Brian Mark Lemley was hatching a plan. On December 23, 2019, the 33-year-old former U.S. Army Cavalry scout examined his newly built AR-15, which was equipped with a thermal scope designed to pick up the heat of live targets. “It’s so unfair what I can do to people with that, you know,” Lemley told Patrik Jordan Mathews, a 27-year old Canadian who was on the lam. “We could essentially, like, literally be hunting people,” Mathews responded, according to newly released court documents detailing video, audio, and computer surveillance gathered by federal agents. Prosecutors allege the men had violent plans for a January 20 gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia.
Both Lemley and Mathews had military backgrounds and an obsession with violence. Secret recordings show they were also members of The Base, a white supremacist group made up of vigilantes working to defend the “European Race.” Along with a third man, 19-year-old William Bilbrough, they had turned their new Delaware apartment into a staging ground from which they hoped to set off a race war and accelerate their dream of a white ethnostate.
They had also found creative ways to arm themselves, employing a treasure trove of DIY armaments and firearm parts that are readily available online.
In their Delaware safehouse, the three men practiced reloading magazines and making tactical entries from the kitchen to the living room, according to the documents filed by federal prosecutors on January 21. “You want to create fucking some instability, while the Virginia situation is happening, make other things happen,” said Lemley, who discussed with Mathews the prospect of cutting power lines, poisoning water supplies, and murdering police officers to set in motion an economic collapse before the “boog,” short for “boogaloo,” a term The Base and other far-right groups use for what they believe is a looming civil war.
The cell never got its chance. Just days before the rally, the FBI arrested the three in Maryland on a variety of federal weapons charges.
According to surveillance records, federal authorities had months before infiltrated The Base’s encrypted chat rooms, where members discussed a variety of methods to arm themselves for the impending race war they hoped to kick off. The group had also amassed rations, knives, and “go bags” in preparation for the event.
On multiple occasions, FBI surveillance caught Lemley, Mathews, and other Base members discussing how to piece together rifles. Agents executed a “sneak-and-peek” search warrant in their apartment, and photographed an AR-15 “ghost gun” the men had constructed using an unserialized lower and jig — a plastic tool that helps turn an unfinished AR-15 lower into a functioning firearm. Partially completed AR-15 lower receivers can be readily found online for as little as $50, require no background check, and are nearly impossible for law enforcement officials to trace.
Ghost guns, which lack serial numbers or other identifying markings, have exploded in popularity in recent years with the development of readily accessible parts kits, cheaper gunmaking tools, and the viral spread of DIY know-how. They have also become popular among criminals seeking cheap, untraceable firepower.
FBI surveillance caught the Base members testing the newly built weapons at a gun range, where agents observed one gun firing fully automatic. Lemley was later captured on recordings saying, “It looks like I accidentally made a machine gun.” He characterized the weapon as “an ATF fucking nightmare,” using the abbreviation for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Agents found that Mathews also had a fondness for home-built firepower. His internet search history included queries for “How to build your own AR-15” and “Complete AR-15 Firearms,” as well as a search for a large online gun dealer known for selling ghost gun materials. Mathews, a Canadian who is believed to have illegally crossed into the United States sometime in the fall of last year, is barred from purchasing a weapon from a federal firearms licensed dealer.
The three men also appear to have been infatuated with homemade suppressors, also known as silencers. According to court documents, Lemley discussed how a relative could make suppressors for them in the aftermath of the imagined uprising.
Three more members of The Base were arrested last week in Georgia for conspiracy to commit murder and participation in a criminal street gang.
The Georgia cell had also planned to use homemade suppressors. In December 2019, an undercover FBI agent infiltrated the group and observed its members planning to kill a married couple they believed were members of Antifa, the militant antifascist group. According to court documents, the Georgia cell extolled the virtues of the racist Charleston church shooter and proposed an elaborate plan involving “solvent traps,” a type of homemade suppressor that has recently taken off as a way to skirt federal regulations. The members hoped to use the suppressed weapons to quietly execute the couple before burning down their home.
The would-be assassins, in order to cover their tracks, discussed a variety of measures to minimize trace evidence which could be used in a law enforcement investigation — including using brass bags to catch spent shell casings that could link the weapons to the killings. One member suggested buying multiple mass-produced AR-15 upper receivers and swapping them out after use, in order to scramble ballistic tracing through law enforcement systems like the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. Anyone can purchase these uppers without a background check, for around $400 each. The members of the Georgia cell also allegedly planned to use the armaments in follow-up assassinations targeting members of the media.
This isn’t the first time that white supremacists have displayed an affinity for homemade firearms. In October 2019, Seattle Police used Washington State’s red flag law to seize a cache of assault rifles, handguns, and ghost gun parts from Kaleb Cole, the self-proclaimed leader of the Atomwaffen Division. In April 2019, Brandon Lecroy of South Carolina was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to hire a white supremacist group to kill his black neighbor and place a burning cross in his front yard. Lecroy asked the “hitman,” who was actually an undercover FBI agent, if he could also help him acquire an untraceable ghost gun. In August 2018, Jakub Zak, a 19-year-old college student living near Chicago, was sentenced to probation after police found him in possession of a batch of ghost guns in various stages of completion. Police believed Zak to be a member of the right-wing Patriot Front.
At least one small part of the ghost gun industry has reciprocated the affections of the white supremacist and far-right community. In 2017, ghost gun purveyor and 3D-printed-gun guru Cody Wilson launched Hatreon, a now-defunct, alternative crowdfunding platform to Patreon, which regularly blocked donations to individuals espousing hate. The website became a donation repository for renowned white supremacists. The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer in turn declared Wilson “a brother in arms,” noting, “As long as you have your guns, you have a chance at freedom from Jewish tyranny.”
The Base claims to have cells operating throughout the United States, including in Connecticut, Michigan, and New York, and an additional international presence in Australia, South Africa, and Canada. The group has reportedly expanded their recruitment and propaganda efforts in the last year, distributing leaflets in cities like Austin, Phoenix, and Boston.