Baltimore Klansman tried to rebrand the KKK. Now he awaits trial in Charlottesville shooting

For seven years, Richard Wilson Preston Jr. was on a national mission to rebrand and expand the Ku Klux Klan.

As the founder and imperial wizard of the Confederate White Knights of the KKK, the Baltimore man appeared regularly in public and the media to insist that the Klan, notorious for terrorizing and lynching African-Americans, wasn’t a violent racist hate group. It was a Christian organization, he said, dedicated to service, fraternity and community.

“This is not about black and white,” Preston shouted from the stage of a KKK rally in Indiana last year. “It’s about red, white and blue. God bless this country!”

And in Philadelphia: “The cross has never been burned by the Klan. It’s been lit by the Klan to honor Jesus Christ!”

And to The Baltimore Sun: “We really want people to understand that the Klan is not an organization that is only bent on violence. We fight very hard to keep our rallies peaceful. ... We are not the Klan of the ’60s.”

Now Preston, 52, sits in a Virginia jail, accused of shooting at a black man during the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Video from the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally shows a black man wielding a spray can and a lighter as a makeshift flamethrower. A white man shouts a racial slur at him to get his attention. Then the white man produces a handgun, cocks it, and fires a round in the black man’s direction.

The KKK and other hate groups, long relegated to the fringes of American society, have worked in recent years to present an acceptable face to the public. Looking to gain influence, their leaders say they reject hate and disavow violence, and speak of organizing and demonstrating peacefully to achieve legitimate political goals.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies and private groups say reports of hate incidents are on the rise, both in Maryland and across the country.

Hate incidents reported to law enforcement agencies in Maryland surged from 203 in 2015 to 263 in 2016 — an increase of nearly 30 percent — according to State Police records obtained by The Sun under a public information request.

Nationwide, state and local police departments reported 5,580 alleged incidents to the FBI in 2015, up about 7 percent from the year before. The numbers are not comprehensive; reporting by state and local police departments is voluntary. The bureau has not released statistics for 2016 or 2017.

Five of the six largest cities in the nation — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix — saw the number of incidents increase in the first half of 2017, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism based at California State University. A sample of 25 large cities and counties across the nation showed a 6 percent increase in incidents in 2016, the center reported.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of hate groups nationwide has doubled in the last 20 years, from 457 in 1998 to 917 in 2017.

Carla Hill, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, says the KKK and other hate groups are adopting the slang and imagery of the more polished alt-right, in the hope of remaining relevant and attracting younger followers. Some have toned down their openly racist language in public to appear more mainstream.

“They see it working for the alt-right,” Hill said. “But we have to be careful to call them what they are: White supremacists.”

Oren Segal directs the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

“We don’t have the luxury to ignore hatred in this country, especially now when it is very much alive and linked to violence,” he said. “There are more ways for hate to reach people than any time in human history. Now is not the time to step back.”

Preston is charged with discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, a felony. He has not entered a plea in the case.

He is now being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail pending an appearance Thursday in Charlottesville District Court. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In a telephone interview from the jail, he told The Sun he is being misrepresented as a violent racist. He said he didn’t go to Charlottesville as a KKK leader, but as a member of a militia that went to protect rally participants and a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“Charlottesville is being blown out of proportion,” he said. “We came there to try to keep the peace.”

A woman was killed at Charlottesville when a car plowed into a crowd of counter protesters. An Ohio man has been charged with murder in her death. Two Virginia State Police officers who had been monitoring the rally died when their helicopter crashed.

Daryl Davis of Silver Spring has drawn national attention for his work to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and encourage them to leave the group. He says he has known Preston for years.

Preston “is full of BS,” Davis said. “He went down to Charlottesville with a gun.”

Preston founded the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan around 2013. The group gained notice late that year when it applied for and received permission to hold an “organizational meeting” in the Cecil County Government Building in Elkton.

Preston said at the time that he chose Cecil County for its conservative politics. The county has a long history with the KKK.

The county’s director of administration said it had “a legal duty" to make its facilities available, but the permission was “not an endorsement of the applicant, or its message, by Cecil County.”

Nearly 50 people attended the meeting, under the protection of Cecil County sheriffs and Elkton and Maryland State Police. The county gave The Sun an audio recording of the gathering.

Preston appeared in a pointed white hood and robe. His main goal, he said, was political: He invited the audience to sign letters to Congress demanding the impeachment of President Barack Obama. He said he was joining Klan groups in other states to impeach the first black president on the supposed grounds that he was a dual citizen of the United States and Indonesia.

Under Obamacare, he warned, the government would implant chips under the skin of U.S. citizens and take away their constitutional rights.

