In the parlance of neo-Nazi-sim, former sieg heil-er and Joe Arpaio-admirer Thomas Coletto has "flipped," turning away from the National Socialist Movement he once embraced, and which had embraced him in return. Coletto was NSM's go-to guy in Phoenix for a short span. He distributed anti-Mexican fliers in Valley neighborhoods. He organized an NSM march to the Arizona State Capitol planned for November 7, which is still on and could draw marchers from California and other states. And most notably, Coletto cozied up to Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a now infamous photo-op, which Coletto quickly posted to the white-supremacist Web site Stormfront.org.
Regular readers of this blog know that I've been observing Coletto's activities ever since he began distributing NSM literature under the pseudonym "Vito Lombardi." And it was I who revealed Coletto's real name and criminal history. Last year Coletto pleaded guilty to criminal damage in a 2007 incident that involved swiping chemicals from his high school, such as ammonium nitrate, the same compound used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Cops and journos said Coletto and his pals were plotting a Columbine-type attack on Desert Mountain High School. Coletto contends it was all juvenile high jinks misinterpreted by authorities.
Coletto, who says he joined Arizona's tiny NSM contingent in March, quickly became the number two NSM-er in the state -- not a terribly difficult feat when there are only three or four active members, according to Coletto. Following a counterdemonstration at Arpaio's jail complex, where Coletto gave pro-immigration marchers the Hitler salute along with J.T. Ready and a couple of other local neo-Nazis, Coletto's true identity was unmasked. Shortly thereafter, Coletto claims he had a change of heart, one instigated by his parents kicking him out of his house.
"They were really ashamed of me," Coletto told me recently at a Starbucks just outside Scottsdale Fashion Square. "With the school thing and now this, it was too much for them to handle."
His parents gave him an ultimatum: end his affair with the swastika or hit the bricks. He chose the mean streets of Phoenix. Well, at least for the day.
"It was the biggest wakeup call," he explained. "When you hit rock bottom, you wake up."
The former NSM stormtrooper has since posted a letter on this blog apologizing to the greater Phoenix community for his actions. The letter's already garnering recriminations from his former comrades. Coletto shared with me what he said was an e-mail from J.T. Ready chastizing him, telling him to "Go back and play with your firecrackers on YouTube," a reference to a video Coletto once had up of him recreating the WWII experiences of his grandfather with home made explosives.
In the letter, Coletto alleges that his former superior, NSM-PHX/AZ unit leader Scott Hume (alias, "Shawn Hughes," alias "Kevin James") attempted to "push Satanism" on him and asked Coletto to "accept a Nazi demon," during some late-night chat sessions. Coletto also states in the letter that Hume has "a satanic symbol tattooed on his upper back." I called Hume and sent him e-mails, to which he didn't reply. However, the next day, national NSM "Commander" Jeff Schoep e-mailed me, informing me, "NSM members have been advised not to answer your questions," and that Coletto had signed some sort of non-disclosure agreement with NSM.
Of course, Schoep didn't mention that allegations of Satanism have dogged NSM for years. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report magazine wrote up these connections in 2006. There are also Satanist Web sites out there where Satanists discuss how to weed neo-Nazis out of their ranks, which begs the question: Which is worse, genuflecting to Beelzebub, or slapping a swastika on your arm?
(Interestingly, Coletto informed me that a local neo-Nazi he had met once at a white-power BBQ claimed to work in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office as a clerk or secretary. He couldn't remember the guy's name, but described him as thin, with a pony tail and glasses. If it rings any bells out there, please give me a shout at email@example.com. It could be bogus. Anyone can claim to work anywhere. but you never know.)
Coletto now discounts Arizona's NSM contingent as a small, ineffectual bunch. He contends there was no real contact between NSMers and neo-Nazi skinheads in the Valley, and he downplays the violence associated with such groups.
"I wouldn't worry about it at all," he said, nonchalantly. "People always say Arizona's a big haven for hate. It's not. I think it's just hyped up...I think the largest it could be would be maybe 20 guys that go to bars."
The stats don't really back Coletto up here. The Phoenix Police Department reported a 10 percent rise in hate crimes for 2008, and there have been numerous incidents in the Valley involving everything from anti-Semitic graffiti being painted on signs at the site of a future Jewish learning center in May, to an incident in October where a Chilean-American man was attacked by three Caucasians exclaiming "White power," to the arrests of four white supremacists in December for their alleged roles in violent attacks against minorities.
It is true that the NSM is puny in Arizona, but there are other white-supremacist groups active in Arizona, about 19 according the Arizona Anti-defamation League. And of course, a white supremacist doesn't have to be associated with any particular organization to commit a hate crime. (Anyone remember Timothy McVeigh?)
