Manhattan — The former U.S. Army private who plotted with a satanic neo-Nazi cult to ambush his unit in a mass-casualty attack was sentenced Friday to 45 years in federal prison.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York had charged Ethan Melzer in June 2020 on criminal counts of supporting terrorism and conspiring to murder U.S. service members after Melzer had sent an encrypted message to a neo-Nazi, Satanist organization — just as his Army unit planned to deploy to Turkey — with sensitive information about his unit’s size, weaponry, anticipated travel routes and defensive capabilities.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods on Friday referred to the group that Melzer had messaged, the Order of the Nine Angles, “repugnant.” Finding no reason to deviate from the maximum possible sentence, Woods ordered the 24-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, to three consecutive sentences of 20 years, 15 years and 10 years on the three counts to which he had pleaded guilty last June, totaling 45 years in prison, followed by nine years of supervised release.
“This was not a lark,” the Obama-appointed Woods continued after announcing the imposition of the maximum prison sentence of 45 years. “His crimes were committed to destroy civilization.”
“I do not trust him,” the judge said, stating clearly his concerns that Melzer has not actually moved on from the group’s hateful ideology or would not commit another crime.
“I frankly do not believe him,” Judge Woods said, noting that Melzer had concealed his violent, pro-jihadist beliefs from the Army and effectively deceived the three dozen comrades in his platoon.
“He could have logged off at any time,” the judge remarked, noting that Melzer memorialized his commitment to the white nationalist, neo-Nazi group with a tattoo of the so-called chaos symbol affiliated with the cult’s accelerationist worldview.
The black, cross-shaped tattoo of a star with pointed arrows was visible on Melzer’s left forearm at the sentencing hearing, not covered up by the short sleeves of his tan prison jumpsuit.
According to prosecutors’ sentencing brief, Melzer got the tattoo — “symbolizing ‘chaos’ a concept consistent with O9A’s mission of destroying existing Western civilization to give way to Satanic forces and unrestrained violence” — between the time he enlistmed and reported for duty.
“The defendant sought to end American lives and America itself,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hellman said at the sentencing hearing.
The prosecutor called Melzer’s plot “one of the most stunning betrayals from within the ranks of the armed forces ... ever to be prosecuted in federal court.”
Melzer was spared a potential sentence of life in prison when he pleaded guilty last year to three of the eight counts brought by federal prosecutors.
Hellman said Melzer’s affiliation as an “outright supporter” of the hateful group predated and deliberately informed his enlistment with the Army. Prosecutors observed this because Melzer sent encrypted messages in September 2019 to members of the racist group in which he bragged about his infiltration into the U.S. armed forces. “I literally did join for this exact reason," Melzer had said.
Prosecutors called Melzer "methodical, premeditated and coldblooded."
"The defendant used his skills and training — both from the military and from O9A — to hide in the ranks of an elite fighting force, wait until he acquired particularly sensitive information, and, seizing a perceived opportunity, set the stage for an O9A-inspired massacre of Americans," the government's brief states. "He crossed every conceivable line, lying to recruiters, superior officers, fellow soldiers, classified briefers, and more, so that he could receive classified information and pass it to an organization as to which he knew even association was grounds for removal from the Army."
Melzer’s federal public defenders had sought a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment, citing his “overwhelming youth” at the time of the conduct, which federal defender Jonathan Marvinny said took place entirely on the internet and was “a crime where no one harmed, and no was close to being harmed.”
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Marvinny called the Order of the Nine Angles a “ridiculous cult” and argued that any person with maturity of an adult would have immediately recognized the group as “absurd, dangerous and not worth following.”
In a sentencing brief, the defense described Melzer as “lonely and alienated” 21-year-old in the spring of 2020, “struggling to adjust to military life” while stationed with his Army unit in Vicenza, Italy.
“The then-emergent COVID-19 pandemic had struck Italy with great force and the entire country, Ethan’s unit included, was subject to a draconian lockdown. He was confined to his barracks, drinking heavily, and spending far too much time online,” his attorneys wrote. “From this toxic stew emerged a toxic idea to attack a U.S. military interest in service of O9A’s reprehensible agenda.”
Melzer’s attorneys asked Judge Woods to recommend that he serve out his sentence a federal prison that offers The Challenge Program, a cognitive-behavioral, residential treatment program for inmates with substance abuse problems and mental illnesses.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York applauded the sentence imposed by Judge Woods. “By unlawfully disclosing his unit’s location, strength, and armaments to other O9A members and jihadists in furtherance of this ambush, Melzer traitorously sought to attack the very soldiers he was entrusted to protect,” Williams said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Today’s sentence makes clear that Melzer’s brazen actions backfired and that this Office — along with our partners in law enforcement and the military — will work tirelessly to bring traitors like Melzer to justice and to protect the safety and integrity of our armed services.”