By then, Preston had already led Klan rallies at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg and outside Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. He followed with appearances in Philadelphia in 2014, in Bel Air in 2015 and 2016, and in Madison, Indiana, in 2016 and this year.

In the early years, he wore a hood; later, he appeared bareheaded. In both cases, he made himself available to news reporters. He spoke of his efforts to modernize and professionalize a movement that he said had gone astray during the Civil Rights Era. The Klan was a political organization, not a hate group.

At the same time, the website of the Confederate White Knights advised prospective members that they had to be of European heritage and “100 percent heterosexual.” They could not be Muslim, Jewish, Satanist or communist.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says Preston’s Confederate White Knights now have chapters in 11 states from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. They make up nearly 10 percent of the 130 Klan groups the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified nationwide.

In 2015, Preston bought a house in Harford County to use for Klan gatherings. Members of the White Knights of the Confederacy have met there to have barbecues, shoot guns and burn crosses.

Preston told The Sun his interest in the Ku Klux Klan dates to his childhood. He was seven when he saw KKK members depicted in a television show, and soon sewed his own klansman doll.

“I was fascinated,” he said. “I was always interested in it because of the mystery.”

At the time, his parents had separated, and he had moved with his mother into her parents’ house in the Cedmont neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. He still lives in the house in the 5800 block of Cedonia Ave. with his mother.

He became close with his grandparents, he said, and later learned that two relatives on his grandmother’s side had been in the Klan in the 1940s.

Three separate movements have taken the name “Ku Klux Klan” in the last 150 years. The original KKK was a secret society founded by former Confederate officers after the Civil War to overthrow Republican state governments during Reconstruction. It was soon suppressed by the federal government.

A second KKK appeared in 1915, a time of growing immigration from Southern Europe. At its peak in the 1920s, it claimed a nationwide membership in the millions, in the South and also the Midwest and West. The current KKK, which sprang up after World War II, is a loose movement of local groups with little national coordination; analysts put their numbers in the single thousands.

All three iterations have promoted white supremacy. All have opposed blacks, Jews and Catholics. All have used violence, terrorism and murder.

Preston attended Hazelwood Elementary School and Hamilton Middle School. When he was in ninth grade, he told The Sun, he was expelled over what he said was a racial confrontation.

He said a black student smashed a piece he was making in woodworking class. They fought, he said, because “I was white and he was black.”

A teacher who tried to break up the fight was injured. Preston said he was expelled. He was 16.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Public Schools confirmed that Preston was a student, but said privacy rules prevented her from confirming his expulsion.

Preston did not return to school. He said his two options for high school had “95 percent city kids,” which he clarified meant 95 percent black students. He said he earned a GED when he was in his 40s.

After dropping out of school, Preston worked a series of jobs in auto body repair, welding, construction and painting. He was a maintenance worker at the all-girls Bryn Mawr School.

Court records show Preston has been charged over the years with theft, assault and, in 1991, first-degree rape. He was not convicted of any of those charges.

The rape charge eventually was dismissed. No charging papers remain in the state’s archived case file, so it is not clear what happened. His current lawyer told The Sun that Preston told him the rape charge was based on a false accusation.

He also has been subject to civil claims: an allegedly unpaid electricity bill, a civil lawsuit from a former girlfriend who said he took her car without permission, peace orders filed by a girlfriend and a neighbor.

In 2004, a child support processing center filed a claim against Preston for allegedly unpaid child support. Preston told The Sun he does not believe the child is his, but he still paid years of child support.

Before his arrest, Preston lived with his mother in the house to which they moved when his parents separated. Police records show 19 calls for service at the house on Cedonia Avenue since 1997. Six were for a disorderly person, family disturbance or aggravated assault. The records do not detail the incidents.

Preston told The Sun that the FBI has followed him for years.

FBI spokesman Dave Fitz confirmed that the agency had arrested him in August, but declined to say more, citing an ongoing investigation.

Neither Preston’s mother nor his father responded to multiple requests for comment.

Immediately after Preston’s arrest Aug. 26, his mother told The Associated Press she was shocked when FBI agents swarmed their home. She said she didn’t know much about what her son did outside their home, and didn't know that he had a gun. She said he was friendly with their black neighbors.

“I'm very surprised about all of this,” his mother said.

So were the neighbors.

Frank Garland lives across the street from Preston. He said he had seen the Confederate flag do-rag that Preston wore, and the “Hillary for Prison” bumper sticker on his truck.

“I never got that vibe from him,” said Garland, who is black. “We said hi to each other all the time.”

Neighbor Desmund Chapman, who also is black, called Preston a “nice guy.” He had noticed the Confederate flag in the back window of Preston’s truck, but “he was cool. He helped my mom with some grocery bags a couple of times.”

