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Social Media Threats Lead to Federal Investigations and Arrests

— January 29, 2020

Racially-motivated threats on social media lead to arrests.

Northern Burlington, Texas, resident Kenneth Peterson, 21, posted a comment on social media suggesting “all the black people at the school” should be shot, according to authorities.  The post was aimed at Northern Burlington County Regional High School in New Jersey and an investigation ensued after a female student on GroupMe reported the social media threats to her teacher.  A grand jury eventually indicted Petersen charges of bias intimidation, according to Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina.

The comment was made just prior to the students’ graduation ceremony and administrators were worried that something would happen at the event.  The Mansfield Township Police Department patrolled the campus, and as more evidence in the case was gathered, it was determined the students and staff were not in immediate danger.

Authorities also learned that Petersen was attending the University of Texas at the time of his post and access to the group chat was available to anyone with a GroupMe account.   It is not clear what led Petersen to post social media threats targeting that particular student body.  The chat’s creator did not know Petersen, and Petersen’s hometown is some 1,600 miles away from the high school.

Social Media Threats Lead to Federal Investigations and Arrests
Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

“There can never be any tolerance for racially-motivated threats like this and, especially during recent times when we have seen threats escalate to actual acts of violence, law enforcement must respond with the utmost seriousness,” Coffina said. “You cannot hide behind a cell phone halfway across the country while spewing such hatred.”

The investigation was conducted by the Mansfield Township Police Department, with assistance from the BCPO, the New Jersey State Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Tarleton State University Police Department in Stephenville, Texas.

In September of last year, a Florida man was also investigated and ultimately taken into custody after he made threats on his social media accounts towards a political candidate. The indictment  alleged, “threats were made with the intent to injure and intimidate” the victim and caused the candidate to “fear death and serious bodily injury.”

“As alleged in the indictment, this defendant was motivated by racial animus and used his social media accounts to threaten and intimidate a potential candidate for elective office,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen stated. “Although the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to broadcast hateful views online, it does not give license to threats of violence or bodily harm.  We will continue to prioritize cyber threat cases, including those giving rise to civil rights violations.”

“The alleged targeted and racially motivated actions by Daniel McMahon were an attempt to disrupt the American political process,” said David W. Archey, Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). “The FBI remains committed to protecting the civil liberties of all Americans.  We are grateful for the assistance of the FBI office in Tampa and the partnership with the United States Attorney’s Office during this investigation.”

The case was prosecuted by the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Thomas T. Cullen, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, and Trial Attorney Risa Berkower of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.


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