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The Feds Took Credit for Nailing an Incel Terrorist. Do They Deserve It?

How big charges and splashy headlines rewrote the story of a foiled mass shooting

On March 12, 2020, the day after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Sheriff’s Office of Highland County, Ohio, got a late afternoon call. The caller was a woman who gave an address in the city of Hillsboro, explaining that a man living there had locked himself in his bedroom with a gun. She thought she had heard him cock the weapon, and reported that this person had threatened to “take care of her” as well.

Minutes later, deputies had removed the woman from the home and were speaking to her son, 20-year-old Tres Presley Genco. He told them the only gun he owned was a rifle in his car. Searching the trunk, they found an AR-15-style rifle with a suspected “bump stock,” an attachment that increases the rate of fire for a semi-automatic weapon. Stephen Paddock killed 58 people using such a device in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. The U.S. banned them the following year, with the ATF classifying the items as illegal machine guns

Along with the rifle and stock, deputies uncovered body armor, loaded magazines and boxes of ammunition stored in Genco’s black 2009 Audi. 

Genco’s mother offered more information: She had discovered a handgun in his room a few days prior. He denied owning one, but, given permission to search his bedroom, the officers found “a Glock-type, 9mm Luger caliber semi-automatic pistol, with no manufacturer’s marks or serial number,” according to an unsealed federal court document.

But that still wasn’t all. Genco’s mother said that in the past, she’d come across his writings — material that led her to believe her son wanted to hurt people.

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Anneka Collins is no stranger to violent and disturbing crime. As prosecutor of Ohio’s Highland County for the past 10 years — five as the assistant prosecutor before that — she has tried people for child sexual assault, and worked on a case in which a man pleaded guilty to murdering his 5-year-old niece. “Honestly, not much ‘disturbs’ me anymore,” she writes in an email.

Which is not to say she never encounters the unexpected. 

Early in June 2020, at the first session following a pandemic-related two-month hiatus, a Highland County grand jury indicted Tres Genco for making a terroristic threat. The case would belong to Collins, whose office is responsible for all felony criminal prosecution in the county. It was alleged that Genco “did threaten to commit or threaten to cause to be committed a specified offense … with purpose to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” A third-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in jail.

What Genco envisioned, Collins had learned since his arrest, was a massacre of women at college campus sororities. He self-identified as an “incel,” or “involuntarily celibate” — a disciple of an extreme ideology Collins tells me she was “not familiar with” until this case. She read through the investigators’ report, “then researched it more online.” 

The incel phenomenon exists mainly on web forums, where alienated men gather virtually to discuss their sexual frustration, self-loathing and contempt for women, whom they view as promiscuous with other men but unattainable for them, the biologically inferior males. On some occasions, this misogynist fury has spilled into murderous action. A Canadian man named Alek Minassian was convicted this year of 10 counts of first-degree murder; in 2018, he deliberately drove a van onto a busy Toronto sidewalk, and prosecutors argued he’d been radicalized on internet forums, including incel sites and others that appealed to lonely men

That same year, Scott Paul Beierle shot six women, two of them fatally, at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, then killed himself. Motivated by male supremacist beliefs, he nursed a hatred of women for rejecting him and posted YouTube videos about being an incel. And this past July, 24-year-old Cole Carini was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison for the manufacture and possession of an improvised explosive device that detonated in his Virginia home in 2020, blowing off one of his hands. Evidence suggested he may have wanted revenge on “hot cheerleaders.”

Carini, Minassian and now Tres Genco were all inspired by the incels’ great martyr, Elliot Rodger, who killed six and injured 14 in a spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, before shooting himself. Like Genco, he wrote a manifesto against women (as well as rival, sexually active men). Genco claimed to have once sprayed women and couples with orange juice from a water gun, something Rodger did in anticipation of his own rampage. And, similar to Genco, Rodger’s final target was a sorority house.    

Collins saw Genco convicted for his terroristic threat — his written plans to murder women — in Highland County Court in October 2020. He received a sentence of 17 months, with a credit of 224 days for time already served. As soon as January 2021, he was allowed to begin his transition out of jail. Federal agents would re-arrest him in July at his halfway home. In his six-month interval of freedom, he had applied to Columbus County Community College. (It’s unclear whether this campus was a potential target for his planned attack.)      

“Tres was the first person I have prosecuted for this type of crime,” Collins says. “His belief system is quite unusual.” 

It does, however, match a pattern — one that could be studied and used against would-be incel terrorists.

* * * * *

So, naturally, the question: How exactly is federal law enforcement approaching this established, ongoing threat to public safety?

In Ohio, Collins was unable to charge Genco for possession of the weapons because, she said, state laws didn’t cover it — but federal ones do. “Additionally, we hoped the feds would take the gun charges,” she tells me. Ohio could punish someone for possession of a firearm without a serial number, but the bump stock ban, enacted under President Trump, is a strictly federal law, and a currently contested one at that. A divided Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ban in March of this year, but has since heard arguments as a full panel, with the government trying to overturn that decision.           

