Was the 4th of July Shooting Politically Motivated?
“The Awake I always knew was politically completely indifferent.”
Bennett Brizes refers to Robert E. Crimo III by his rapper name when discussing his longtime online friend. Crimo was arrested on Monday in connection with the Fourth of July parade shooting that killed seven people and injured 30 others in Highland Park, Illinois. Early reports on Crimo have noted his attendance at a Trump rally alongside other inferences as evidence of an ideological extremist. But multiple online friends insist to Rolling Stone the Crimo they knew was more apolitical troll than extreme ideologue.
Brizes, like the other online friends interviewed for this story, said that while Crimo, who was also known to his online friends as “Bobby,” clearly struggled with mental health issues, they were completely unaware of the carnage he was planning offline — and, they admit, missed signs, both of his violent turn and of any possible ideological motivation behind it.
Still, the 22-year-old’s acquaintances are adamant that, while they associated with Crimo in recent years, they completely condemn his violent actions. “He sucks,” Brizes says bluntly. “But I was his friend. Trying to hide that is not something that I can do.” (Rolling Stone reviewed numerous videos, photographs and Discord chat logs provided by the individuals interviewed for this story to verify their connection to Crimo.)
Nodfather, an independent producer who developed a years-long relationship with Crimo on the messaging platform Discord, said he’s “absolutely disgusted” by what took place Monday. He spoke at length with Rolling Stone about his sporadic relationship with Crimo, which began online in 2016 after the two began collaborating on music. “I was just making lo-fi music and beats for people — just trying to send them out to artists that I enjoyed,” he said. Not long after, Crimo shared that he was creating a collective for artists called “Sleepy Squad.”
Sleepy Squad members communicated and shared their work via a Discord server named “S.S.” — an abbreviation many news outlets pointed to as evidence of a potential racial- or fascist-leaning motivation for the shooting. “I know a lot of people online are trying to, for some reason, link it to the [Nazi] S.S., which it’s not. It’s just an abbreviation. That’s all it is,” Nodfather said. “We were all just friends making music together on the Internet. A lot of us are just nerdy kids who grew up playing video games and hung out online.”
Nodfather, who asked that only his alias be used, claims that the original logo was a “bed and the concept of ‘sleepy squad’ being lofi and lofi is full of beats to sleep/study to,” referring to the popular meme. “That was the inside joke because we were all ‘sleepy lofi boys.’”
“I believe it to be 100% a coincidence,” Brizes adds. “There were a lot of really great people in that collective that would never rock with something like that.”
Crimo lived his entire life online, friends insisted. “Pretty much everybody [he was friends with] was online,” Brizes said. “I don’t think he ever even mentioned an IRL friend besides his ex.”
“I knew that there was something in his head that was messing with him,” Nodfather added. “In all honesty, a lot of it was him being self-isolating.”
Nodfather said he and Crimo had drifted apart in recent years. In the interim, Crimo took up a new hobby: fashion design. The unifying image was a striking logo: Four triangles arranged around a diamond in a cross-like shape. “I remember him showing me drawings and stuff like that — and I was just kind of, like, ‘That’s cool, dude. I’m proud that you’re focusing on something,’” he said. Despite feeling some relief that his introverted friend discovered a new way to channel his creativity, Nodfather couldn’t shake the image of Crimo’s logo from his mind. “The logo was what really stood out to me,” he said. “It was weird. It was really fucking weird.” (It’s worth noting that many modern right-wing extremists have often cloaked fascist symbols in memes, irony and internet double speak, finding refuge for their ideology on forums such as 4chan.)
Since news of his arrest broke, nearly all of Crimo’s online footprint — which included the Sleepy Squad Discord, a self-published booklet on Amazon, two Twitter accounts, a YouTube page, an Instagram profile, a Soundcloud account and a verified artist profile on Spotify — has been wiped from the internet. Before going offline, several Awake the Rapper tracks boasted over a million streams on the platform, with one song topping over two million listens. (A Spotify spokesperson declined to comment, but confirmed that the company had removed “the content in question.”) In spite of the takedowns, a vast archive of Crimo’s videos still remained available on a nondescript Blogspot as of press time.
In one since-removed video where he repeatedly refers to himself as a “sleepwalker,” Crimo suggests he had arrived at a sort of emotional precipice, unable to control the unrelenting urges building up inside him. He uploaded the video to two different platforms under two different names in November of last year. On Vimeo, he titled the video “are you awake?” — but the YouTube version was given a much more ominous title: “just do it.”
“My thought is unnecessary. I know what I have to do,” he says in the clip, which features the angular logo he designed for himself superimposed over images culled from his other social media postings. “Nothing can stop me — not even myself.” other videos linked to Crimo showed disturbing imagery, such as a crudely animated school shooting. Ten months ago, Crimo also uploaded an untitled video featuring footage of the parade route.
Yet on the Sleepy Squad Discord, his friends say, Crimo’s posts and behavior were far from troubling, instead reflecting the post-ironic, off-color internet speak popular among terminally online youth. “He would make fun of the whole ‘uwu’ culture — like ironically make fun of them and pretend to be a weeb,” Nodfather explained, referring to an emoticon often used by anime devotees. “We all grew up watching Adult Swim and kind of have a different sense of humor.”
Another puzzling piece of digital ephemera that could give insight into Crimo’s mental state is a 23-page-long booklet he self-published in February 2021. Before Amazon removed its listing, an image preview showed the text was comprised entirely of random numbers sequences. When asked about the work, Crimo’s friends were unsure of its significance, but insisted the book was most likely a deliberate esoteric art piece. “He was into symbology, but he never explained it to me. He just briefly brought up he was writing a book,” Nodfather explained. “It makes way more sense for it to be an art piece to get people to start talking.” Brizes is also convinced the text was intended as a work of outsider art and dismisses the possibility it contains hidden messages about the shooting. “I don’t know, maybe it was a long play the whole time,” he conceded. “He wasn’t stupid by any means — but to orchestrate something like that is def out of his scope.”
In his scant public social media postings outside of the Sleepy Squad community, Crimo never explicitly referenced alliance to any particular political party or ideology. Still, as images of him draped in a MAGA flag and attending a September 2020 Trump rally outside of Chicago spread across the internet, social media users wondered if the gruesome attack was politically motivated. Others latched onto the geometric logo Crimo designed for his clothing line and frequently used in his music videos, due to its resemblance to a symbol used by the Finnish far-right faction Suomen Sisu.
“The pictures of him being at the Trump rally — I remember asking him about it because he was not a Trump supporter at all, and it threw me off,” Nodfather said. “I was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing there?’ And he was like, ‘Look at my shirt.’ He was wearing a Where’s Waldo shirt. So, he just wanted to fuck with people. He just wanted to be funny.”
By Tuesday morning, information about the victims began to emerge, including a beloved synagogue employee and a grandfather who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. As the families of the victims in Monday’s tragedy attempt to process how and why their loved ones were senselessly gunned down during a day meant for celebration, Crimo’s friends are left wondering if they missed any warning signs — or if they’re forever enmeshed in the act committed by a deeply disturbed individual they once considered a friend.
“He did struggle with a lot of mental health issues,” Nodfather admitted. “But he never gave me any signs to be like, ‘Okay, we need to call somebody immediately.’” He added: “I feel like a lot of the issue with guns is directly related to mental health issues — and this is not talked about enough. I feel like it’s pushing the issue down deeper.”
“I think this was a very clear instance of someone falling through the cracks and losing their grasp on reality,” Brizes said. “With the information I know and the perspective I have, that is the only reasonable conclusion I can come to.”