James Alex Fields Jr., third from right, marches with members of Vanguard America on Saturday before allegedly ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Photo: AP

The leader of a white nationalist group associated with accused Charlottesville killer James Alex Fields Jr. served in the Marines until this year, including three years spent as a recruiter, Splinter has learned. Dillon Ulysses Hopper, the self-described “CEO” of Vanguard America, a hate group whose members were photographed alongside Fields on Saturday, worked as a Marine recruiter between 2011 and 2014. He was discharged in January, according to military records.

According to a Vanguard America representative, Hopper became a white supremacist in 2012, which means that he was enlisting military recruits while privately holding hateful and xenophobic beliefs contrary to the Marines’ stated core values.

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Vanguard America received a round of headlines Saturday after Fields was accused of driving into a crowd and killing Heather Heyer, a counter-protester demonstrating against the neo-Nazi #UniteTheRight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Earlier that day, Fields was photographed with members of Vanguard America, dressed in their uniform of a white polo shirt and khaki pants and carrying a shield bearing the group’s emblem.

I met members of Vanguard America, including Hopper—he introduced himself to me as “Commander Dillon”—at a white supremacist rally in Pikeville, Kentucky earlier this year. Hopper is active in racist causes under his birth name, Dillon Irizarry. Court records show he changed his name from “Dillon Ramone Irizarry” to “Dillon Ulysses Hopper” in 2006. After the Charlottesville killing, I contacted Hopper through Facebook (where he uses the name “Dillon Hopper”) and asked if he was the Vanguard leader. He responded that he was, but claimed that he wasn’t present in Charlottesville due to the recent death of his mother.

“I did hear Cville was absolute pandemonium,” he wrote.

Hopper said that Fields is not and has never been a member of Vanguard America. “Absolutely not,” he wrote. “He is not affiliated nor was ever a member of my organization. He was photographed in our ranks due to poor leadership and uncoordination [sic] at the event. He does not represent us in any way shape or form and we condemn his irredeemable actions.”

I asked Hopper why Fields, if he was not affiliated with Vanguard America, was wearing the group’s uniform and holding a shield emblazoned with its emblem while marching with members of group, all of whom were also wearing the uniform and holding the shield.

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Hopper responded that the dress code is “public knowledge,” adding, “at past events other groups, including ours, have worn the same attire to appear larger in number.... I do not know what this man’s intentions were but I can only assume they were nothing more than vile and disturbing.”

Hopper said Vanguard has not been contacted by law enforcement or asked to give a statement: “Law enforcement has not contacted us. And I am not concerned. This was a major disaster, with a life taken, this is reprehensible behavior that I personally would never tolerate in my ranks.”

According to remarks Hopper delivered at a private gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists the night before the Kentucky rally earlier this year, Vanguard America formed in California in 2015. Hopper says he took over leadership of the group one year ago.

Hopper in 2017 in Pikeville Kentucky, left, and in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio in his Marines uniform. Photos via the Anti-Defamation League and Facebook.

According to the Marines Corps’ Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department, Hopper enlisted in the Marines in July 2006, in Albuquerque, N.M. He deployed twice, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2008 for about a year, and in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan for seven months beginning in July 2010. Records and public documents show that he became a USMC recruiter in Columbus, Ohio in 2012. A 2013 publication from the guidance department of Dublin Jerome High School in Dublin, Ohio lists him as a USMC recruiter.

At the same time as he was recruiting young Marines from an Ohio public school, Hopper was becoming a white nationalist. A spokesperson for Vanguard America, using the pseudonym Marty Goldrich (it’s meant to be an anti-Semitic joke) told me that Hopper developed white nationalist beliefs in 2012.

Vanguard describes itself as a “white identitarian political movement.” The requirements to join, per their website, require that applicants be “of at least 80% White/European heritage,” straight, non-felons, and non- sexual degenerates, although that term is not clearly defined for potential members. The organization presents itself using military terms and pretensions; when I met “Commander Dillon” in Kentucky, he was wearing a flak vest and carrying an enormous Franchi SPAS-12 combat shotgun.

In other words, Vanguard looks a lot like a militia or a paramilitary organization.

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That’s a characterization the group denies. “The overall goal of Vanguard America is to promote a White Nationalist and European identitarian United States,” “Goldrich” wrote to me. “We hope to achieve this goal through historical and political education, physical and spiritual betterment, and political activity within the United States. We do not advocate violence against any persons who we come into contact with. We are not a violent movement.”

Lately, the organization has seen a bit of internal drama. Hopper has publicly accused someone named “Thomas” of seizing control of Vanguard America’s servers and attempting a digital coup. It was during this chaotic time that Fields was photographed marching with the group in Charlottesville. (“Goldrich” insists, “There is no chaos within the organization.”)

A newly-created Twitter account identifies Vanguard’s “founder and president” as Bill Hopper.

According to the Marines, Hopper was an active-duty member until January 30, 2017.

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In my conversations with Hopper, he attempted to deny that Hopper is his legal last name. When I told him I knew that he’d changed it from “Irizarry” in 2006, he abruptly ended the conversation. (Records show that Hopper filed for divorce from his wife on August 11 in Indiana; there, too, he uses the legal name Dillon Hopper.)

A short while later, Marty Goldrich threatened to sue me if I revealed any personal information about Hopper, claiming that publication of “personally identifiable information” would be “damaging and incriminatory.”

In a statement, the Marines said that membership in a white supremacist organization is grounds for mandatory separation from the corps.

“Association or participation with hate or extremist groups of any kind is directly contradictory to the core values of honor, courage, and commitment that we stand for as Marines and isn’t tolerated by the Marine Corps. We are proud of the fact that Marines come from every race, creed, cultural background and walk of life. As a service whose strength is derived from the individual excellence of every Marine, those who are unable to value the contributions of each Marine, regardless of background, are destructive to the warfighting capability of an organization that depends on individuals at every level. Furthermore we take allegations of misconduct very seriously. The guidance to Marines is clear: participation in supremacist or extremist organizations or activities is a violation of Department of Defense/Marine Corps orders and will lead to mandatory processing for separation following the first substantiated incident of misconduct which, in the independent judgment of an administrative separation board convening authority, is more likely than not to undermine unit cohesion or be detrimental to the good order, discipline, or mission accomplishment of the command.”


This story was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media Group.