Concerning his photo with Sheriff Arpaio, Coletto now says he's no fan of Arpaio because Arpaio "just violates the constitution left, right and center." As for neo-Nazis in general, Coletto agrees that they do support Arpaio.
"It's an immigration issue," said Coletto. "Arpaio's tough on immigration. And they don't want Mexicans at all anywhere in the country to begin with."
Though only a few weeks ago Coletto was calling Mexicans "scum," "rapists," and "murderers" while boot-stomping a Mexican flag and flipping the sieg heil, he now says he has nothing against Mexicans and sees them as"nice people, hard working" just like his Italian immigrant forebears. He also shared the fact that he's one-eighth Native American, and has documentation to prove it, a fact that he kept from his neo-Nazi pals.
How does Coletto explain his recent neo-Nazi activities? He says he was living in a "fantasy world," where he was "a different person named Vito Lombardi." Coletto says he's since reconciled with his family, and that he's seeing a counselor about his issues with reality.
"I still have problems," he stated. "I'll hear an issue on the news and my brain will click to [the neo-Nazi] belief system, and I'll have to catch myself. It's kind of hard sometimes. The brain still thinks that way. You just have to get over it. Eventually it will go away."
One reason Coletto says he's going public with his change of attitude is that by doing so, he won't be able to "flip back" into neo-Nazi-ism, as his ex-comrades would never accept him again. No matter what he does in the future, there will always be a "wall" between himself and neo-Nazi-ism, he said. (I also asked Coletto whether or not he was a government plant or informant, from either local or national law enforcement. He denied being so, but then, if he were, I would expect him to deny it all the same.)
Are we to believe Coletto's sincere in his about-face, especially as it comes so quickly after his participation with the NSM? I put that question to Bill Straus of the Arizona ADL. His answer was guarded.
"I think to get an accurate gauge on that, I'd need you to ask me the same thing in a few years," he told me. "Let's see what the next few years bring. Actions and words are very different things."
Indeed, though Coletto's dalliance with the NSM was brief, he has been drawn to neo-Nazi-ism at least since his early teens, if one's to believe his postings on Stormfront.org, which date back to 2007. Then, Coletto was posting under the name "Racialist," and one long post in particular, "My Life as a White Nationalist," is an eye-opener, particularly since it was written in March of 2007. In it, Coletto discusses his family finding out about his activity on Stormfront.org. An excerpt follows. I have not edited it in any way:
"My parents of course found out and were also shocked and hurt, not that I got kicked out for a ludicrous reason but that I was a "little Jew hating Nazi" -Father. How I embarrassed the family with talking to a bunch of murderers and child rapists, red necks, and insane human beings. I tired to tell them that that wasn't even at all close, they thought I was insane. My parents then proceeded to "deprogram" me from my mind washing. I was sent to a few doctors where I had to apologize... White guilt, they took me to Jewish doctors who told me their bull crap stories about their parents and the holocaust. I went to those doctors for a few months where they said I was fine, but little does doctor Jewish PHD know that I tricked him the entire time. I had to go behind my parents back, post under different names, from different email addresses. I had to hide to fight for my race.
"I then found a local National Vanguard unit which I met with on many occasion, after my parents forgot about that whole situation. This went so great, I was able to be open to other about my views on race, and the future of our own whites, and how we should act ect. This went on great for about six months, maybe more, I know it ended January of this year. My parents went on my computer and found pictures... Pictures of me at many national vanguard events. That's when chaos really started to go down. Then sent me to some mental camp up north for about a week, where I was attempted to be "deprogrammed". I got home, I was not allowed out of the house, to use the computer, to receive phone calls, I was only allowed to read a twelve step book and sit at home watching tv. One night they even rented American History X. AHAH. Then they started taking me back to church, where I confessed my `sin' to the priest. He recommended some random doctors yet again seeing shrinks. So after a few months of grounding, shrinks, and church, all of them agreed that I was indeed deprogrammed.
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"Now this is where I am at I will never stop fighting for my race, I will never back down, and my parents will never find out again. I feel I went through one of the toughest things in life, getting that test, test of who you really are, after the pain and suffering I was put through, I still managed to keep my head up and not fall for their lies.
"I love my race, I love this movement, and I will dedicate my life to its prosperity."
I'm no psychologist, but I would say Coletto is a deeply confused young man. He told me he supported first Ron Paul, then Barack Obama in 2008, for instance, which I got whiplash just hearing about. Keeping in mind that he's only 19, I think there's time for him to turn his life around. He is intelligent and oddly likable, despite the odiousness of his recent neo-Nazi activism. Currently a student at Scottsdale Community College, he's expressed an interest in journalism and the military as career paths. But as Straus pointed out, time will tell. Almost 20, he's swiftly moving past the point of getting forgiven for the transgressions of youth. After this, there may be no more second chances.