Collins also couldn’t charge Genco with a hate crime because the state of Ohio has no provision for gender bias on that front. There are only penalty enhancements for crimes motivated by race, religion or ethnicity. At the federal level, though, the Shepard-Byrd Act — signed by President Obama in 2009 — expanded the scope of hate crime to include attacks motivated by gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, actual or perceived. The same law gave federal agencies significantly more freedom to prosecute hate crimes not pursued by local authorities, some of which don’t even report bias factors in their statistics.

The data the FBI has gathered shows that gender bias incidents make up a tiny sliver of the hate crime reports — among more than 8,000 incidents listed, just 80, or 1 percent, were motivated by gender hate, and the “anti-female” offenses totaled 62. The Justice Department’s page of “representative” cases, meanwhile, has only three gender-related summaries out of more than 50: the murder of two transgender women in Puerto Rico; the attempted murder of a gay man and a plot to kidnap and kill others in Louisiana; and Genco’s attempted massacre of women.

Clearly, misogynist crimes (and others) are underrepresented here. The considerable rates of domestic, sexual and often lethal violence men commit against women in the U.S. — which, in turn, reflect only a fraction of such incidents — would suggest that gender bias is often being overlooked or set aside in prosecutions. 

Activists are hoping to change that. In Canada, a 17-year-old incel has already been charged as a terrorist in a murder case. In the U.K., the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a London police officer who falsely arrested her led to calls for treating misogyny as a hate crime, and stiffer punishments for crimes including stalking and domestic abuse. In August, the country saw its first fatal mass shooting in more than a decade, in the city of Plymouth, carried out by a 22-year-old incel named Jake Davison, who killed five people — among them his mother and a 3-year-old girl — before turning the gun on himself. Apparently he and his mom had argued over his sexist worldview. Police announced they were considering treating the massacre as a terror attack, with a government official saying they were likely to classify incels as terrorists if more violence of this nature occurs. Because Davison had often expressed his hatred of women on YouTube and Reddit, authorities also announced plans to vet the social media profiles of anyone who had a registered firearm or applied for a gun license. 

Meanwhile, given our Second Amendment culture, the U.S. seems unlikely to scrutinize gun owners the same way. But Robert Aaron Long’s killing of eight people in and around Atlanta massage parlors this past March, most of them Asian women, once again raised the issue of how courts try criminals fueled by misogynist hatred. Long insists his attack wasn’t racially motivated but an outcome of his professed “sex addiction.” Georgia prosecutors are seeking the death penalty under the state’s relatively new hate crime law, which includes the category of gender, though they’re also arguing that Long targeted his victims by race. 

But while Georgia is empowered to punish Long for the anti-women element of his violence, Ohio could only depend on federal intervention for that. I reached out to the FBI for comment on how the Bureau is assessing and monitoring the domestic terror threat posed by incel extremists. I also wanted to know if there was a focused effort underway to prosecute hate crimes against women specifically, and whether they have assisted state-level law enforcement in that regard. The Bureau, however, didn’t reply.

They’re certainly aware of incels, however: In 2020, their New York Joint Terrorism Task Force brought a complaint against David Kaufman, another Elliot Rodger-admiring incel who harassed a Long Island couple he knew from college, hounding them with rape and death threats for a year. Like Genco, he was initially arrested and charged with misdemeanors by the state, with the FBI then moving to build a case at the federal level, ultimately charging him for stalking and threatening interstate communications. The same task force investigated Malik Sanchez, who this month pleaded guilty to carrying out a hoax bomb threat at a Manhattan restaurant in February, with the Justice Department labeling him an incel.

“Incels are one of several domestic terrorism movements now very much on the radar of the FBI and other counterterrorism agencies,” writes Jacob Ware in an email. 

Ware is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who studies terrorism and extremism, and he’s the co-author of a national security column titled “Incels: America’s Newest Domestic Terrorism Threat.” He explains that incels shouldn’t, in theory, present many unique problems for far-reaching agencies like the FBI. “Whether Salafi-jihadist or white supremacist or incel, the average terrorist today is a young man, radicalized online and inspired by ideological predecessors, who remains in his country of origin and attacks a soft target,” he says. 

But there are common challenges across that spectrum: “Even most ISIS attacks were so-called ‘lone wolf’ or ‘lone actor’ incidents, consisting of individuals breaking away from online forums to commit real world attacks.” This raises difficulties “because, short of ‘profiling’ certain individuals, there are very few sure ways through which to predict and interdict the next attack.” Often, Ware says, agencies rely on aspiring lone wolves to share their plans with another extremist who then tips them off.

This got me thinking about how Genco had been caught in the first place — his mom called the cops due to his erratic behavior — versus the picture given in a Justice Department release in July, when Genco was charged with a federal hate crime and possession of a machine gun. Nowhere in the document does it mention that, following his 2020 arrest, he’d been tried only for making a terroristic threat, sentenced and released after serving a short term. The document stated that he “​​conducted surveillance at an Ohio university” — almost certainly OSU in Columbus — but not, as the Cincinnati Enquirer reported the next day, that he had applied to college since getting out of jail. Overall, the wording of the account makes it sound like Highland County authorities had been directed to Genco’s house in October 2020 by the FBI and ATF, who then presumably spent the next 15 months developing their indictment. The national headlines — absent when Genco was first arrested in March 2020, amid the frenzy of COVID-19 coverage — now trumpeted the feds’ bust, leaving out the local story.

