Watching their backs: Cantwell’s request for change of venue and special prosecutor denied

Chris Cantwell, center, and his security detail with Gregory Conte and Eli Mosley is led by attorney Elmer Woodard, right, into Albemarle Circuit Court.
Staff photo Chris Cantwell, center, and his security detail with Gregory Conte and Eli Mosley is led by attorney Elmer Woodard, right, into Albemarle Circuit Court. Staff photo


Another high-profile case went through Albemarle County Circuit Court on January 31, where motions for a self-proclaimed racist who found himself in trouble after the weekend of the Unite the Right rally had two motions denied and one granted.

Christopher Cantwell is accused of using a caustic substance on counterprotesters at the August 11 brawl between torch-wielding white supremacists and anti-racists at the University of Virginia.

Defense attorney Elmer Woodard, who represents several of the alt-right men facing charges from the deadly mid-August weekend, said Cantwell won’t be able to get a fair trial in Albemarle County. He asked to take his client’s trial, which is scheduled exactly six months after August 12, to a different locality.

“Mr. Cantwell’s got some men with him because it’s dangerous for him to move around Charlottesville,” Woodard told Judge Cheryl Higgins. When Cantwell entered circuit court that day, he was accompanied by an entourage that included Woodard, the attorney’s assistant and former Identity Evropa leader Eli Mosley.

Because Cantwell has such a high profile, Woodard said he expects a mob scene at each hearing—like the one at Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler’s August 13 press conference, where he was tackled to the ground and rescued by police.

The attorney told the judge before he and the suited men entered the building, they hid in the general district court “because we’re vulnerable.” He apparently scanned the vicinity before leading the group from one courthouse into the other. “My assistant, his job is to look behind me,” Woodard added.

Aside from this reporter and one man waiting for his own hearing, no one was outside the courthouses. “Who are those guys?” the man asked after Cantwell and his apparent security detail entered the building and the door closed behind them.

Among the entourage was Gregory Conte, who identifies himself in his Twitter bio as a Tyr 1 Security employee and the director of operations at the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer’s white nationalist think tank based in Alexandria.

Conte formed the security company with his partner, Brian Brathovd, who is reportedly Spencer’s bodyguard. Conte never entered the courtroom, but stayed in the lobby where he appeared to be guarding a black box full of cell phones, which are prohibited inside.

In court, Woodard noted several instances of what he called “prejudice and excitement” from the local community, including press coverage from NBC29 and WINA and a publication he called “Charlottesville Today.”

He said the cars of alt-right members who came to support Cantwell at his November 9 preliminary hearing were towed. The cars were parked in a private church lot, and sources say the church had the vehicles removed.

“I used a transport service so my car can’t be traced,” Woodard said. He alleged that a woman tried to smuggle a steak knife into one of another client’s hearings in Charlottesville General District Court, and she told deputies the metal detector was beeping because she had a hip replacement.

For the second time that week in Albemarle Circuit Court, an attorney expressed worry about “sleeper activists” who could sit on the jury with the intention of convicting his client.

The day before Cantwell’s hearing, Kessler’s attorney expressed the same concern. The judge denied Kessler’s motion to move his trial out of Albemarle, and she did the same for the so-called “Crying Nazi,” who was given that name after he posted a tearful video to the web before turning himself in to Lynchburg police in August.

“Well, first of all, I’m not a Nazi,” Cantwell said in a jail interview in September. “I came down [to Charlottesville] because I think that I fucking have rights and that I don’t deserve my fucking race to be exterminated from the planet. Not everybody who’s skeptical of Jews is a fucking socialist, okay?”

Judge Higgins also denied his attorney’s request for a special prosecutor for the three-day trial, though Woodard explained that he may want to call Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci as a witness, resulting in a mistrial and “a very, very, very upset judge.”

Depending on the answers from witnesses Emily Gorcenski and Kristopher Goad—who originally made statements that Cantwell sprayed them with pepper spray on August 11—Woodard said he’d like to question Tracci about some of their previous testimony.

Legal expert David Heilberg says calling the commonwealth’s attorney as a witness “is extremely rare and it might be a ploy to disqualify the prosecutor.”

“I find it is too speculative,” said Higgins as she denied the motion.

However, she did grant a final motion to amend Cantwell’s bond to allow him to go anywhere within the undisclosed Virginia city where he currently resides.

After the hearing, Christian Picciolini waited on the courthouse steps for Cantwell to exit and called out to Cantwell that he just wanted to talk.

“You have my phone number, loser,” Cantwell spat back at him.

Piccolini was recruited to join the Chicago Area Skinheads, America’s first group of neo-Nazis, at the age of 14.

“I used to be just like him,” Picciolini says, but he disassociated himself from the movement in 1996. “I started to receive compassion 30 years ago from the people I least deserved it from.”

Christian Picciolini Staff photo

The Chicago man, who is the co-founder of a nonprofit called Life After Hate, says he wants to sit down with Cantwell and offer him the same support that helped changed his ideologies.

He adds, “Nobody’s born with a swastika flag under his pillow.”


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