Nov 9 (Reuters) - In Arizona, a stay-at-home dad and part-time Lyft driver told the state’s chief election officer she would hang for treason. In Utah, a youth treatment center staffer warned Colorado’s election chief that he knew where she lived and watched her as she slept.
In Vermont, a man who says he works in construction told workers at the state election office and at Dominion Voting Systems that they were about to die.
“This might be a good time to put a f‑‑‑‑‑‑ pistol in your f‑‑‑‑‑‑ mouth and pull the trigger,” the man shouted at Vermont officials in a thick New England accent last December. “Your days are f‑‑‑‑‑‑ numbered."
Register now for FREE unlimited access to reuters.com
The three had much in common. All described themselves as patriots fighting a conspiracy that robbed Donald Trump of the 2020 election. They are regular consumers of far-right websites that embrace Trump’s stolen-election falsehoods. And none have been charged with a crime by the law enforcement agencies alerted to their threats.
They were among nine people who told Reuters in interviews that they made threats or left other hostile messages to election workers. In all, they are responsible for nearly two dozen harassing communications to six election officials in four states. Seven made threats explicit enough to put a reasonable person in fear of bodily harm or death, the U.S. federal standard for criminal prosecution, according to four legal experts who reviewed their messages at Reuters’ request.
These cases provide a unique perspective into how people with everyday jobs and lives have become radicalized to the point of terrorizing public officials. They are part of a broader campaign of fear waged against frontline workers of American democracy chronicled by Reuters this year. The news organization has documented nearly 800 intimidating messages to election officials in 12 states, including more than 100 that could warrant prosecution, according to legal experts.
The examination of the threats also highlights the paralysis of law enforcement in responding to this extraordinary assault on the nation’s electoral machinery. After Reuters reported the widespread intimidation in June, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a task force to investigate threats against election staff and said it would aggressively pursue such cases. But law enforcement agencies have made almost no arrests and won no convictions.
In many cases, they didn’t investigate. Some messages were too hard to trace, officials said. Other instances were complicated by America’s patchwork of state laws governing criminal threats, which provide varying levels of protection for free speech and make local officials in some states reluctant to prosecute such cases. Adding to the confusion, legal scholars say, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t formulated a clear definition of a criminal threat.
For this report, Reuters set out to identify the people behind these attacks on election workers and understand their motivations. Reporters submitted public-records requests and interviewed dozens of election officials in 12 states, obtaining phone numbers and email addresses for two dozen of the threateners.
Reuters was able to interview nine of them. All admitted they were behind the threats or other hostile messages. Eight did so on the record, identifying themselves by name.
In the seven cases that legal scholars said could be prosecuted, law enforcement agencies were alerted by election officials to six of them. The people who made those threats told Reuters they never heard from police.
All nine harassers interviewed by Reuters said they believed they did nothing wrong. Just two expressed regret when told their messages had frightened officials or caused security scares. The seven others were unrepentant, with some saying the election workers deserved the menacing messages.
Ross Miller, a Georgia real-estate investor, warned an official in the Atlanta area that he’d be tarred and feathered, hung or face firing squads unless he addressed voter fraud. In an interview, Miller said he would continue to make such calls “until they do something.” He added: “We can’t have another election until they fix what happened in the last one.”
The harassers expressed beliefs similar to those voiced by rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, trying to block Democrat Joe Biden’s certification as president. Nearly all of the threateners saw the country deteriorating into a war between good and evil – “patriots” against “communists.” They echoed extremist ideas popularized by QAnon, a collective of baseless conspiracy theories that often cast Trump as a savior figure and Democrats as villains. Some said they were preparing for civil war. Six were in their 50s or older; all but two were men.
They are part of a national phenomenon. America’s federal elections are administered by state and local officials. But the threateners are targeting workers far from home: Seven of the nine harassed officials in other states. Some targeted election officials in states where Trump lost by substantial margins, such as Colorado – or even Vermont, where Biden won by 35 percentage points.
“These people firmly believe in the ‘Big Lie’ that the former president legitimately won the election,” said Chris Krebs, who ran the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security. Krebs was fired by Trump last year for declaring that the 2020 election had been conducted fairly. By terrorizing election officials, he said, they’re effectively acting as Trump’s “foot soldiers.”