Neither Chapman nor Garland knew Preston had any connection to the Ku Klux Klan.

“You never think that somebody you come across every day could be like that,” Garland said. “In the city? The KKK?”

As Garland spoke, a Harford County sheriff pulled up in an unmarked car, got out and took a picture of Preston’s Baltimore home. He said the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was conducting its own investigation into Preston.

In January 2015, Preston bought an uninhabitable three-story white house on two acres off Nova Scotia Road in Bel Air for $65,000. He said he used the proceeds from a workers’ compensation case after he fell on a painting job.

The property, buffered by woods in front and in back, would serve as a sort of clubhouse for the White Knights of the Confederacy. There were Confederate and KKK flags draped over the windows, and Confederate flags in the backyard.

George C. “Buddy” Bussard IV helped renovate the house. He said Preston and his friends would go there on weekends to have barbecues, shoot guns and host the occasional Klan ceremony.

Bussard said he is not a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but sometimes attends KKK events with his friend to give tattoos to Klan members.

Neighbors said they were aware that KKK members used the property, and some said they had no problem with it. None wanted to speak on the record.

“KKK never done nothing to us,” one neighbor said.

“Save your Confederate money,” another advised, “because the South will rise again!”

In July 2015, Preston invited a British television news crew to the Harford County house for a Klan initiation and cross burning.

The footage shot by journalist Robert Moore and the ITV crew shows Preston and about 10 others in white hoods and robes. In the background are a Confederate flag, four-foot-tall letters spelling out TRUMP, and a photograph of Obama pocked with bullet holes.

At one point, Preston holds the blue and white flag of the United Nations.

“The United Nations can kiss my American white backside,” he says, and throws it to the ground and stomps on it. Another Klansman pours gasoline on the flag and sets it on fire.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Preston says, “the United Nations can burn in hell along with every Muslim, including Barack Obama.”

They initiate a woman into the Klan. Moore interviews her.

“How do you see the Confederate White Knights?” he asks.

“As a political voice,” she responds. “A voice for Caucasian Americans.”

As the sky darkens, Preston leads a ceremony around a metal cross nearly two stories tall. Each Klansman holds a torch.

He asks each: “Do you accept the light of Christ?” As each says yes, he lights his or her torch. They walk around the cross, and shout in unison:

“For God”

“For Country!"

"For Family!"

"For Klan!"

Then they touch their torches to the cross, setting it ablaze.

The cross burning was reported to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. On another occasion, Preston informed the office himself of an upcoming barbecue and cross burning.

On neither occasion were any laws broken, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said.

“Most of this hate speech is despicable,” Gahler told The Sun, “but it’s their First Amendment right to spew it.”

If people fear their KKK neighbors, he said, they should call the police. But he cautioned that officers are limited in what they can do.

“I feel for the homeowners, but there is little relief unless there is a violation of law,” he said.

Preston sits alone in a seven-foot-by-eight-foot cell in the Charlottesville jail. He’s in protective custody, segregated from the general population. He reads the Bible, he said, and thinks about his job prospects.

When he gets out, he said, he wants to become a dump truck driver. He worries that if he’s convicted, that option could be off the table.

Preston told The Sun he’s considering leaving the Ku Klux Klan. He said he didn’t go to Charlottesville as a representative of the Klan, but of the “Real Three Percent Rising.”

He described the group as a “militia of patriots.” He said members met in a parking garage before the rally and divided up responsibilities. He went to guard the statue of Lee; others went to protect marchers.

The Anti-Defamation League describes the three-percenters as “part of an anti-government extremist movement that has grown since President Obama took office” and promotes the belief that the federal government “is plotting to take away the rights of American citizens and must be resisted.”

Members take their name from the claim that 3 percent of the American population at the time of the Revolutionary War fought the British government — historians say the actual percentage was several times greater — and the belief that 3 percent of American gun owners will never disarm.

The Unite the Right rally attracted Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists to Charlottesville. On the evening before the event, participants marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The next day, they marched to Lee Park chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.”

The Three Percenters arrived armed with rifles and handguns.

“We weren’t there to fight,” Preston said. “We were there to protect the statue.”

Davis, the activist who tries to draw members out of the KKK, said the baggage of the group’s history — the decades of violence — is causing other members to reconsider their association with it.

“They don’t want to go to jail,” he said. So they grant themselves new identities: they’re “separatists, white nationalist, alt–right or, more recently, patriots.”

But in the end, he said, they’re still white supremacists.

“What’s the cliché?” he asked. “A rose by any other name?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

The Baltimore Sun is partnering with newsrooms around the country in a ProPublica-led project to collect recent and reliable data on hate crimes in the U.S. If you have been the victim of a hate crime, please use this form to contribute to this database.

crentz@baltsun.com

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