Imagine you’re American far-right extremist Rob Rundo. You don’t want anyone, especially not law enforcement or a pesky researcher from Bellingcat, to know where you are. You’re somewhere in Europe, facing up to ten years in prison if convicted on charges of rioting and conspiracy in a trial due to start next spring in Los Angeles.
But you’ve got a far-right fashion brand to promote and a tough-guy image to project. You need to constantly post on your multiple Telegram channels without coughing up evidence of where you are. And the photos you posted on one of your Telegram channels on 31 October 2022, modelling a new jacket, are perfect — no one could possibly figure out where you are from looking at them. Or so you think.
Initially, these pictures appear almost impossible to geolocate. They’re portraits that show no cityscapes, signs or identifiable features in the background — avoiding mistakes Rundo made the first time we at Bellingcat pieced together his whereabouts in our 2020 investigation.
There’s no graffiti on the wall that would enable quick identification of the city or neighbourhood, as we were able to do in our 2021 investigation. All we have to work with is one single stripe of red paint and a wall that looks like it could be almost anywhere. Even the background of the photos is deliberately blurred; Rundo said on a US far-right podcast in November 2022 that, in photos and videos he puts out, “we have to edit so that you can’t tell location.”
The thing is, you can tell the location here. And it took us less than ten minutes.
Using Google Street View, we discovered that the wall is that of an apartment building in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. The single red stripe was the only clue we needed. We knew where to look because we had geolocated a photo posted on Instagram by a close associate of Rundo. We then assumed, correctly, that this photo was taken nearby.
He certainly didn’t plan to do so, but Rob Rundo — a far-right extremist with a history of violence facing up to ten years in prison — has given us an unintended lesson on the real power of open source research methods. By thinking laterally and relationally, forming hypotheses based on a subject’s past behaviour, and piecing together seemingly disparate bits of user-generated content into a coherent narrative, even the hardest nut can be cracked.
Why Rundo, again?
The co-founder of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a now-defunct American white supremacist gang, the 32-year-old Rundo was charged in 2018 in relation to violent clashes at several rallies in California in 2017. In June 2019 his case was dismissed by a California judge on the grounds that the Anti-Riot Act under which Rundo was charged was unconstitutional. At some point after this, Rundo left the United States a free man and headed to Europe. Rundo declined to comment for this article but when speaking to supporters and followers on various podcasts since he was first charged in 2018, Rundo has claimed he was acting in self-defence.
In November 2020 Bellingcat revealed how Rundo, awaiting the result of a federal appeal against the dismissal of his case, was building a new base for himself and his activities in Belgrade, Serbia. Less than three months after we published our investigation, Serbian media reported that Belgrade had expelled Rundo from the country.
But as we later discovered, by November 2021, Rundo was back in Serbia. By this time a US federal appeals court had overturned the dismissal of Rundo’s charges. However, his hopes for a successful appeal weren’t yet lost; as his lawyer had petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the ruling.
Unlike the previous two times we’ve written about Rundo, this time something is different. All Rundo’s appeals have been lost — the Supreme Court rejected his petition for appeal in January 2022. His trial is scheduled to begin in a Los Angeles federal courtroom in April 2023. Rundo is being charged on two counts under the federal Anti-Riot Act (aiding and abetting a riot and conspiracy to violate the Anti-Riot Act), each of which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. One of his three co-defendants was booked on the same charges in May 2022 and is being held in pre-trial detention. His other two co-defendants are free on bail, with conditions that include surrendering passports and confining travel to southern California.
Rundo is not known to have participated in any of his court hearings in 2022; a public court document from March even notes that Rundo’s defence lawyer had been “unable to reach and communicate” with him.
The United States Marshals Service is the law enforcement agency responsible for tracking and extraditing people wanted for crimes in the US who have fled abroad. Bellingcat contacted the service and asked whether they were pursuing Rundo and liaising with international partners to locate and extradite him, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Bellingcat also contacted the United States attorneys responsible for prosecuting Rundo’s case, inquiring whether there was any legal reason Rundo was at liberty and whether they could state if a warrant (sealed or unsealed) had been issued for Rundo’s arrest. We had not received a response at the time of publication.