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, introduced legislation in June to make it a federal crime to intimidate, threaten or harass an election worker. The bill, which has not come up for a vote, followed a Reuters investigation into such threats published the same month.
“I think we’re on a dangerous path,” Sarbanes said last week when told the threats were continuing with little law enforcement intervention. “We want there to be some effective and sustained push back on this kind of harassment.”
YOU'RE 'ABOUT TO GET F------ POPPED'
Only one of the nine harassers Reuters interviewed wouldn’t reveal his identity: the man threatening Vermont officials. Before reporters started examining him, law enforcement officials had decided against investigating, as many other agencies have done in similar cases nationwide.
Late last year, between Nov. 22 and Dec. 1, he left three messages with the secretary of state’s office from a number that state police deemed “essentially untraceable,” according to an internal police email obtained through a public-records request. The man identified himself as a Vermont resident in one voicemail.
Police didn’t pursue a case on the grounds that he didn’t threaten a specific person or indicate an imminent plan to act, according to emails and prosecution records. State police never spoke with the caller, according to interviews with state officials, a law enforcement source and a review of internal police emails.
Reporters connected with him in September on the phone number police called untraceable. In five conversations over four days spanning more than three hours, he acknowledged threatening Vermont officials and described his thinking.
He soon grew agitated, peppering two Reuters reporters with 137 texts and voicemails over the past month, threatening the journalists and describing his election conspiracy theories.
The man telephoned the secretary of state’s office again on Oct. 17 from the same phone number used in the other threats. This time he was more explicit. Addressing state staffers and referring to the two journalists by name, he said he guaranteed that all would soon get “popped.”
“You guys are a bunch of f‑‑‑‑‑‑ clowns, and all you dirty c‑‑‑suckers are about to get f‑‑‑‑‑‑ popped,” he said. “I f‑‑‑‑‑‑ guarantee it.”
The officials referred the voicemail to state police, who again declined to investigate. Agency spokesperson Adam Silverman said in a statement that the message didn’t constitute an “unambiguous reference to gun violence,” adding that the word “popped” – common American slang for “shot” – “is unclear and nonspecific, and could be a reference to someone being arrested.”
Legal experts didn’t see it that way. Fred Schauer, a University of Virginia law professor, said the message likely constituted a criminal threat under federal law by threatening gun violence at specific individuals. “There’s certainly an intent to put people in fear,” Schauer said.
After Reuters asked Vermont officials about the October threat, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry into the matter, according to two local law enforcement officials.
The FBI declined to confirm or deny any investigation into that threat and others reported in this story. In a statement, the bureau said it takes such acts seriously, working with other law enforcement agencies “to identify and stop any potential threats to public safety” and “investigate any and all federal violations to the fullest."
'I'M A PATRIOT'
Many of the harassers have been radicalized by a growing universe of far-right websites and other sources of disinformation about the 2020 election. Like Trump, they bashed mainstream news outlets and cast them as complicit in an elaborate scheme to steal the election.
Jamie Fialkin of Peoria, Arizona, talked of a grand conspiracy of those controlling the media, the banking system and social media companies. “When you have those three things, you can get away with anything – you can tell people, ‘black is white, white is black,’ and people go, ‘OK,’” Fialkin said.
On the surface, nothing about Fialkin’s biography suggests extremism. A former stand-up comedian from Brooklyn, New York, Fialkin said he has a degree in actuarial science, the study of insurance data. In 2017, he self-published a book marketed as a “survival guide” for first-time older parents. The 54-year-old said he spends most days taking care of his two young daughters and driving part-time for Lyft.
At a 2006 comedy show, he poked fun at his “professional bowler” physique, balding head, and inability to play golf. The self-described Orthodox Jew also took aim at Palestinians and described his political views as “a little more to the right.”
Fialkin said in an interview that he’s no longer in a joking mood.
He believes America is headed for civil war. He endorsed Trump’s false claims that millions of fraudulent votes swung the election to Biden. He said he’s convinced that former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and progressive philanthropist George Soros bought fake ballots from China, another debunked theory promoted by Trump’s allies.
