It’s a nightmare scenario.
A disaffected, disturbed young man with a criminal history becomes radicalized by online extremist propaganda and is discovered with a weapon of mass destruction. Fortunately, he is caught by federal authorities before he could hurt anyone.
Such is the case of William Christopher Gibbs, a 27-year-old north Georgia man arrested earlier this month when authorities say he sought treatment for exposure to ricin, a poison sometimes called the "poor man's anthrax" because it's cheap and deadly.
Based on his social media profiles, Gibbs had recently become an adherent of the Church of Creativity, a largely internet-based holdover of the defunct Church of the Creator, a white supremacist, deeply anti-Semitic “religion” that preaches racial warfare.
Police arrested Gibbs Feb. 2 after he drove himself to a local hospital in Fannin County, reportedly to seek help for exposure to the poison. Good thing too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define ricin, which is extracted from castor beans, as a "terrorist or warfare agent" that can be distributed in a variety of ways, including through the air or in water. Depending upon how you are exposed to it, ricin can cause multiple organ failure and kill within three days.
Authorities were understandably concerned when tests of Gibbs’ car found trace amounts of ricin. If federal authorities know what Gibbs’ plans were for it, they aren’t saying.
U.S. Attorney John Horn’s office Wednesday charged Gibbs with one count of possession of a biological agent, a federal charge that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. Gibbs also faces state charges of reckless conduct and violation of his probation for a 2010 burglary conviction.
Bob Page, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said investigators believe they recovered all of the toxic mess and that the public is safe.
Gibbs does not have a lawyer listed as representing him. Federal authorities have declined comment on the case, so it is unclear how Gibbs got the ricin or whether to expect any additional charges.
“We will continue to investigate any leads associated with the case and encourage any citizens with information to contact the FBI,” Page said in a statement.
Gibbs had been headed down a dangerous path for some time. Records indicate that since his conviction, Gibbs bounced between living in Copperhill, Tenn., and staying with relatives in tiny Morganton, Ga.
Morganton Administrator Joyce Waters said Gibbs wasn’t really well known in town, but she recalled his grandparents as “good people.”
“I think he had been staying with them intermittently,” Waters said. “He comes in for a day or two.”
Somewhere along the way, he got interested in the ideology of Creativity.
Mentally ill and radicalized online
Carla Hill, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, said the Creativity movement exists mostly on the internet as a white supremacist “brand” rather than as a viable, real-world organization. That doesn’t mean they are not dangerous.
“They continue to attract white supremacists, which is the case with this guy,” she said.
People like Gibbs “can radicalize themselves in a gradual process of reading this stuff online,” Hill said. “He doesn’t appear to have started out that way, but Creativity has a history of producing violent extremists.”
His social media trail indicates his affair with Creativity dates back to around last summer when he uploaded a variety of photos of himself to the Creativity Alliance website, some in half undress and others wearing clothing bearing Creativity symbolism. If his profile is to be believed, he was a frequent contributor to the group’s online forum.
While Gibbs professed to be affiliated with The Church of Creativity Georgia, it’s not clear that such a “church” exists.
Leaders within the Creativity movement have distanced themselves from Gibbs since his arrest.
“That Gibbs was new and some of us had noted some odd behaviour by Creator standards, only meant that he had much to learn,” Australian Creativity Alliance leader Cailen Cambeul wrote after Gibbs’ arrest. “Nevertheless, nobody expected anything like this.”
The Creativity Movement, another faction of this brand of white supremacy, posted a video explanation saying Gibbs was not one of them.
“Gibbs did contact us a while back, sending a number of Creators very strange messages,” the post states. “He struck us as one of the most dysfunctional, incoherent and mentally ill people we have come across.”
That may not be far off. Gibbs’ arrest report indicates his mother claimed he has a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia. Mental illness, online hatred and ricin are a pretty dangerous blend.
Another arrest in S.C.
Gibbs’ arrest was followed last week by the arrest of Benjamin McDowell in South Carolina after he allegedly bought a gun and ammunition off a federal agent posing as a member of the Aryan Nations.
According to federal authorities, who apparently had been monitoring McDowell’s racist Facebook chatter since his release from prison on burglary charges, the 29-year-old Conway resident had wanted to pull off an attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof,” the convicted mass murderer who killed nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015.
According to the Associated Press, the FBI said it had been looking deeply into McDowell since he posted threatening messages in December about a Myrtle Beach synagogue.
Hill said there is no reason to believe there are more dangerous extremists than in the past. She monitors these people and said they are constantly leaving one group and joining another. Internal strife causes these poorly organized groups to splinter and disintegrate with new ones forming from the dust.
But she said there is a sense that the individuals are “emboldened” lately, latching on to the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Washington and internationally.
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC