The DOJ Is Investigating Americans For War Crimes Allegedly Committed While Fighting With Far-Right Extremists In Ukraine
The probe involves seven men but is centered on former Army soldier Craig Lang, who is separately wanted in connection with a double killing in Florida and is fighting extradition from Kyiv.
KYIV — One chilly day in February, Craig Lang, a former US Army soldier wanted for allegedly killing a married couple in Florida, pleaded with three stern-faced judges in a Kyiv courtroom to allow him to stay in Ukraine. He first came in 2015 to fight with a far-right paramilitary unit, defending the country from Russia-backed forces. And he believed that if he were extradited back to the US, he could face war crimes charges.
“Any separatist or Russian soldier that I have killed would be a murder charge” in the US, Lang, 31, said in his gruff North Carolina drawl. “Understand that some of my fellow combatants are under investigation by the FBI for war crimes.”
That was a stunning statement. It would be extremely rare for the US government to investigate its own citizens for alleged war crimes committed on foreign soil — no one, experts say, has ever been prosecuted, let alone convicted, under the US War Crimes Act. Lang’s claim, overheard by this BuzzFeed News reporter, could not be corroborated at the time.
But now, BuzzFeed News can reveal that the Department of Justice and the FBI have in fact taken the extraordinary step of investigating a group of seven American fighters, including Lang, under the federal war crimes statute. Authorities suspect that while in eastern Ukraine, Lang and other members of the group allegedly took noncombatants as prisoners, beat them with their fists, kicked them, clobbered them with a sock filled with stones, and held them underwater.
Lang, the DOJ believes, may have even killed some of them before burying their bodies in unmarked graves.
The war crimes investigation was detailed in a DOJ appeal for assistance sent to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine in 2018 along with two Ukrainian documents responding to the appeal the following year. The documents were leaked to an obscure pro-Russian website. BuzzFeed News reviewed and authenticated the documents and interviewed six people, in Kyiv and stateside, with direct knowledge of the US investigation. They include a top Ukrainian law enforcement official; a former Ukrainian National Police official who was involved in gathering information to fulfill the US appeal; and two other people who have assisted the FBI and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
BuzzFeed News also interviewed Dalton Kennedy of North Carolina and David Kleman of Georgia, both 24, who had interviews with federal agents and provided proof of those encounters. They, along with Quinn Rickert, 27, of Illinois; Santi Pirtle, 30, of California; Brian Boyenger, 33, of North Carolina; and David Plaster, 37, of Missouri were investigated by the DOJ and FBI in the probe. When they arrived in Ukraine, Lang, Rickert, and Pirtle allegedly joined Right Sector, a volunteer far-right nationalist group that formed in November 2013 and later created a paramilitary force to respond to Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in spring 2014. Human rights groups have accused Right Sector fighters of abusing and torturing civilians and combatants.
All the men were connected to Lang, who also briefly served in Ukraine’s military, and privy to his actions in the country. Their alleged roles in the war crimes vary, and BuzzFeed News has found that some were likely not present when they are believed to have taken place.
The DOJ — based on video and photo evidence, as well as interviews with some of Lang’s fellow American fighters — says in the documents that Lang was the main instigator of the alleged torture of detainees in eastern Ukraine. In April, BuzzFeed News detailed how Lang became increasingly radicalized while fighting in Ukraine and had ties to white supremacists. He now resides with his Ukrainian partner and their child in Kyiv. He was detained by Ukrainian border guards in August 2019, wears an ankle monitor, and is banned from leaving the country while he fights extradition to Fort Myers to face trial in the 2018 killings of Deana and Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo in Florida. Authorities allege that Lang and another former Army soldier who fought with Right Sector in Ukraine lured the couple to a meeting to buy guns — but instead ambushed them and robbed them of $3,000, used to fund Lang’s foreign fighting adventures.
A separate message obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News suggests the FBI was investigating Lang and the others as early as April 2017, and had already received information on them from search and seizure warrants.
The DOJ appeal doesn’t make clear whether US authorities had interviewed any alleged victims in Ukraine or confirmed that anyone was killed. But based on the evidence gathered, the DOJ appeal says, the Americans “allegedly committed or participated in torture, cruel or inhuman treatment or murder of persons who did not take (or stopped taking) an active part in hostilities and (or) intentionally inflicted grievous bodily harm on them.”
It continues: “Such actions, if committed by US citizens or directed against them, respective to the United States War Crimes Act, are classified as war crimes in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
Two sources who have aided the DOJ and the Americans under investigation who spoke to BuzzFeed News in the past four months said that they believe the probe is active. But, to date, no related charges have been filed. Calls and emails sent to the DOJ and FBI officials named in the leaked appeal went unanswered. The US Embassy in Kyiv also declined to comment. The FBI and DOJ spokespeople each said they do not confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
During extradition hearings in Kyiv over the past year, Lang has denied involvement in the Florida killings and said federal authorities are going after him because of his political views and extremist ties. Four of the six sources, including Kennedy and Kleman, said they believed the DOJ’s focus now is getting Lang extradited to the US, something Irina Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, told BuzzFeed News this month that she would also like to see happen. “We did our homework [on Lang],” she said, noting that she approved the US request for extradition last year. (The European Court of Human Rights ordered a stay on Lang’s extradition until it reviewed his case. The court had not yet made a decision when this article was published.) In May, the US government said during a court hearing that it would waive the death penalty for Lang in order to speed up the process.
Lang didn’t respond to a request for comment. His Ukrainian lawyer, Dmytro Morhun, declined to respond directly to the DOJ investigation and claims made against Lang, saying he would only do so if presented with evidence of alleged crimes, not assumptions of law enforcement agencies. He said the US investigation was proof of what he has argued since Lang was detained in Ukraine — that the US efforts to bring him back home were political in nature and are “connected precisely with his participation in the armed forces of Ukraine in the east, while fighting against the Russian aggressor.”
In interviews in person and by phone, Kennedy, Kleman, Plaster, and Boyenger confirmed they had fought in Ukraine, but they all denied the allegations that they committed or aided any possible war crimes and said they were never part of Right Sector; the four served with the regular Ukrainian military and provided documentation showing they did. Rickert didn’t respond to messages seeking comment, and Pirtle couldn’t be reached. But a family member of Pirtle’s told BuzzFeed News by phone that Pirtle spoke to the FBI at least twice about his experience once he left Ukraine and returned home to San Jose. The family added that Pirtle is currently serving in the US Army and is based in Louisiana. An Army spokesperson confirmed Pirtle is an active-duty infantryman with no combat deployments who has served since October 2020.
Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to eastern Ukraine to join a war that Russia incited in spring 2014 — using troops in unmarked uniforms and local separatist proxies — that has killed more than 14,000 people. Venediktova told BuzzFeed News that her office is investigating 250 foreign fighters from 32 countries for war crimes. All of them have fought with Russia-led forces.
Venediktova said that, for now, there are no active investigations into foreign fighters who joined the Ukrainian side. But Gyunduz Mamedov, the deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, said in an interview in Kyiv in August that after learning of the US war crimes probe in 2019, he considered opening his own into Lang’s alleged crimes. “I thought that a proper legal assessment of the situation should be done in Ukraine as well,” he said, adding, “My main concern was [Lang’s] crimes in Ukraine.” Mamedov said he asked US authorities to share the evidence used to build their case against Lang and the other Americans. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there has been no response.”
Roughly 40 other Americans have fought on the Ukrainian side, according to BuzzFeed News’ reporting and expert research. Many are veterans or men who had hoped to join the US military but couldn’t, and wanted to help a democratic ally in its fight against Russia’s aggressive authoritarianism. Others are opportunists who see a shot at a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and a fresh start. And several are combat enthusiasts who hop from war to war.
But some are far-right extremists who have set their gaze on Ukraine, a place that has become a destination and training ground for such types in the West. As far-right extremism has risen in the US, so has the interest among American white supremacists in militarized right-wing Ukrainian groups that have had success in growing and mainstreaming their organizations and movements. They include violent neo-Nazis like those from the Rise Above Movement who have gone to Ukraine to meet and train with some of the groups — and then export what they learned to the US.
The seven Americans arrived in Ukraine at different times. Plaster, who has familial ties to Ukraine, was in the country before the war broke out. The other six arrived between 2015 and 2016.
Lang touched down in May 2015, after two tours with the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served in the infantry and was dishonorably discharged in 2014. A string of disturbing personal events the previous year, including an incident in which he allegedly threatened his wife, court documents show, led to their divorce and him losing custody rights and a job.
Ukraine offered adventure and a new start. He joined Right Sector, he said earlier this year, “because I thought they were the most active on the front line.” The far-right paramilitary group handed him a loaded AK-47 the moment he arrived, he said.
As one of the first and most visible American fighters in eastern Ukraine — his Facebook page, which has since been removed, showed him firing machine guns and AK-47s in interviews with Ukrainian media, running through trenches, and posing in uniform on the battlefield — he quickly became a key contact for others looking to join the war and Right Sector. The DOJ also believes that Lang used Facebook to actively recruit other Americans to the unit.
Among them were Rickert and Pirtle, who, along with Lang and two Austrian fighters, formed a close-knit, informal group that called itself “Task Force Pluto,” after the Greek god of the underworld. Photographs shot by a German photographer in early 2016 show them cleaning their AK-47 rifles and firing rocket-propelled grenades at the front line together.
While Rickert was once close with Lang, he seems to be one of the government’s prime sources of information and evidence in its war crimes case. Lang, he apparently told investigators, was the Task Force Pluto leader while the group was stationed at a makeshift military base located on the edge of Novohrodivka, an unremarkable coal mining town in the Donetsk region that is under Ukrainian government control.
Rickert, the DOJ document says, told the FBI about several instances of Lang allegedly abusing people at the base in late 2015 or in 2016. In one, Rickert said that Lang went to a nearby village and captured a local man. Rickert claimed that Lang brought the man back to the Right Sector base and “severely beat and tortured” him in a cell and “eventually took him out of the base and killed him.” Rickert told the DOJ that he had video footage of the incident and others.
Rickert also told investigators he witnessed Lang and Benjamin Fischer — an Austrian who, the DOJ notes, fought with Right Sector and has also been accused by his government of war crimes in Ukraine and was briefly detained in 2017 before reportedly being released due to a lack of evidence — committed “numerous killings and tortures” of prisoners. These happened, Rickert said, in a small room at the base in spring 2016. After the torture sessions, Rickert told DOJ, Lang took them outside, killed them, and buried their bodies in a field near the base.
Rickert told the DOJ he also had a video of Lang beating and drowning a woman who Fischer injected with adrenaline to keep her from losing consciousness. According to Rickert, another foreign fighter filmed the incident on video. Fischer’s whereabouts are unknown and he could not be reached for comment.
Pirtle told investigators, according to the DOJ document, that Rickert filmed several of the interrogations and uploaded the videos to his Google accounts, including one in which a man was detained, thrown into a shower stall, and beaten with a sock filled with stones. According to Pirtle, the man was thought to have fought with Russia-backed forces. Pirtle told investigators he saw Lang punch and push the man, demanding his password to a Facebook account because Lang thought that it was holding information on pro-Russian fighters.
Pirtle’s family member said he returned to the US in spring 2016 because he had grown tired of the poor living conditions in eastern Ukraine and was worried about “somebody who did terrible things.” That person, the family member said, was Lang. Pirtle, according to the family member, emailed them explaining that “things are going downhill and he didn’t want any part in it.”
Morhun, Lang’s lawyer, did not directly respond to these or any specific allegations, saying “in order to deny or confirm any accusations, they must be brought,” and since the DOJ has not presented he or Lang with evidence, “we are talking about assumptions, and that makes no sense to comment on.”
The DOJ appears to have obtained and viewed that video and others, writing in the appeal that investigators got a warrant authorizing them to search the Google account and emails apparently belonging to Rickert.
“In the first video, LANG’s voice is heard demanding that the man give his password from a social network account,” the DOJ writes. “After the man refuses to give LANG his password, behind the scenes someone says, ‘You need to beat him.’ LANG hits the man several times with his knee in the abdomen and head, throwing him on the floor, where he writhes in pain.”
A second video, according to the DOJ, “shows a Ukrainian man repeatedly hitting a man with something hard in a sock in his cell. After this beating, a person similar to RICKERT enters the shower and demands the man’s password. After that, you can see how RICKERT punches the man in the back of the head.”
Rickert’s and Pirtle’s accounts to the DOJ, and the agency’s descriptions of the videos, closely align with what BuzzFeed News was told by an American fighter in Ukraine who knew the Task Force Pluto members and described them as having a “fetish for death and torture.” It also aligns with a screenshot of a video viewed by this reporter that shows a man who appeared to be Lang standing over a man seated and bound in a small room. That scene also closely resembles one described by a Vice News journalist who interviewed Lang, Rickert, and Pirtle at the Novohrodivka base in 2016. In that story, a man was detained by Right Sector fighters, held in “a standing-room-only shower stall” with the lights on for a week, and beaten with a sock “stuffed with sharpened rocks.”
The Google account data, the DOJ writes, also uncovered numerous images of Rickert, Lang, Pirtle, and other people handling weapons and explosives in eastern Ukraine, including in “a trench dug for combat.”
The DOJ document doesn’t describe any instances in which Kennedy, Kleman, Boyenger, and Plaster took an active part in the abuse of civilians. Plaster, who now runs an NGO in Kyiv that helps Ukrainian veterans, said he “kept a distance from anyone with radical ideologies” and provided “medical aid and training” to the country’s soldiers during his time on the front line. Boyenger said, “I have always conducted myself with honor and fidelity, as a taxpayer I do expect the government to investigate to the fullest extent any and all allegations of wrongdoing and I look forward to seeing the results of their investigation as much as anyone."
