Sometimes all it takes to unlock an open-source investigation is a single digital crumb. A rock face in the background of a photo, a few letters from a storefront sign or — as with American white supremacist Robert Rundo — a single piece of graffiti.
In November 2020, Bellingcat revealed how the 31-year-old Rundo was building a new base for himself and his activities in Serbia. Less than three months after we published our investigation, Serbian authorities expelled Rundo from the country. Since February 2021 his whereabouts have not been publicly known.
Rundo seems to have learnt some lessons from this media scrutiny. Over the last year, on his popular Telegram channel of more than 11,000 followers as well as several smaller channels, he has refrained from posting photos or videos that could conclusively reveal his whereabouts.
That changed on November 8, 2021, thanks to six letters of graffiti in a photo that was only online for seven minutes.
That afternoon, Rundo posted and then hastily deleted a photo of himself from his Telegram channel; Bellingcat was able to download it before it disappeared. One incomplete word of graffiti in that photo led Bellingcat to an apartment building in Belgrade, and right to Rundo himself. Despite being expelled and banned from Serbia — for three years, according to media reports — it looks like Robert Rundo is back in Belgrade, the country’s capital.
Although he was “on the run,” in the words of one of his international far-right comrades, Bellingcat observed Rundo walking openly in the neighbourhood around the apartment building, his face and recognisable tattoos on display.
Serbia’s interior ministry did not reply to Bellingcat’s questions about whether Rundo was able to legally enter the country, nor did the ministry confirm the length of Rundo’s ban. If this American white supremacist is in Serbia legally, it raises questions about why the country’s authorities apparently deemed an expelled individual suitable for reentry less than a year later.
Rundo, riots and RAM
Robert Rundo is the co-founder of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), an American white supremacist gang that saw three of its members imprisoned for violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. As we noted in our investigation in 2020, Rundo reportedly had a history in gang life, 20 months in prison for a 2009 assault where he stabbed a member of a rival gang five times.
RAM focused on physical fitness and combat sports training, all with the purpose of “physically attacking [their] ideological foes.” With their hands wrapped like boxers gearing up for a bout and skull masks hiding their faces, members of RAM violently attacked anti-Trump protesters at Unite the Right in Charlottesville in August 2017 and other rallies in California.
Rundo was arrested in 2018 for his role in the California assaults, and his case soon went to trial. It was initially dismissed by a California judge in June 2019, on the grounds that the law under which he was charged was unconstitutional. Federal attorneys appealed: in March 2021 a US federal appeals court overturned the dismissal of Rundo’s charges, meaning he can be charged again.
In October 2021, Rundo’s lawyer petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the federal court’s ruling. The Supreme Court, as of December 2021, has not yet stated whether it will hear Rundo’s case. If the Supreme Court chooses not to, federal attorneys would be free to re-file charges against him.
Since the dismissal of his case in June 2019, Rundo has spent the vast majority of his time outside the United States. This included appearing at far-right events in Hungary and Bulgaria in early 2020 and, as we noted in our previous investigation, an attempt to make a new base for himself in Serbia.
“…Rob is on the run again”
Less than three months after our investigation, Serbian tabloid Blic (“Blitz”) reported that Serbian authorities had expelled Robert Rundo from the country. Blic stated that Serbian police escorted Rundo to a border crossing with neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he left the country on February 11, 2021.
However, a Bosnian media report claimed that the Serbian authorities had actually tried to expel Rundo the day before, on February 10. That day, according to the same media report, Bosnian authorities rejected Rundo’s initial entry into the country from Serbia on national security grounds; despite this, he was allowed to enter Bosnia the next day. In March 2021, a senior figure in Bosnia’s border police called Rundo “a threat to [Bosnia’s] national security” but claimed that Rundo was initially only rejected from entry into Bosnia because he didn’t have a PCR test.
From late February 2021, when the same Bosnian media source reported he was seen near the Bosnian border town of Karakaj, Rundo’s whereabouts have remained unknown.
By October, however, Rundo was — in the words of one of his international far-right friends — on the run once again. Denis Kapustin, a Ukraine-based neo-Nazi and Russian citizen who uses the surname ‘Nikitin’ publicly, co-hosts an occasional podcast with Rundo.
When asked by a follower on October 27, 2021, in his Russian-language Telegram chat when their next podcast episode would be, Kapustin replied that Rundo was “on the run again” and that he was waiting for Rundo’s life “to get back to a more normal rhythm” before recording another episode. The most recent episode of their podcast was in June 2021.
Despite his self-imposed exile, Rundo promotes a model of what observers have called far-right “fight clubs” — groups of young men that operate like autonomous cells. Like their RAM forebears, they focus on physical training and combat sports in preparation for physical confrontation.
Furthermore, Rundo continues to post on his popular Telegram channel as well as several smaller ones, where he shares racist, antisemitic and homophobic content, including praise of violent far-right figures. In January 2021 Rundo praised Robert Jay Mathews, founder of American white supremacist terrorist group The Order. Mathews died in a shootout with federal law enforcement in 1984, opening fire on officers who had come to arrest him: Rundo called him “one of the great hero’s [sic] of the cause.”
Telegram is also where Rundo promotes his far-right documentary media project as well as his own fashion brand.
On November 8, 2021, Rundo promoted a new product from his fashion brand on his channel.
