Without notifying his followers or even his inner circle, the longtime president of a legacy neo-Nazi group has signed over its control to a black civil rights activist from California.
James Hart Stern, a 54-year-old with a history of infiltrating white supremacist groups, is the new leader of the National Socialist Movement. And his first move as president was to address a pending lawsuit against the neo-Nazi group by asking a Virginia judge to find it guilty of conspiring to commit violence at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Next, he plans to transform the hate group's website into a space for Holocaust history lessons.
"I did the hard and dangerous part," Stern told The Washington Post in his first interview since taking over the National Socialist Movement. "As a black man, I took over a neo-Nazi group and outsmarted them."
For weeks, the sudden change in power had confounded those who study hate groups and perplexed those within the organization, who had heard nothing from the man who led the Detroit-based hate group for 24 years, former NSM president Jeff Schoep.
Before Friday, neither man had publicly addressed the organizational changes.
First, Stern came forward to share the full story of his unconventional rise to power - an "epic" tale, he said, that includes infiltration, persuasion and a hint of manipulation. There's a reason, he said, that some call him the "race whisperer."
The Washington Post published his version of events Friday evening. Just after midnight, Schoep finally spoke, too.
In a lengthy statement to his followers, which he shared with The Post, Schoep wrote that he had been "deceived" by Stern who "convinced me that in order to protect our membership from the ongoing lawsuit, I should sign over NSM's presidency to him."
Schoep said it was time for "fresh blood" in NSM leadership and announced he had formally stepped down as "commander" of the organization. Burt Colucci, chief of staff of the National Socialist Movement, will be taking over as commander, according to the statement.
"I want to thank everyone who has stood by us during this difficult time. You are giants among lesser men and your loyalty will be remembered," Schoep wrote in the statement. "As for all of the vultures, snakes, and international banking and media interests who have attempted to damage NSM and me personally, you have shown your true colors."
It remains unclear how NSM will be able to maintain its organizational infrastructure with Stern legally at the helm of the corporation. In his statement, Schoep said he intends to challenge Stern's ownership.
"This paper appointment will not stop us," Schoep said. "Mr. Stern's bad faith actions may leave me no choice but to protect my rights in a court of law, as I believe he fraudulently manipulated me for the purposes of gaining control of, and dissolving NSM."
To understand how Stern came to overtake Schoep's organization, you first must understand how the Michigan neo-Nazi came to find the California activist.
While serving prison time in Mississippi for mail fraud, Stern formed a relationship with his cellmate and one-time Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Edgar Ray Killen. The KKK leader had been convicted in the "Mississippi Burning" killings of three civil rights workers. Though Killen regularly called Stern a racial slur, he nevertheless granted his cellmate power of attorney over his life story and estate.
Stern was paroled from prison in 2011, and in 2016 he used his legal discretion to dissolve the Klan organization Killen once led.
This was his first successful infiltration - and the lore of Stern's relationship with the KKK leader is what Stern says first drew Schoep in.
In 2014, Schoep called Stern without notice to inquire about his relationship with Killen, the activist said. Schoep asked to see the man's prison ID card and said Stern was the first black man his organization had reached out to since Malcolm X. Stern said he searched Schoep's name, discovered he was a white supremacist, then arranged for the two to meet in California for a small race relations summit.
The two have fostered a strange kind of relationship ever since, the civil rights activist said.
Schoep and Stern remained firmly entrenched in their own political camps, he said, fundamentally opposed to what the other represents. But they also engaged in regular debate: about the Holocaust, the ugliness of the Nazi swastika, the fallibility of Schoep's white-nationalist ideals and, most critically, the fate of his hate group.
The goal, Stern claims, was always to try to change Schoep's mind.
"From day one, I always told him: 'I don't agree with you; I don't like you,' " Stern said. "I talked to him because I wanted to hope to change him."
Change Schoep's beliefs, Stern did not.
But according to Stern's version of recent events, he was able to accomplish the next best thing.
In early 2019, Stern said Schoep came to him for legal advice on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2017 by a Charlottesville counterprotester against NSM and other white-nationalist groups who attended the Unite the Right rally.
Schoep seemed "rattled," Stern said, and began talking about making a change. "I was hoping he was talking about his ideology," Stern said.