With a Little Help from his Friends
In 2021, Bellingcat’s reporter used a research account to follow the public Instagram account of Grady Mayfield, a 20-year-old San Diego resident and close associate of Rundo. After an investigation by Bellingcat and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in April 2022 into his travels and activities — which included his ejection from United States Marine Corps (USMC) recruit training in 2021 — Mayfield set his account to private. However, Bellingcat’s reporter continued to follow and was able to view Mayfield’s private account, which he appeared to deactivate or delete on 26 October 2022.
On 16 October 2022, after several weeks of posting photos and video from locations in North Macedonia and Greece, Mayfield posted a black-and-white photograph of himself with the caption “On The Road”. Unlike in previous posts, Mayfield did not tag this photo’s location.
Bellingcat was nonetheless able to geolocate this photograph of Mayfield to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. We found the location by comparing the fencing visible in the photo to those in major cities across southeastern Europe, where we strongly suspected Mayfield to be at the time.
Only when Bellingcat began looking at median-separated streets in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, on Google Street View — after having looked at Athens, Belgrade, Skopje and Sofia — did we see the dark-coloured fencing with plants interwoven throughout. After just a few minutes of trawling through Google Street View images in Plovdiv, we found the exact location: a bus stop in the northern part of the city.
This finding prompted us to look for evidence of Rundo’s presence in Plovdiv. On 19 October 2022, Rundo published a short video on the Telegram channel of his far-right fashion brand promoting a sweatshirt that he said in the accompanying text was “coming soon.”
In the video, the camera pans low behind Rundo as two columns resembling Greek or Roman ruins tower above him. He also stands with his back to the camera in front of another column, with an apartment block visible in the background; he ends the video, his face fully exposed, with a mock punch towards the camera.
On 22 October 2022, Rundo published a link to colour photos of himself modelling the new sweatshirt. This clothing line was sold by a French neo-Nazi clothing retailer that we reported on in our May 2022 investigation into online sellers of far-right merchandise. In one of the photos Rundo poses between two columns, with other ruins in the background.
Over the previous weeks, Rundo had posted numerous photos and videos that Bellingcat had been able to geolocate to Greece, which could have led one to conclude these were from Greece as well. But once we had geolocated the location of Mayfield’s photo to Plovdiv, we assumed there was a very strong chance these photos were taken in that city as well, as one of the city’s main tourist attractions are its extensive Roman ruins.
With just a few minutes of searching online, Bellingcat was able to determine that these photos and the video were taken at the ruins of the Roman forum and odeon in central Plovdiv.
“New jackets”, old habits
As noted at the beginning of this article, the three photos Rundo posted on 31 October 2022 are blurred to obscure as much detail in the background as possible. The individual, whose face is mostly hidden, is most likely Rundo. The following day (November 1), Rundo posted a black and white photo of himself, in the same type of black sunglasses and the same brand of jacket but with his face fully exposed and recognisable, promoting what he described as “new jackets.”
Given Mayfield’s photo from the northern part of Plovdiv, Bellingcat decided first to search the immediate vicinity, guided by two clues from the photos. First, we noted the reflection in the sunglasses that showed what looked like parked cars — indicating that the location was not a busy or wide street and looked like the rear of a building or a courtyard. Secondly, despite the attempts at blurring the background, a single red stripe of paint remains visible.
Our assumptions were correct. In less than 10 minutes, and less than an hour after Rundo first posted the pictures, we found the location — right around the corner from the location of Mayfield’s photo. We were able to find it by searching the area in the immediate vicinity of Mayfield’s picture on Google Street View for that single piece of red paint against a light-coloured wall. Other details visible in both Rundo’s photos — despite the efforts to blur the background — and the Google Street View images confirm that this is the exact spot.
Bellingcat’s reporter was also able to visit the location and confirm the geolocation in person. Less than 40 metres away, between two buildings where no Google Street View images are available, Bellingcat also found a wall in front of which Mayfield posed modelling a shirt for Rundo’s fashion brand; these photos were posted on 27 October 2022.