Fialkin blamed one person in particular for Trump’s Arizona loss: Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the state’s top election official. On June 3, Fialkin called Hobbs’ office and left a message saying she’d hang “from a f‑‑‑‑‑‑ tree.”
“They’re going to hang you for treason, you f‑‑‑‑‑‑ bitch,” Fialkin said.
Minutes later, Fialkin left another voicemail in which he recommended a “good slogan” for Democrat Hobbs’ campaign for governor: “Don’t vote for me, for one reason. Back in December, I got hung for treason.”
Fialkin said he never intended to harm Hobbs, but was unapologetic.
“I’m not denying anything,” he said, “because I’m a patriot.”
Fialkin said he changed his Republican voter registration to independent because the party didn’t fight hard enough for Trump.
“I’m like most Americans,” he said. “We’re just waiting to see when the civil war starts.”
Fialkin’s messages were part of a barrage targeting Hobbs. Two others came from Jeff Yeager, a 56-year-old self-employed electrician from Los Angeles, California. Yeager, too, called for her execution.
“When Katie the c‑‑‑ is executed for treason, what are you f‑‑‑‑‑‑ traitors going to be doing for work?” Yeager said in a June 17 voicemail left for Hobbs and her staff. Months later, on Sept. 8, he left another voicemail warning she’d be executed.
Yeager acknowledged leaving the messages and said he didn’t care if Hobbs felt threatened. “If she thinks that I’m a threat to her, I’m not,” he said. “But the public is going to hang this woman.”
Yeager said he sees the mainstream media as full of disinformation; he called Reuters “one of the most evil organizations on the planet.” He said he gets his news from “alternative websites that are not censored,” including social network Gab and Bitchute, a video-sharing site known for hosting far-right figures and conspiracy theorists.
“Everything we’re being told is a lie,” he said.
In an interview, Hobbs said the threats by Fialkin, Yeager and others have been “emotionally draining” for her and her staff. The messages from Fialkin and Yeager were sent to the FBI, her spokesperson said. Some threats triggered a security detail, Hobbs said.
Jared Carter, a Cornell University law professor specializing in constitutional free-speech issues, said the threats by both men could be prosecuted under federal law. “In light of the multiple voicemails from the same person, and the overall tone of the messages, a court could find them to be true threats,” Carter said.
Election administrators such as Hobbs are part of a broader array of public officials targeted by Trump supporters. The day before Yeager spoke with Reuters in September, he said, two FBI agents visited him at his Los Angeles home to discuss threats he made to two national politicians: Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of whom denounced Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection. He said the FBI agents produced transcripts of his calls to Pelosi and Romney. Yeager said the transcripts quoted him as saying “we will kill you.”
The agents instructed him how to lawfully express his political views, Yeager said, and left without arresting him. “I’m not making any more calls to anybody,” he said. “I may have crossed the line in one sentence, but I’m no danger to anybody.”
Spokespeople for Romney and Pelosi declined to comment on Yeager’s threats.
INSPIRED BY TRUMP
Others who threatened election officials told Reuters they were directly inspired by Trump or his prominent allies, who have denounced specific election offices nationwide for allowing voter fraud, turning them into targets.
Eric Pickett, a 42-year-old night staffer at a youth treatment center in Utah, said his anger boiled over after watching an Aug. 10 “cyber symposium” held by pillow magnate Mike Lindell, a Trump ally who has pushed false election conspiracy theories.
Pickett said he paid close attention as one of the symposium’s speakers, Tina Peters, a Republican clerk in Colorado’s Mesa County, criticized Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. Griswold has been leading an investigation into Peters over a voting-system security breach in Mesa, one of the state’s most conservative counties. At the symposium, Peters, an election-fraud conspiracy theorist, claimed Griswold “raided” her office to produce false evidence and “bully” her.
None of that was true, according to state officials. Nonetheless, Pickett snapped. He got on Facebook and sent Griswold a message.
“You raided an office. You broke the law. STOP USING YOUR TACTICS. STOP NOW. Watch your back. I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP, I SEE YOU SLEEPING. BE AFRAID, BE VERRY AFFRAID. I hope you die.”
A Griswold spokesperson said the August message was promptly referred to state and federal law enforcement. The threat was reported by Reuters in September.
