When Henry Hoeft decided to join the foreign legion in Ukraine, he pitched his local newspaper on the story. The result for the 28-year-old was a PR coup: A glowing front-page profile in the Columbus Dispatch.
The piece described him, appealingly, as “as a former infantryman in the U.S. Army and half-Ukrainian on his father’s side.” And it enabled Hoeft to pose as an important actor on the global stage: “We feel like if we can hold Putin for long enough,” Hoeft told the reporter, “we can possibly stop a world war.”
Hoeft insisted that he was committed to the cause: “I will be there for as long as it takes.” And the Dispatch played up his personal sacrifice, quoting him as saying, “This is who I am.” The publicity helped Hoeft raise at least $5,000 on GiveSendGo (the Christian fundraising alternative GoFundMe) to fund his foreign escapade.
But the noble narrative about standing up to Russian aggression concealed a darker tale, as the true story of Hoeft’s identity is far more complicated, and far less pleasant. Hoeft has deep ties to the militant Boogaloo Bois movement, which seeks to spark violent unrest. And his now infamous misadventure in Ukraine offers a cautionary tale about lionizing Americans who are pulling up stakes and seeking to insert themselves into a war zone.
Hoeft is known by the alias Henry Locke among the Boogaloo Bois, a loosely organized, heavily armed revolutionary movement that expresses its violent aims through an ironic filter. The name derives from the oft-memed 1980s break-dancing movie sequel Breakin II: Electric Boogaloo. According to the Justice Department, “The term ‘Boogaloo’ itself references an impending second civil war in the United States and is associated with violent uprisings against the government.”
Hoeft’s well documented Boogaloo background isn’t the only strike against his character. Far from staying in Ukraine to the bitter end, as he vowed, Hoeft has already gone viral for a video announcing his decision to cut and run. In the clip, he makes dire allegations, including that his life was threatened for deciding to leave, and that he had to masquerade as an aid worker to make it back across the border into Poland. “We had to get the fuck out of there,” Hoeft says in the video. “People need to stop fucking coming here. It’s a trap and they’re not letting you leave.”
Hoeft’s claims are already being circulated as propaganda for the Russian side; a prominent extremism researcher has tracked the video across forums on Telegram and the Russian social media platform VK that use Hoeft’s claims to mock foreign fighters in Ukraine. His video has also been blasted as disinformation by one erstwhile brothers in arms, who called the video “100 percent completely false” and the product of Hoeft’s bitterness at failing a vetting process to join the fight.
Hoeft could not be reached for this story. The TikTok account he’d been using to document his journey to Ukraine is now defunct. A Twitter handle previously linked to him, @HenryLocke16, is suspended. He did not respond to an interview request via Facebook. A message left through a GoFundMe he appears to have launched in 2021 while he said he was recovering from a gunshot was not returned.
Internet researchers who document extremists have tracked Hoeft for years, pulling alarming images allegedly from his social media feeds, as well as from local police scanners. How did the Dispatch miss Hoeft’s extremism? According to a top editor, the paper’s due diligence, which included a criminal background check, simply failed to turn up his alias.
The irony is that the Dispatch, itself, had quoted and photographed Hoeft — going by Henry Locke — at a heavily armed Boogaloo Bois “unity” rally at the Ohio state capitol in Columbus in January 2021, just a few days after the assault on the U.S. Capitol where several Bois were arrested. Reportedly an organizer of the Columbus protest — which was countered by the presence of state police and the national guard — Hoeft sported an assault rifle, and a cache of high-capacity magazines.
The Boogaloo Bois’ flavor of libertarian, anti-law-enforcement anarchism can be hard to peg on the left-right political spectrum. And as if to heighten the cognitive dissonance, Boogaloos mark themselves flamboyant Hawaiian floral prints. (Hoeft wore a floral covid mask at the statehouse protest.) The movement’s goofy symbols belie dark beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center has traced racist origins of the “boogaloo” coinage — noting that the term “is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can come to power and build a new fascist state” — though SPLC cautions that the wider Boogaloo Boy movement is “not exclusively premised on pursuing white supremacist ideas.”
The Dispatch awkwardly retconned its profile to weave in mentions of Hoeft’s Booglaoo links. And the piece continued to offer the militant the benefit of the doubt, quoting Hoeft as saying he’d distanced himself from the extremist movement. Lark-Marie Anton, a spokesperson for the newspaper’s parent company Gannet, said in a written statement: “We regret the error and immediately revised the story to reflect that Henry Hoeft previously used the name Henry Locke and has been associated with the far-right group known as the Boogaloo Bois in the past.”
But there’s reason to question Hoeft’s alleged turn away from extremism. Hoeft traveled to Eastern Europe with prominent leader of the Boogaloo Bois movement, Mike Dunn, a gun-rights militant from Virginia, whose habit of openly defying the state’s gun laws got him featured by Vice. (Dunn did not respond to an interview request.)