The DOJ document also says that US authorities believe that Lang and Kennedy, after spending time back in the US, “returned to Ukraine with the intention of planning and participating in an armed attack on the Ukrainian [parliament]” in 2017.
The DOJ says in the document that US authorities in Kyiv received reports around March 14, 2017, that Lang was detained upon his arrival at a Ukrainian airport because authorities “found something similar to a rifle with a silencer and a full box of ammunition” on him.
Kennedy told BuzzFeed News that he never planned any such attack on Ukraine’s parliament building, calling the accusation “bullshit.” He showed BuzzFeed News his passport, which indicated that he wasn’t in Ukraine at the time the DOJ claimed he was there. But Kennedy did say that Lang had told him about being detained at a Ukrainian airport and found to have gun parts in his luggage. Lang didn’t respond to questions about the alleged incident.
“I do believe the FBI is unfairly demonizing and trying to prosecute us for no real reason other than our involvement in Ukraine,” Kennedy told BuzzFeed News.
Kennedy — who also served for a time as a soldier in the Ukrainian armed forces — said Lang convinced him to join Right Sector in April 2016, and that he stayed only for a couple of months. “When I was there nothing like that happened,” Kennedy said of the alleged war crimes. “We didn’t even take any prisoners the whole time I was there.”
The DOJ and FBI investigation marks the first attempt to hold American volunteer soldiers accountable for their alleged actions in Ukraine. Besides going after alleged war criminals, the extraordinary investigation also ticks another box for the DOJ: a case against far-right extremists. The Biden administration has said fighting extremism is a top priority.
At least two of the other men under investigation could be described as far-right extremists: Kennedy, who was briefly in the US Army, told BuzzFeed News in an interview that he’s now “apolitical,” but he was once a member of the American neo-fascist group Patriot Front and photographed making a Nazi salute. Kleman’s social media presence includes a video of him making a Nazi salute, a photo of a Nazi WWII flag, and posts with white supremacist language. He told BuzzFeed News from his home in Boston that he “was never a Nazi” but is “very into Germany.”
The DOJ appeal document was first leaked by an obscure pro-Russian website called UkrLeaks on April 9, after BuzzFeed News published an investigation into Lang’s alleged involvement in the double killing in Florida and the issue of American extremists fighting in Ukraine. UkrLeaks is run by Vasily Prozorov, a Ukrainian who worked from 1999 to 2018 as a consultant in the country’s security service, the SBU, before defecting to Russia. In a Facebook post in March 2019, the SBU claimed he had been fired for his poor job performance and heavy drinking.
Since arriving in Russia, Prozorov has used UkrLeaks and appearances on state television to push some of the Kremlin’s favorite conspiracy theories about Ukraine. But Prozorov had access to sensitive and classified information, and while he seems to have used some of it to smear Ukraine and his former employer, some things he leaked have checked out. For instance, Prozorov has published information about the SBU detaining pro-Russian Ukrainians and holding them in secret detention centers. And although the security service has vehemently denied using such facilities, Ukrainian journalists, international human rights groups, and the United Nations have investigated the claims, interviewed people who were detained, and found the centers to be real.
Prozorov, who fled Ukraine before the DOJ appeal was sent to Kyiv, told BuzzFeed News the appeal and two related Ukrainian documents were given to him by a source in the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office whom he declined to name.
The bar for charging someone under the War Crimes Act is incredibly high, according to Beth Van Schaack, a law professor at Stanford University who previously served as the deputy to the ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice. “No US citizen has ever been tried or convicted under the country’s war crimes statute” since it became law in 1996, she told BuzzFeed News.
(One US citizen came close: Boston-born Charles Emmanuel, aka Chuckie Taylor, aka Roy Belfast Jr., the son of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia. He led the Liberian Anti-Terrorist Unit that tortured and killed civilians opposed to his father’s rule. His 2008 US conviction for torture committed in a foreign country was the first of its kind. He was sentenced to 97 years in prison.)
Edgar Chen, a former attorney in the DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations, the department’s unit tasked with targeting and prosecuting human rights violators and war criminals, told BuzzFeed News that during his nearly 10 years there he wasn’t aware of any US citizen being investigated for committing a war crime in circumstances similar to the Ukraine case.
“They’re not going to do that unless they think they’ve got the goods,” Chen said, suggesting that the DOJ might see the case against Lang and the other American fighters as its opportunity to finally put the War Crimes Act to use.
One person who has assisted the FBI with the probe told BuzzFeed News that investigators had expressed that very thought to them. Speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could talk about discussions with the federal agents, the person said, “They want to make Craig the first [American] to be tried for war crimes” in the US. ●
Tanya Kozyreva contributed reporting from Kyiv.