cooperated with the attorneys.

Stern even lost control of the Nazi group as several members wrested it back from him. Stern filed a lawsuit against them but, as the legal battle was being waged, he died from cancer in October.

180 degrees

Schoep resigned from the Nazi group in March 2019 and, five months later, announced his new endeavor helping people leave extremism groups.

The Aug. 12 announcement came on the second anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, which he said was just a coincidence.

He said his experience in the white supremacist movement helps him identify with members looking to leave. He understands their worries about finding work, losing their friends.

He corrects their misconceptions that leaving the far-right means they have to join the far-left. A whole swath of society lies between those two groups, he tells them.

“So many people who get into the group are angry. The movement is an angry place period,” he said.

Some of the anger is now directed toward Schoep, along with a healthy dose of skepticism, both inside the hate movement and outside. People question the timing of his change-of-heart. They wonder if, like the Stern deal, it’s another cynical ploy to escape legal liability in the lawsuit.

Among the doubters is Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead from Chicago who has been helping people leave the white supremacist movement for 10 years.

Former neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep speaks at the Veritas Forum at New York University on March 5, 2020 (still frame from video)

He counseled Schoep during several meetings in 2019, encouraging him to find a job, talk to a therapist to understand why he had spent his entire adulthood in a hate group and visit the communities he hurt to ask for forgiveness.

But Schoep wasn’t interested in any of that, said Picciolini. Instead, he wanted to dive right into anti-extremism work.

In helping 300 people leave the movement, Picciolini said he had never seen anyone change so quickly. It makes him suspicious about Schoep’s motives, believing he was doing it just to mitigate the lawsuit.

“This was a man who spent 30 years as a neo-Nazi who then one day shed it all and did a 180 overnight,” he said. “No habits are broken that fast. No self-discovery happens that fast.”

Hardly thinks of lawsuit

Schoep said the Charlottesville lawsuit had nothing to do with his decision to leave the Nazi group or join the anti-extremism movement.

Despite what he said during the recorded conversations with Stern, he said he isn’t worried about the lawsuit. He said he hardly thinks about the looming case.

He traced his decision to leave the Nazis to conversations he had with two people: Khan during the making of her documentary and Daryl Davis, a jazz musician he met during a separate documentary in 2016.

Khan, who is Muslim, and Davis, who is Black, showed Schoep that other groups were no different from whites, that everyone had the same desires, the same wishes, he said.

“It was like getting kicked in the face by a horse,” he said. “Something cracked inside. That was the beginning of the end of my ideology.”

Schoep said he became a deradicalization crusader because, after putting so much hate into the world, he felt a sense of responsibility to undo it. It would have been selfish to stand by and do nothing, he said.

He was going to wait a few years before starting the work but so many extremists, an overwhelming number, approached him for help that he felt he had to start right away.

In all, it’s been a humbling journey for Schoep, from facing financial ruin to being humiliated by Stern to being ostracized by the only people he was close to.

“It complicated things,” he said about Stern’s antics. “It made my leaving a circus.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186