A trip to the gym and a “supporter photo”
On 3 November 2022, Rundo posted a black-and-white video of himself shadowboxing in a small boxing ring. Note the placement of Rundo’s identifiable leg tattoos (also visible in the October 2022 promotional image from Pride France), as well as the visible emblem of the jacket looking identical to the one he was modelling and promoting as “new” just a few days before. These makes it clear the image was reversed. Rundo deleted the video less than four hours after posting it.
We searched for the location based on the previous assumption that it was likely in Plovdiv and, in addition, likely within walking distance of the location of the previous photos. We reviewed profiles and photos available online of local boxing gyms and fitness facilities. Thanks to the image on the wall visible in the background, we soon found the location — Perfect Fitness, approximately 20 minutes’ walk from the location of the previous photos.
Rundo wasn’t done posting photos from Plovdiv. On 7 November 2022, he posted what he called a “supporter photo” on the Telegram channel of his fashion brand, showing an unidentified man with his back to the camera sitting at a bar.
There are few clues in the photo that immediately indicate its location. Still, we again searched based on the assumption that this was likely in Plovdiv. As a menu titled ‘cocktails’ in English is visible in the background, by searching the terms “cocktails Plovdiv,” we were able to find the location after just a few minutes — Rock Bar Download, a popular bar in Plovdiv’s city centre, within a half hour’s walk from the wall photos.
Bellingcat contacted Bulgaria’s interior ministry to ask whether they were aware of Rundo’s presence in the country and whether they were working with American authorities to track, apprehend or extradite him. A spokesperson for the ministry directed our questions to Bulgaria’s national police who told Bellingcat that they were aware of our questions but as they pertained to operational (potentially ongoing) investigations they could not provide comment at the time of publication.
Down but not out in Sofia and beyond
Despite constant efforts to push his name, his brands and his various projects, Rundo remains on the fringes of the far right. His main Telegram channel was banned from Google Play stores and Apple’s App Store in May 2022, meaning users had to download apps directly from Telegram to access it. Rundo’s follower count subsequently dropped from more than 13,000 subscribers in May 2022 to approximately 10,400 subscribers by November 2022, a drop of 20 percent.
“Rundo is less popular than he would like,” Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher with the US-based NGO Counter Extremism Project, told Bellingcat. “Rundo doesn’t have the influencer profile he likely wants, which is also made more difficult by his inability to use mainstream social media easily.”
Rundo’s other Telegram channels aren’t faring well either. A backup “uncensored” channel Rundo created in May still has fewer than 5,000 subscribers as of November 2022; others, including his fashion brands and a new personal channel he began in April 2022, have only a few thousand followers.
However, Rundo’s international presence seemingly allows him to learn from the experience of other far-right movements. On one of his Telegram channels in May 2022, Rundo posted an audio recording of an almost three-hour conversation he had with Alex Davies, co-founder of the British neo-Nazi group National Action, which was designated as a terrorist group by UK authorities in 2016. At the time of the conversation’s release Davies had been convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation and imprisoned, eventually receiving an 8.5 year sentence. Nonetheless, Rundo described National Action as “a pioneer in street youth poltics (sic)” and encouraged his followers to “take notes and learn from what eventually took [National Action] down.”
Accordingly, Fisher-Birch warns that Rundo is still dangerous and is “trying to gain a following within the American extreme right.” Rundo continues to shepherd a model of RAM-styled fight clubs across the US and beyond, targeting young men and recruiting at high schools, gyms and other places. In addition, Fisher-Birch told Bellingcat, Rundo increasingly stresses the need in his output for members to be trained, ready and willing as “warriors” to use physical violence against their perceived enemies.
Bellingcat reached out to Rundo through his Telegram account to request a comment for this article and asked him whether he was legally allowed to be in the European Union, why he had left Serbia and whether he would return to the US for his April 2023 trial. At the time of publication he had not responded to our request.
Rundo, it seems, has been busy with his fashion brand. “We will have one last big arrival of all new items before Christmas so stay tuned,” Rundo wrote on his brand’s channel on 29 November 2022 — once again posting the photo taken in front of the unremarkable wall with a single red stripe in Plovdiv.
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