”Limited new Hoodies , comes with built in “covid” mask to keep to safe [sic] from the virus of surveillance 48$ shipping world wide,” Rundo wrote at 4:38pm Central European Time (CET). The post was first shared on his much smaller (fewer than 300 followers) and newer channel associated with his fashion brand, then shared seconds later on his much larger channel. The post was accompanied by five photos of Rundo modelling the hoodie.
Bellingcat downloaded the five photos immediately after they were posted. They were deleted from Rundo’s main channel shortly after, at 4:45pm CET.
Why he deleted the photo was not immediately clear. However, Rundo appeared to inadvertently clarify matters by reposting a cropped version of the same photo at 5:17pm. Several pieces of graffiti on a dark-coloured door on the right hand side of the original photo were cropped out — including the letters “ZVEZDAR” in red and blue graffiti.
Importantly, the reposting of a cropped photo with the ‘Zvezdar’ graffiti no longer visible suggested that the word could offer an important clue to where the photos were taken.
Bellingcat immediately suspected the photo was taken in Belgrade. While the word zvezdar is a word in some Slavic languages, it is an uncommon one in Serbian — a word for an obscure species of sturgeon — and thus one unlikely to be spray-painted on a wall.
It was more plausible that the graffiti read ‘Zvezdara,’ a district of Belgrade, Serbia, with the letter ‘a’ out of the frame of the photo. That was plausible given Rundo’s previous stays in Belgrade. Moreover, as we noted in our 2020 investigation, Rundo took several photographs that could be geolocated to two nearby areas of Belgrade situated roughly to either side of Zvezdara: Vračar and Karaburma.
Zvezdara is a large municipality, covering more than 31 square kilometres of both densely urban neighbourhoods and the Zvezdara forest (Zvezdarska šuma), the largest wooded area in Belgrade. Bellingcat’s reporter walked through the streets in urban areas of Zvezdara where similar graffiti (i.e., graffiti reading ‘Zvezdara’) had also been seen.
While finding the graffiti might first have seemed a daunting task, it took less than a few hours of walking. On November 21, Bellingcat located the graffiti in front of which Rundo posed in the above photos — on the outside wall of an apartment building in the neighbourhood of Vukov Spomenik — one of the most densely populated parts of Zvezdara. As expected, the graffiti on the door read ZVEZDARA in full.
As will be mentioned below, Rundo has previously re-shared older images and videos on his accounts. This set of images was clearly an exception.
Rundo claimed in the post that he was promoting a new hoodie. This was borne out from an examination of both his Telegram channel and the website of his fashion brand. The exact hoodie Rundo was promoting could not be found in either place before November 8, further confirming the recent nature of the photos.
But it was soon obvious Bellingcat had found more than just the graffiti.
How (not) to disappear completely
When Bellingcat’s reporter first saw the graffiti the afternoon of November 21, they approached the building displaying it and immediately heard what sounded like a male voice speaking American-accented English nearby. Our reporter turned and saw a shirtless man strongly resembling Robert Rundo doing pushups on a balcony, presumably having spoken to someone inside the apartment.
The balcony faces a large public parking lot and several other high-rise apartment buildings, as well as a busy main thoroughfare, a smaller side street up a hill and stairs and paths to other buildings — in other words, a place potentially visible to hundreds of people at any given moment.
Subsequent observations of the balcony and surrounding area, and comparisons with open-source information, suggests that this individual was most likely Robert Rundo. On November 24, 2021, a man strongly resembling Rundo wearing a maroon t-shirt popped out onto the balcony for a few seconds.
On November 28, Rundo posted a 12-second video of himself working out on one of his Telegram channels. Though the video was in black and white and likely older — Rundo was bearded and wearing shorts in the video — there was yet again a piece of graffiti that offered a clue. In several frames of the video, graffiti in the background with the Cyrillic letters “дара” (“dara”) are visible, suggesting once again the graffiti could read ‘Zvezdara.’
The next day, Bellingcat’s reporter found the location of this video about 200 metres away from the balcony where we first saw Rundo; it was in a publicly-accessible courtyard surrounded by several other apartment buildings.
The day before this video was posted, Bellingcat’s reporter had observed a man strongly resembling Rundo working out in this very same courtyard with his face and tattoos exposed.
A Return to the Neighbourhood?
Subsequent examination of photos from his Telegram channel and his fashion brand’s web site made it clear that Rundo is familiar with the apartment building. These images indicate that he spent time in the Zvezdara district before his expulsion from Serbia in February 2021.
For example, in December 2020 Rundo posted a photo modelling one of his t-shirts. It included a woman who has been a model for Rundo’s fashion brand and has appeared embracing him in photos online. Importantly, this photo appears to have been taken from what is the same balcony where Bellingcat’s reporter believed to have spotted him this year.
Was Rundo attempting to conceal his whereabouts by cropping the graffiti from his photographs on November 8?
We contacted Serbia’s Ministry of Interior (MUP) with several questions by email. The MUP confirmed they had received our questions and that they had been forwarded to the relevant department, but did not respond to Bellingcat’s questions by press time about whether Rundo would have been able to enter Serbia legally; when we followed up with the Ministry by phone on December 2, a MUP spokesperson declined to answer our question about Rundo’s legal status. The Ministry also did not clarify the length of Rundo’s ban from the country. A Bosnian media report from March 2021 stated that the ban was for three years — in other words, a ban that would not expire until February 2024.
Rundo did not reply to Bellingcat’s request for comment.