• Washington Post

The Florida Sheriff vs. The Neo-Nazi ‘Scumbags’

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood leaves Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Fla.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Did Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood know how easy it was to make a laser weapon? Did he know that a laser weapon could be remote-controlled, shoot invisible beams and blind him in 1/15th of a second?

“Do you have any idea how cheap it is to build a laser weapon that can start fires, blind for life and even cause dark colored skin to outright explode?” read the email pinging his iPhone, subject line: You are an enemy of the American people.

“Seems likely,” Chitwood muttered, forwarding the message to the deputy now charged with investigating messages he deemed threatening. “Scumbags.”

The “scumbags” had emailed him dozens of times over the past month. He suspected that they’d reported a phony murder-suicide at his parents’ address, sending a SWAT team to their door, long guns out, at 1:15 a.m. He suspected that they were the one who’d posted his cellphone number on 4chan, encouraging others to join a campaign of calls and texts that so clogged his screen, he’d just placed an order for a burner phone.

In the meantime, Chitwood, 59, the sheriff of conservative Volusia County since 2017, recycled comebacks he’d honed as a boy in South Philadelphia: “Ask me if I give two s—s what you think.”

So went another evening in his fight against the “scumbags,” which is what he called the group of men who’d used a laser projector in February to cast Nazi-glorifying text on the Daytona International Speedway – “Hitler was right” – and anyone who supported their in-your-face displays of antisemitism.

As reports of hate propaganda surge to record highs, authorities across the country are torn over how to address rhetoric they fear could inspire violence. Some police departments have condemned the bigotry, sparking praise and criticism in a nation divided over where free speech ends and criminal intimidation begins. Others have declined to comment, aiming to minimize attention on white supremacist sentiments.

Chitwood has rejected this playbook he sees as flimsy and futile. His strategy? Go nuclear. Shame the organizers on the radio and television. Roast them on the internet. Keep at it for months. Keep going even though no one knows if it’s working.

“There is always the risk, yes, that you could give them more attention,” Chitwood said. “But if you expose them for what they are, I think the overwhelming majority of us will think, ‘wow, nobody wants to be like that.'”

The men had stood across the street from the Speedway during the Daytona 500, raising their arms in Sieg Heil salutes. Then they dropped hundreds of fliers on lawns across this beach community, promoting a fringe conspiracy theory referenced in the online rants of the gunman who killed 11 Jews in 2018 at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Chitwood had wanted to arrest them, but, at most, they’d violated a littering ordinance, thanks to the nation’s First Amendment protections.

“That s— is going to create the next mass shooter,” he said, phone down now, still pinging, as he guided his county-issued powder blue Chevy Tahoe one March afternoon through a neighborhood where residents had flagged the fliers to 911. “And we’re supposed to do nothing?”

Before now, he hadn’t questioned the limits of free speech much over his four-decade career in law enforcement. The registered Independent and fan of vulgar language had twice voted for Donald Trump, thinking, “He’s pugnacious. I’m pugnacious.” During one budgetary standoff with county officials, Chitwood had called Volusia’s top manager a “lying sack of s—.”

As a police officer starting out in Philly, he’d stood watch at protests over abortion, labor rights, racial injustice – “you name it, it got protested,” he said – and considered each one an American privilege. But the rhetoric flaring up lately around here – Ron DeSantis country, NASCAR country, the “Redneck Riviera,” he joked – was more extreme than anything he’d seen.

The fliers recently dumped across Volusia County directed people to websites spouting white supremacist vitriol, including the Great Replacement Theory, the baseless belief that Western elites, controlled by Jews, are orchestrating a “migrant invasion” to steal power from White voters. The gunmen who’d massacred people in Buffalo and El Paso had also referenced it.

“MASS IMMIGRATION IS JEWISH,” read the fliers. That week, some men had recorded themselves shouting “heil Hitler” at people leaving a Jewish community center in Orlando. All the while, they solicited donations on a live stream, urging viewers to support their mission while offering to mail out 500-packs of fliers for $50.

Jon Eugene Minadeo Jr., the group’s most public face, defended his actions to The Washington Post. “I don’t do anything illegal,” he said. “And if I did, I’d get thrown in jail . . . I don’t promote or endorse any violence.” Minadeo denied partaking in a harassment campaign against Chitwood.

Some confidantes advised Chitwood, who is White and Catholic, to surveil Minadeo’s crew quietly. Holding back seemed worse, he figured.

He invited news crews to a PowerPoint presentation of their criminal histories, mug shots included, noting that one member of the group had been arrested in 2020 for soliciting sex online from a 14-year-old girl. Chitwood made plans to erect a billboard of another’s mug shot in his Georgia hometown.

He tweeted that Minadeo, 40, was a failed actor, failed rapper and failed dish washer, writing, “this is where white supremacy takes you.”

“If you say nothing, you’re emboldening them,” Chitwood said, rolling by oceanfront villas on Daytona Beach’s wealthiest avenue.

