Local JCC Bomb Threats Being Investigated As Hate Crimes

The head of the FBI Minneapolis office said that recent bomb threats called into the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park and the St. Paul JCC are being investigated as hate crimes with religious bias.

The statement from Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton came at a Wednesday afternoon event at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center that also featured acting U.S. Attorney Greg Brooker, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, U.S. Attorney’s office criminal and civil division chiefs Tracy Perzel and Ana Voss, and Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Steve Hunegs.

Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Steve Hunegs, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, FBI Minneapolis office Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton acting U.S. Attorney Greg Brooker, U.S. Attorney’s office criminal and civil division chiefs Tracy Perzel and Ana Voss, appeared at the came at a Wednesday afternoon event at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center on March 15, 2017.

“We consider this a national investigation,” Thornton said, adding that he was able to share limited information because the investigation is ongoing. “We’re utilizing resources across the FBI, and we are working closely with state, local and international partners to resolve this.”

Thornton said that since Jan. 3, there have been more than 130 telephone-based bomb threats. He said the threats appear to be the same caller, electronically altering their voice, and making reference to explosives at the site. Thornton said to date, no device has been recovered.

Since March 6, there have been more than 20 e-mail-based threats sent to Jewish Community Centers and other organizations, including the Israeli Embassy. Thornton said he does not consider Juan Thompson, the Missouri man arrested and charged with several e-mail threats, to be the perpetrator in all of the e-mail threats.

“A bomb threat against a Jewish Community Center is a threat against each and every one of us,” said Brooker, who became the acting U.S. attorney for Minnesota last Friday when his boss, Andy Luger, was asked to resign.

“This is an opportunity to defeat these malicious people and it lies in the fact of our unity together as Minnesotans,” said Hunegs. “We have an opportunity to act together.”

Axtell lives a block away from the St. Paul JCC, where he is also a member. He took the Feb. 20 threat against the building personally.

“The call created terror among children, the elderly and community members, and we’re working to address the fear it created in the community,” he said. “We will put all of our resources available to ensure this doesn’t go unchecked. It helps us attack these issues on a unified front. I’m encouraged by momentum and partnerships that have come out of this.”

Hunegs said that incidents of anti-Semitism, unfortunately, aren’t new.

“There’s been 3,000 years of anti-Semitism; This is nothing new with respect to in Jewish life around the globe, as sad as it might be,” he said. The good news is, as you can see at this table, we enjoy a terrific working relationship with law enforcement.”

Axtell said that bias and hate crimes have been underreported in the past, although acknowledged it’s been more of a topic lately. He has been working to encourage the community to report such issues.

According to the JCRC, there were 12 reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2015, 21 in 2016, and already eight this year.

Lon White, the Sabes JCC’s chief counsel for security and resiliency said that with respect to that building’s evacuation on Jan. 18, it was a fairly routine process – especially for the school and pre-school-aged kids in the building.

“They exercise and drill on a monthly cycle for our all-hazards program,” White said. “We’ve worked hard to make it routine and feels as non-disrupted as possible. I think parents felt the most impact.”

Said Hunegs: “What we are hearing is that people are calm. There is resolve in the community. Nobody is panicking. It’s a reflection of the JCC’s excellent training. We’re proud of the evacuations, which seemed to go very smoothly and everyone played their important role in the situation. [There was] calm, composure and resolve in the face of these threats.”

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About Lonny Goldsmith

Lonny Goldsmith is the editor of TC Jewfolk and Director of Communications for Jewfolk Media. He's an award-winning journalist who is involved in his third Jewish community after growing up in Michigan and spending a three-year stint in Chicago. He likes to write, cook and drink really good beer. He can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @lonny_goldsmith

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