Student who joined white supremacists in calling in fake bomb threats gets nearly 3 years

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — A former Old Dominion University student who joined up with white supremacists in a swatting conspiracy that targeted a Black church, his own university and a Cabinet officer, among others, was sentenced to nearly three years in prison Monday.

The 33-month sentence for John William Kirby Kelley, 20, of Vienna, Virginia, essentially splits the difference between the five-year term sought by prosecutors and the 14-month sentence of time served requested by his lawyers.

Kelley pleaded guilty to hosting an internet chatroom in which he and others called in fake bomb threats and attacks on more than 100 targets, many of which were targeted because of racial or religious animus.

Among those in the conspiracy was a founder of Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi hate group. That individual, John C. Denton of Montgomery, Texas, has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Kelley was 17 and living at home in northern Virginia when he started the Graveyard chatroom. The chatroom soon became a haven for hateful rhetoric by white supremacists, who delighted in the chaos caused by their swatting calls.

Among the targets was Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria and the home of then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who also lives in Alexandria. The group also targeted the Dar El-Eman Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas, and a Black church in Schenectady, New York, the First Reformed Church.

Kelley also had his own school, Old Dominion University, targeted twice, prompting closures and a police response. University police contacted Kelley about the calls, but prosecutors said it was the subsequent call targeting Nielsen that led police to the conspiracy members.

Even though Kelley regularly used racist language and admitted that the swatting conspiracy chose some targets because of race or religion, he denied that he’s a racist and argued that he naively acquiesced to the hateful language prevalent in the internet channel he created.

At his sentencing hearing in U.S. Distinct Court in Alexandria, he apologized for his conduct and requested leniency. He said the time he has spent in jail has been difficult for him, noting hardships like a lack of access to the jail’s barber shop.

“The racial language that has been expressed by me and my co-conspirators, along with the swatting attacks, do not represent my values and beliefs,” he told the judge. “Furthermore, I was personally disgusted by the direction that the chat room took after my departure. I made it a personal mission to improve and separate myself from bad influences such as these.”

His lawyer, Cadence Mertz, objected to Kelley’s crimes being classified as a hate crime, which resulted in a higher sentencing guideline. She said there was no proof that Kelley personally targeted anyone because of racial animus.

“He has made crystal clear that these views that he expressed, which are hateful and vile, are not who he is,” Mertz said.

Judge Liam O’Grady ruled, though, that the hate crime designation is appropriate and said that his conduct and his association with known white supremacists “demonstrates how far out you were and how aligned you were with this group.”

But he credited Kelley for his youth, his renunciation of racism and mental health deficits in giving him a 33-month sentence that was lower than guideline range of 51 to 60 months.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement, “Swatting attacks are serious crimes that disrupt the operations of local emergency agencies, take first responders away from real emergencies, and place victims … in grave danger. EDVA will continue to bring to justice those who threaten public safety with these menacing hoaxes, especially when those threats are motivated by racial or religious animus.”