He rolled by a woman walking a Yorkie. He rolled by a billboard advertising Botox. He rolled by a pastel yellow ranch-style house with a yard sign: WHITE LIVES MATTER.

“Hadn’t seen that one,” he said.

He thought of the yard sign – how many were there? – as he rolled the next morning to the Wednesday crime meeting, where his deputies and researchers delivered updates on heroin busts, hit-and-runs and the men who’d laser-projected “Hitler was right.”

“They did actually file a complaint to the DOJ on you, which was returned saying they had insufficient evidence,” said one deputy, prompting chuckles around the room.

“Oh yeah,” Chitwood replied, “saying I’m not allowed to put their arrest photos up?”

“They were in West Palm on March 11, distributing fliers in a U-Haul truck, their normal method,” the deputy continued. “They posted that video yesterday.”

Chitwood had seen it. The footage featured an encounter with a Black police officer who’d stopped the group for littering. Minadeo had live-streamed the whole thing.

“Mystery meat hybrid,” Minadeo said as the camera rolled. “See, this is what happens when you allow the Jews to take over your country.”

The officer stayed silent.

“Look at this science experiment,” Minadeo said. “Jewish science experiment.”

The officer stayed silent.

“N—-,” Minadeo said. “You have a father? Is he still in the picture? And why was your mother dating n—–s?”

The officer stayed silent.

“It was amazing restraint that the officer showed,” Chitwood’s deputy told the crime meeting.

The officer had stood there, silently, until some members of the group took pictures of his nametag, piled into a car and drove away, all while soliciting donations on the live stream. That day, Minadeo told his followers that he’d raised $33.

Arresting them – or laying a hand on them – could have sparked a lawsuit. The officers in West Palm Beach had been trained not to take the bait.

“How many of these scumbags were in West Palm?” Chitwood asked.

“I think five of them,” the deputy said.

Extremism researchers have described them as a loosely organized band of neo-Nazis with a few public faces, dozens of supporters and thousands of online followers. Minadeo said he isn’t a neo-Nazi but “anti-Jew.”

The “scumbag” portion of the weekly briefing had started after Minadeo moved to Florida in late December from Petaluma, Calif., telling his followers that he sought a fresh start after someone vandalized his house.

Chitwood wasn’t sure precisely where he’d landed. Minadeo listed a P.O. box in Orlando on his website for those who wanted to send him cash. He couldn’t be far, the sheriff figured, given the stunts he’d pulled around here and in surrounding counties.

What had emboldened Minadeo to pull those stunts?

Chitwood blamed the ex-president he once supported, who, after a neo-Nazi sped a car into a crowd counter-protesting a White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring 35, had said: “I think there’s blame on both sides.”

He’d voted for Trump the second time “begrudgingly,” he said, because he didn’t like Biden, either – especially his push to restrict qualified immunity, which, he believes, shields police officers from civil lawsuits that arise from snap life-or-death decisions they make on the job. Under Trump, meanwhile, his retirement account was faring better.

Chitwood turned on Trump for good, he said, after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, which he saw as another example of “wacko” rhetoric fueling violence.

He draped a “Blue Lives Matter” blanket over his couch at home and praised Black Lives Matter marches as “democracy in action, the way the First Amendment is supposed to work.” When Chitwood ordered more body cameras six years ago at the beginning of his tenure, along with implicit bias and de-escalation training, a firearm instructor quit in protest.

He’d learned the importance of pulling the trigger responsibly from his father, who’d made the news when, after nearly shooting a baby in 1971, he’d stopped carrying a gun. Mike Chitwood Sr. had aimed at a heroin dealer who’d just shot his partner in the chest. A Pennsylvania historian wrote a 2013 book about him, another fan of vulgar language: “Tough cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the ‘Scumbags.'”

Chitwood had fired his own gun twice: Once in 1989, when a carjacking suspect pointed a firearm at his chest, and once in 1993, when, during a drug bust, three men opened fire on him.

Nobody had shot at him since, he said, but people on the internet were talking about shooting him.

“I did get a call from the FBI this morning,” his deputy said, wrapping up the Wednesday briefing now. “They said there is another post on 4chan about shooting you. We’ll start looking into that.”

Two days before, the sheriff’s office announced that a 38-year-old man had been arrested in New Jersey and faced extradition to Florida after authorities said he wrote on 4chan: “Just shoot Chitwood in the head and murder him.”

“I cannot wait to meet him when he gets off the plane,” Chitwood said in the ensuing news release, “because one of the first faces he’s going to see welcoming him to the Volusia County Jail, the happiest place on earth, is going to be me.”

That had been satisfying to draft. A consequence. He hoped to write one about Minadeo.

Minadeo had blogged about getting arrested last August after waving antisemitic signs near the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau former concentration camp in Poland, where approximately one million Jews were murdered. (“Just got released tonight with a fine . . . and computer temporarily confiscated,” he’d written.)

Poland and Germany criminalize promoting Nazism, which, according to those nations’ leaders, encourages dehumanization, which encourages bloodshed. Unlike here.

