Videos posted to YouTube threatening a US Circuit Court judge and a deputy US marshal have landed a Rhode Island man in federal custody.
According to a criminal complaint filed in US District Court for the District of Rhode Island, the FBI received an anonymous tip about the videos on Dec. 27. Three days later, the US Marshals Service (USMS) arrested Peter Zendran, 41, of Cranston, Rhode Island, who allegedly filmed and uploaded the clips.
“Zendran is well known to law enforcement,” the complaint says, noting that Zendran has a history of mental illness. “He has numerous contacts for simple assault, disorderly conduct, obstructing police officers, trespass and destruction of property. He espouses anti-police, anti-government, anarchistic views.”
A LinkedIn profile in Zendran’s name says he was a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies from 2003 to 2008. A Brown spokesperson, however, says Zendran never worked there. He has been arrested previously for, among other things, trying to destroy a giant Hanukkah menorah outside Providence City Hall.
On Dec. 17, Zendran published a video he filmed outside the home of a USMS court security officer, identifying the officer by his full name and stating his exact address. Zendran described the officer, whose name suggests Italian-American ancestry, as a “guinea pig,” and “dago dog,” and said he has a “one-way ticket to hell.” In the video, Zendran claimed that he has been persecuted by law enforcement for his Zoroastrian beliefs.
“See how easy this fucking pig can be taken out?” Zendran said.
He then launched into a tirade focused on US Circuit Court judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, who is on a panel reconsidering the death sentence handed down to convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
A few days earlier, Zendran had shown up outside a court hearing in which Tsarnaev’s lawyers were arguing to have his death sentence thrown out.
“If you got a problem with my sign and my defending Tsarnayev (sic) you can drop dead,” Zendran wrote in a blog post. “If you want me to voluntarily stop using that sign let the feds know to let me file my amicus brief and access other cases I have there.”
Zendran’s next video, also published to YouTube on Dec. 17, seemingly picked up where the first left off.
“Still think I don’t know what I’m talking about that Tsarnayev event?” he said. “Crooked Marshals and how they fucked up? Well, speaking of fuck ups…”
Zendran turned the camera to the outside of Thompson’s home, in front of which he was now standing. He used vulgar, racially inflammatory language to describe Thompson, peppered with profanities. Zendran did not communicate Thompson’s street address in this video as he had in the last but two days later, he published it on his blog with a hyperlink to a map, writing, “Not only is it easy to get to, this is a rough area of Cranston/Providence and any judge living there should have better protection.”
After identifying Thompson’s neighbors by name and accusing them of being bomb makers, he said they deserved a “shanking,” a prison term for a stabbing.
When Zendran was arrested for the YouTube threats, he was already facing charges for threatening to blow up a hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. During that encounter, Zendran “spoke of terrorist attacks and mass shooting incidents specifying that Rhode Island was long overdue for a mass shooting,” according to the complaint.
There were 45 prosecutions for threats against federal officials in 2018, a 41%, increase from the previous year (2019 figures are not yet available). It was the highest rate in the past two years, but down 8% compared to 2013. A 2011 study by Nathan Kalmoe, now an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, found that “even mild violent language increases support for political violence among citizens with aggressive predispositions, especially among young adults.”
About 75% of those people who appear on the Secret Service’s radar after making political threats suffer from some sort of mental illness, according to the Justice Department.
Putting these people in jail is “a last resort,” former Secret Service agent Angela Hrdlicka told Quartz in a 2019 interview. “Oftentimes, they need mental-health treatment, and they’re not going to get any better in jail, she said.
US courts have tried to strike a balance between the government’s desire to protect officials and Americans’ free-speech rights. The difference between a threat and political speech hinges upon whether a “true” threat was made “knowingly and willfully,” according to federal law.
To that end, tech entrepreneur Matt Harrigan said he was just kidding around when he wrote a Facebook post a few days after the 2016 election: “I’m going to kill the President Elect. Bring it secret service.”
A short time later, the Secret Service showed up.
Harrigan told Quartz he was questioned, put through a psychological screening, and his home was searched. He wasn’t arrested, but the incident did cause Harrigan to lose his job at the company he founded.
Zendran remains in detention, pending a psychological evaluation and his next court appearance. Rebecca Aitchison, Zendran’s public defender, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update: Links to YouTube videos mentioned in this article have been removed. Previously, this article was updated with comment from Brown University.