Dunn has become a controversial figure in the Boogaloo movement because he allegedly reported a fellow extremist, David Phillips, to federal law enforcement. But Dunn was interviewed on video by an independent journalist shortly before his departure for Ukraine, and he insisted that taking up arms against the Russians “is in the spirit of the Boogaloo movement and embodies those ideals.”
Speaking of his fellow travelers, Dunn added that “the Boogaloo movement is going to be represented over there by individuals who have given more to the movement than anybody crying online has” — a dig at those he Boogaloos he said who aren’t “willing to give up their life for their rights, they’ve just been posting online.”
For Hoeft, the excitement of arriving in Ukraine was almost immediately undermined by the harsh realities of joining under-funded foreign fighters. In his viral video Hoeft said he’d tried to hook up with Georgia National Legion, a group of foreigners on the Ukrainian side largely made up of fighters from the country of Georgia. But Hoeft said they didn’t have much to arm new recruits with: “They’re tying to send us to Kiev with no fucking weapons, no kit, no fucking plates,” he said. “The people who are lucky enough to get weapons are only getting magazines with like 10 fucking rounds.”
When his group of fighters refused their deployment, Hoeft alleged, “they told us we had to get the fuck out or they were going to shoot us in the back.” Hoeft then claimed he “fucking hid in the back of an ambulance” to get a ride to border, where he alleged that Ukrainian authorities at the crossing to Poland were intercepting fighting aged men and were “cuttin’ up passports” and “sending you back to the front.”
Hoeft alleged he was bailed out by a humanitarian group that helped camouflage him as medical staff. “We got in, like, Red Cross vests and they had like fucking humanitiarian passes to get us through the Ukranian border,” he said, warning other’s not to come, because, “it’s a trap.”
It’s unclear what platform Hoeft originally used to post the video, but it was soon grabbed by Twitter accounts that saw Hoeft’s message as favorable to the Russian side:
“It’s a trap, they’re cutting up our passports and sending us to the front”.
American volunteer complains of mistreatment by Ukrainian forces – those he came to fight for – and claims losses suffered by foreign volunteers are being understated by Ukrainian authorities pic.twitter.com/Mz0Z8qMRCh
— 🇷🇸☦ Милош Обилић #1244 ☦🇷🇸 (@Milos1389Obilic) March 15, 2022
As Hoeft’s message spread, Dunn soon posted his own TikTok, blasting his Boogaloo brother’s “misinformation.” That TikTok account has since gone dark, but not before Rolling Stone downloaded a copy of Dunn’s video.
Dunn appears haggard in the clip. “You have to excuse me, I’m pretty sick right now. But I am alive,” he says. “I’ve been in and out of Ukraine twice in the last three or four days…. I’m with a local militia unit. I’ve had no issues with my passport being torn up.”
Dunn said he also tried to hook up with the Georgian fighting unit, and insisted he’d never felt in danger. “The Georgia National Legion never threatened to kill me or harm me in any shape form or fashion,” he said. “I can’t illegitimitize [sic] Henry’s story 1,000 percent, but I can say from my own perspective that it didn’t happen to me.”
For his part, Dunn revealed that he’d been rejected from that unit. “They were not fond at all of people with an Internet existence,” Dunn said. “Obviously, I have an extensive Internet existence… and I left the Georgia Legion about two days before Henry did.”
The Virginia militant had harsh words for Hoeft. “I will not call it cowardice, but I will say that none of the stuff he described in the video happened to me. Obviously, his (video) is going to be used as anti-Ukrainian propaganda, which I am not for.” Dunn added, “I’m still here in Ukraine,” but clarified that he now expected to leave within a month.
Adding to this fog of war videos, another American on the ground in Ukraine, Harrison Jozefowicz, a former Chicago cop who claims to be with “a humanitarian organization” working directly with Georgian Legion, released a pair of videos calling Hoeft’s claims “completely false.” He blamed Hoeft’s tale of cut up passports on “mass paranoia.”
“We have a vetting process,” he said. “Henry Locke… did not pass our vetting process.” Jozefowicz characterized Hoeft’s viral video as “direct retaliation” for “being rejected.” But he insisted: “That’s exactly why we have a vetting process — to stop those kind of mindset people from getting here.”
For those who analyze extremism professionally, the misadventures of two Boogaloo Bois in Ukraine fit into a broader, more troubling framework, in which international conflict zones attract exactly the wrong type of people.
“Hoeft and Dunn underscore the problem of extremists joining the larger populations of volunteers,” writes Rita Katz Director of SITE Intelligence Group. “The world is pulling for Ukraine,” she adds, “but a free flow of unvetted extremist militants into a conflict always creates problems beyond one country.”