Chitwood thought that should change, so, the next day, he rolled to a meeting across town with Volusia County’s Jewish Federation and Rep. Randy Fine, a Jewish Republican in the Florida Capitol, who was sponsoring a bill that would make dropping antisemitic fliers on private lawns – or laser-projecting “Hitler was right” on private property – a felony hate crime.

Thus far, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were supporting House Bill 269, and Chitwood had been urging them to pass it before the Speedway’s NASCAR races in August, “so I can actually do something about this.”

He’d been talking regularly with Fine, and holding his tongue on other bills Fine backed, including an attempt to outlaw “men dressing up as women” in front of children – anti-Drag Queen legislation that Chitwood saw as misguided.

For years, he’d sported a bikini top in a jokey Daytona Beach fashion show to raise money for fighting breast cancer. Some “scumbags” had printed a photo of that on a flier the week before, dubbing him “Cross-dressing Sheriff Mike Chitwood.”

Now he walked through the Jewish Federation’s glass doors to tables set with coffee, Dunkin’ donuts and the fliers.

“This one says, ‘Every single aspect of mass immigration is Jewish,'” said Marvin Miller, the Jewish Federation’s president. “And it’s amazing. You’ve gotta hear the disclaimer they have. Oh, this is wonderful: ‘These fliers were distributed randomly without malicious intent.'”

Chitwood had seen it: The disclaimer helped cover them from intimidation charges.

“To let you know, Boca and West Palm are under attack big time,” Chitwood replied. “We’re headed to an intel meeting later this afternoon.”

His guys would be meeting two hours away with West Palm Beach’s guys, including the supervisor of the officer who Minadeo berated in the March 11 video. Someone had delivered pizzas to the officer’s house and flattened his tires. The police hadn’t identified the culprit, Chitwood said, but they had a suspicion.

“Those scumbags,” he said. In an interview, Minadeo denied involvement.

Miller propped open his laptop on the coffee table. Zooming in from Tallahassee, Fine appeared on the screen to deliver an update on the pending legislation.

They’d all met days after “Hitler was right” appeared on the Speedway. Fine and the district attorney had gathered with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders and the president of Volusia County’s Democratic Black Caucus, a Baptist minister. A rabbi had asked Chitwood if he could organize active shooter drills.

“Have we sailed through unopposed?” Chitwood asked Fine.

House Bill 269 faced some critics, Fine said, but he expected it to pass, hopefully by this summer. They just had to emphasize this was a bill against actions, not words.

“If they want to walk down the street, waving a sign, saying Randy Fine should be in the ovens, that is their right,” Fine said. “But they can’t throw that sign in my front yard. And they can’t project that on my house.”

Up next was self care: a 30-mile cycling ride through the county’s bike trails, which had been harder to get through lately, due to Chitwood’s lack of sleep. He refused to go to bed with his phone on silent. His parents, three daughters and three grandchildren might need him.

He’d been angry that no one called him when his parents got swatted. Luckily, the 911 dispatcher had thought the murder-suicide report sounded fishy and called his mother, who confirmed they were alive.

The police still sent over three officers. Chitwood’s father, unsure if they were real officers, had opened the door carrying his Smith & Wesson revolver.

“You should have called me, Dad,” Chitwood said, still in his cycling spandex, when his parents came over that evening for buffalo chicken and white pizza.

“I did call you. At 7 a.m.,” his father replied, smirking.

They lived a few blocks apart in a gated community with pristine lawns. In walked his mother, Liz, who’d chose the pale green paint on his duplex walls.

“Just got a voice mail,” Liz said. “Wanna hear it?”

She pressed play: “Your son is the political pawn of the most violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing” – meaning Israel, she’d gathered – “F— you!”

His own phone kept ringing, too. He answered one call as she watched, telling whoever was on the other end of the line that, in explicit terms, he was busy with their mom.

The burner phone should arrive soon, Chitwood told his parents. They should order one, too. His daughter had also gotten calls. One man told her that Chitwood was a pedophile who touched her children. (She did not have children.)

Now the sun was setting, meaning his guys must be back from the intel meeting in West Palm. Chitwood dialed a deputy, putting him on speaker phone as his parents listened.

“The West Palm chief told us they’re going to stop wearing name tags,” said the deputy, sounding tired, citing the pizza delivery to the officer’s house and his flattened tires.

They’d also heard that Minadeo’s supporters were planning some kind of protest in Volusia County on April 22.

“Isn’t that Hitler’s birthday?” Chitwood asked.

“Two days after it, sir,” the deputy replied. “They must have wanted to do it on a Saturday.”

“If we get a protest with them, no badges,” Chitwood said. “No name tags. I don’t want them to go through what my family, my parents, my daughter . . .”

He trailed off.

“Even these middle-of-the-night phone calls,” Chitwood said. “I’m about to get a burner phone so I can turn my phone off at night. Because it’s ridiculous. You can only tell somebody something vulgar so many times. And the phone just keeps ringing.”