A casual reader of these articles would be forgiven for assuming the big counterterrorism agencies had snared Genco through sophisticated, if unspecified, means. But that’s not what happened. “We actually contacted [federal law enforcement] the night we arrested Tres,” Collins tells me. “Initially, they told us they weren’t interested in the case at all.” Then, she says, they got interested in the bump stock — the device that made Genco’s semiautomatic rifle capable of firing like a machine gun. “They had the entire case by the time I presented it to the grand jury. I have absolutely no idea why it took them so long to indict the case. But they were made aware of the crime on the night we discovered the crime,” she says.

Ware notes that the delay has a range of possible explanations. “The FBI might have been gathering evidence, particularly as merely being an incel is not a crime,” he says, or “gathering information on any broader network in which Genco was active. Genco may have been enrolled in some state or local ‘deradicalization’ program, which authorities wanted to allow to play out.” 

Collins, however, is frustrated with how the feds handled things. “We made ourselves available to them, and we provided them with our entire case file from the beginning,” she reiterates. “After about six months we had no further communication from them until […] they did press releases terrifying the citizens in Highland County who didn’t realize Tres had already been prosecuted, convicted and served his entire prison sentence.”

* * * * *

Collins had done everything she could to hold Genco accountable. “He was sentenced to one month less than the max. There is nothing the state can do to keep him from applying to college that I am aware of,” she says, pointing out that higher education is usually encouraged to rehabilitate criminals.

“It would be nice if federal law enforcement took this more seriously,” she continues. “Federal law carries a much stronger sentence than state law.” 

But, as Ware says, the challenge “comes from lone actors, who usually don’t share their plans publicly and therefore offer little opportunity for interception.” While there is nothing stopping the FBI from copying tactics seen in cases of Islamic extremism — like the use of informants to report planned attacks or help orchestrate fake terror plots — “the major question is whether incels display enough coordination and organization for such a move to be effective.”

Indeed, it’s scary to consider the sheer luck it took to arrest Genco when the Highland County sheriffs did. He’d already communicated with fellow incels on a web forum; modeled himself on Elliot Rodger; written a manifesto proclaiming his intent to “slaughter” women; attended a few months of Army Basic Training (he was “discharged for entry-level performance and conduct,” according to the Highland County Press); acquired multiple firearms, ammunition, a bump stock and bulletproof vest, along with a skull mask and a hoodie imprinted with the word “Revenge”; scouted a potential location for the shooting; and researched Columbus police and university police scanner codes. 

(OSU representatives have declined to confirm that theirs is the university mentioned in the federal indictment. I reached out to several sorority presidents at the school, but none have replied to comment on the case. Neither did the Department of Justice or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio.)

What thwarting the terror plot came down to, in Collins’ view, was a tight-knit community. “Luckily we live in a very small county, so odd things tend to stick out, and citizens have no problem making a report if they feel that something isn’t right,” she says. 

But the fact remains: Had Genco not frightened his mother badly enough to call the police on him, he might have found his chance to carry out a shooting. It’s unclear, too, whether he’d be facing life in prison on a federal hate crime charge were it not for the seizure of his bump-stock device — the detail that Collins says finally got the FBI and ATF to step in. Of course, an AR-15-style rifle and handgun alone are enough for a massacre, and since the latter had no serial number, it seems as if, even leaving aside the bump stock, Genco knew how to procure or modify weapons illicitly. What would have stopped him from doing the same after his initial release?

Today, Genco stands to be made an example. With formidable charges and a damning list of allegations backed up by a wealth of evidence, the highest offices in U.S. justice and law enforcement are saying they can prevent incel terror wherever it may threaten us and that they won’t hesitate to punish its foiled culprits as they would someone who had managed to shed blood and take innocent lives. 

Read between the lines, however, and it becomes clear that something is lacking, despite what Ware describes as a large shift in U.S. counterterrorism from international to domestic concerns, including incels. Communication between federal authorities and state law enforcement on this particular threat is one likely problem. Another is the inconsistent patchwork of hate crime laws across the U.S. Our laxity on guns hasn’t helped. And then there’s the lack of a single unified approach to, or operating theory about, the broad anti-women extremism of the manosphere. Eviane Leidig, a research fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, recently argued that existing models are “outdated” where it comes to “non-traditional” threats such as incels and the current landscape overall.    

Finally, Ware says, as agencies attempt to deal with misogynist groups, the potentially radicalizing influence of the pandemic has worried extremism researchers. It may have a “profound” effect for incels, he adds, “given that loneliness, isolation, boredom and too much time spent online are actually grievances in the ideology itself.”

Whatever strategy the feds develop in the future, they’ll have to do better than they did on Genco to satisfy Collins, who hasn’t forgotten their dismissive attitude the night that she and other Highland County officials warned them that he was dangerous. “They were completely uninterested,” she recalls. “They basically said, ‘Good job, guys,’ and that was it.”