Instead, Stern said the white nationalist leader called NSM an "albatross hanging around his neck" and said he was looking for ways to get out. He still held the same beliefs, Stern said, but he was ready to cut ties with NSM and start a new organization because he felt underappreciated by his followers and left out of the mainstream white-nationalist movement that had swept the country in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Schoep was concerned about the repercussions of the Charlottesville lawsuit and the legal bills he was shouldering, Stern said, and he confided in the California activist as he sought solutions.
"I saw a crack in that armor," Stern said.
So he encouraged Schoep to get a fresh start - by handing over control of the Detroit-based organization and website to Stern.
And Schoep said yes.
"He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had ever had in the organization," Stern said. "He realized somebody was going to commit a crime, and he was going to be held responsible for it."
In his statement about the ordeal, Schoep did not address how he came to know Stern, nor did he explain the conversations that led to his decision.
In mid-January, Schoep filed incorporation paperwork with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to formally transfer the National Socialist Movement to Stern, according to documents filed with the state. By Feb. 15, Stern was listed in court documents for the lawsuit as NSM's representative. Stern is not listed as an individual defendant in the suit.
Now, he's preparing for what comes next - and seeking guidance from Jewish leaders. Stern said he does not plan to dissolve the corporation because he doesn't want Schoep's followers, or others in the white-nationalist movement, to reincorporate it.
Stern admits his plans for the website are still evolving, but his primary goal is to offer it as a reclaimed space to Jewish organizations that could help him educate NSM's followers on the history of the Holocaust.
"Everything is out in the open," Stern said. "My plans and intentions are not to let this group prosper. It's my goal to set some hard records right."
Schoep took control of NSM in 1994 and was responsible for growing its membership and brand as an organization of Holocaust deniers and Adolf Hitler acolytes. The group maintains a website that draws in millions of visitors from around the world, Stern said, and has organized public rallies across the county.
The group, whose members wear SS-like uniforms that mirror those worn in Nazi Germany, was founded under a different name in 1974 by two former officials of the American Nazi Party, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement," said Keegan Hankes, an SPLC research analyst. "It's one of the strangest things I've seen since I started tracking these things five years ago."
Several of the people listed on the NSM website as leaders within the organization did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday. One man who identifies himself as SS Capt. Harry L. Hughes III and is listed as the public relations director for NSM, said in an email that he is "not involved in the NSM's legal affairs" and was "not at liberty to discuss anything, until Commander Schoep personally makes a statement."
"Just like you and the rest of the media, I'm waiting in suspense, too," Hughes added.
Matthew Heimbach, a leading white-nationalist figure who briefly served as community outreach director of the organization last year, told The Associated Press that there has been conflict between NSM's leaders, including Schoep, and its membership. Heimbach estimated the group had 40 dues-paying members last year.
The biggest challenge the group has faced, the SPLC's Hankes said, was being outshone by the more refined efforts of new alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer. There was tension within the organization about the need for a shift to a less violent, less explicit brand of neo-Nazism, he said.
"A lot of these groups see [NSM] as extremely detrimental to anything regarding identity politics," Hankes said.
Stern told The Post that he and Schoep discussed this infighting and that Schoep expressed a desire to leave NSM behind and start a new organization with less baggage.
Schoep offered a different perspective in his statement: "I realize that there is a lot of confusion right now, and ongoing legal matters prevent me from being more thorough in my explanation of events. Regardless, it is important for me to communicate that my actions are always done for a reason, and I would never purposefully damage the organization I have spent so many years serving."
Though Schoep is no longer legally affiliated with NSM, he still faces the lawsuit because he is listed as a defendant in an individual capacity.
"It's definitely not good for him, and it shouldn't be good for him," Stern said. "You spend 25 years terrorizing people, you can't rebrand overnight. It doesn't work like that."
From California, where he runs Racial Reconciliation Outreach Ministries, Stern is still sorting through the legal intricacies his new leadership entails. He is currently listed as the attorney representing NSM in court filings, but a judge ruled Friday that he cannot be NSM's lawyer because corporations are not legally authorized to represent themselves in court.
Stern said he is working on hiring an outside lawyer to refile his motion for a summary judgment on the lawsuit. He has also offered the plaintiff's attorneys full access to NSM social media accounts, he said - because he claims to own those now, too.
"Say what you want about me," Stern said. "But I've done this twice now."
This article was written by Katie Mettler, a reporter for The Washington Post.