US files charges against teen accused of JCC bomb threats
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Florida indictment says he made 245 threatening calls, most of them to Jewish community centers and schools

US files charges against teen accused of JCC bomb threats

Allegations against Israeli-American youth, whose identity in Israel remains under gag order, include making threatening calls and cyberstalking

Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to  one of the bomb threats, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)
Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to one of the bomb threats, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

The US Department of Justice said on Friday it had filed charges against an Israeli-American teenager accused of making over 200 bomb threats against mainly Jewish institutions in the United States.

The teen, whose identity remains under gag order in Israel, was arrested last month in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon after a joint investigation by Israeli and US authorities, including the FBI.

On Thursday an Israeli court extended his remand until April 24.

The 18-year-old living in Israel left scores of messages graphically describing children’s deaths in calls to Jewish community centers and schools across the United States, using an online calling service to disguise his voice as a woman and hide his identity, according to the federal indictment filed Friday in Florida.

He was charged with 28 counts of making threatening calls and conveying false information to police, according to the indictment filed in federal court in Orlando.

Separately, he was charged with three more counts of making threatening calls, conveying false information and cyberstalking in an indictment filed in federal court in Athens, Georgia.

The calls to the Jewish community centers and schools stoked fears of rising anti-Semitism and led to campus evacuations.

Online federal court records in Florida showed no attorney listed for the suspect.

The Florida indictment said that he made 245 threatening calls, most of them to Jewish community centers and schools, from January to March, using an online calling service that disguised his voice and allowed him to hide his identity. He recorded each of the calls himself and kept them in organized files at his home in Ashkelon, along with news articles describing the police responses to the threats, the indictment said.

He also paid for the online calls using the semi-anonymous currency Bitcoin. A large antenna at his apartment building allowed him to make long-distance, outdoor wireless connections, the indictment said.

The Florida indictment said recordings of the calls stripped of the software-enabled disguise revealed a speech impediment in the caller’s voice that matched his.

The Georgia indictment connects him to several incidents of “swatting” in which authorities are called to respond to an emergency that ends up being fake. The indictment alleges that in January the University of Georgia Police Department received a phone call about a home invasion that ended up being untrue.

The JCC Association of North America said in a statement that it welcomed the charges and that it was “enormously proud of the extraordinary commitment to safety and security” at the community centers.

“Today’s charges into these violent threats to Jewish Community Centers and others represent this Department’s commitment to fighting all forms of violent crime,” US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “These threats of violence instilled terror in Jewish and other communities across this country and our investigation into these acts as possible hate crimes continues.”

FBI Director James Comey added: “This kind of behavior is not a prank, and it isn’t harmless. It’s a federal crime. It scares innocent people, disrupts entire communities, and expends limited law enforcement resources. The FBI thanks our partners for working with us here at home and around the world.”

The suspect, said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth E. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, “allegedly took extraordinary steps to conceal his identity and location through several technological means, including voice alteration, use of proxy IP addresses, virtual currencies and caller ID spoofing.”

A wave of bomb threats to American Jewish institutions since the start of the year helped spread fear amid an apparent increase in hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts in the United States. Some said that the rise of Donald Trump as US president encouraged the extreme right and emboldened hate groups.

Shira Nir, a lawyer of an American-Israeli teenager suspected of calling in fake bomb threats to Jewish community centers across the world, shows the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court what she says is an image of a cancerous growth in her client's brain, on March 30, 2017. (Flash90)
Shira Nir, a lawyer of an American-Israeli teenager suspected of calling in fake bomb threats to Jewish community centers across the world, shows the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court what she says is an image of a cancerous growth in her client’s brain, on March 30, 2017. (Flash90)

The arrest of a Jewish teenager over dozens of the threats complicated the debate, however.

He is also alleged to have made threatening phone calls over the past two to three years targeting schools and other public institutions in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In addition, Israeli police say he is suspected of a bomb threat to Delta Airlines in February 2015 that led to an emergency landing.

His lawyer has said that he has a brain tumor and suffers from autism. His parents have also argued that he is unfit to stand trial, though they have apologized for his alleged actions.

During Thursday’s remand hearing, the teenager’s parents asked the court to replace their son’s attorney with a public defender, but the defendant insisted that his current lawyer, Shira Nir, remain on the case, Channel 10 reported. The court ruled that Nir should remain the suspect’s counsel.

“After I saw documents related to the suspect’s past, I decided to ask his parents to bring a private psychiatrist to the prison, in order to help clarify that he is not fit for detention,” Nir told Channel 10. She said the suspect’s father refused to pay for a private psychiatrist and subsequently asked the court to replace her with a public defender.

AFP contributed to this report.

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