Pickett said in an interview that he “got wrapped up in the moment.” He was surprised Griswold found the message threatening and expressed regret for causing alarm.
“I didn’t know they would take it as a threat,” he said. “I was thinking they would just take it as somebody just trolling them.”
Colorado State Patrol, in response to a records request, said they had no investigative reports on the threat. A spokesperson, Sergeant Troy Kessler, said the State Patrol reviewed all messages it received from Griswold’s office and that no one had been arrested.
Three legal experts said the message met the threshold of a threat that could be prosecuted under federal law. “The whole purpose of the threats doctrine is to protect people from not only a prospect of physical violence, but the damage of living with a threat hanging over you,” said Timothy Zick, a William & Mary Law School professor.
Lindell and Peters did not respond to requests for comment.
TARRED AND FEATHERED
Trump’s stolen-election claims about Georgia, traditionally a Republican stronghold, have sparked some of the most serious election threats.
In a Dec. 10 hearing organized by Georgia Republican lawmakers, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani played a short snippet of surveillance footage from Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, which was used as a tabulation site. He claimed it showed Fulton County election workers pulling out suitcases full of fraudulent ballots in Biden’s favor. State investigators and county officials have said the “suitcases” were standard ballot containers and the video shows normal vote-counting.
Ross Miller, the real-estate investor in Forsyth County, Georgia, saw the video. He left a Dec. 31 voicemail for Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron, saying he “better run” and that he’ll be tarred and feathered and executed unless “ya'll do something” about voter fraud. Barron forwarded the threat to police, according to a county email.
However, Fulton County Police Chief Wade Yates said his agency did not contact Miller after concluding the message did not constitute a threat under Georgia law.
In an interview, Miller acknowledged making the call.
“I left the message because I’m a patriot, and I’m sick and tired of what’s going on in this country,” he said. “That’s what happens when you commit treason: You get hung.”
Miller, who said he was in his sixties, said he’s been kicked off Twitter seven times for his views. He follows “Tore Says,” a podcast popular with QAnon adherents whose host, Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, has called for a “revolutionary movement.”
“You've got to stand up,” said Miller. “You're either a patriot for the freedom of this country or you're a communist against it.”
'YOU'RE ALL F------ DEAD'
Some Vermont officials questioned why the man intimidating state officials wasn’t investigated or prosecuted, highlighting a broader national debate over how to respond to post-election threats. In a pattern seen across America, Vermont law enforcement officials decided this man’s repeated menacing messages amounted to legally protected free speech.
The threatener focused on one of the central conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his allies: That officials had rigged vote-counting technology from Dominion Voting Systems to flip millions of votes to Biden.
“Just let everybody know that their days are f------ numbered,” he said in a Dec. 1 voicemail. “There are a lot of people who are going to be executed.”
Around that time, officials at Dominion’s headquarters in Colorado received three unsettling voicemails. “You’re all f‑‑‑‑‑‑ dead,” said one message. “We’re going to f‑‑‑‑‑‑ kill you all.” The caller’s telephone number and voice matched those on the Vermont threats.
The threats to Dominion were referred to the Denver Police Department and the FBI. Denver police failed to identify the caller, a department spokesperson said.
The Vermont secretary of state’s office is located in a historic 19th-century brick Queen Anne-style house in the capital of Montpelier. The staff helps register voters and administer elections in a state with one of America’s lowest rates of violent crime. The voicemails terrified some staffers.
“I had to try to calm people down,” Secretary of State Jim Condos said in an interview. “We were all on edge.”
After the Dec. 1 threats, Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters expressed astonishment that police wouldn’t pursue the caller, according to emails between secretary-of-state officials and police obtained through a records’ request.
“I am trying to make sense of this,” Winters wrote in an email to Daniel Trudeau, the criminal division commander of the Vermont State Police. “If someone makes a veiled threat to come to the Secretary of State’s office and execute only the guilty ones on the election team, without naming names, they’ve not broken the law?” Winters added that he wanted to know “who we’re dealing with.”
Trudeau replied that he had consulted with other officers and didn’t see a crime, because the caller did not specify that he would come to the secretary of state’s office and did not say that he personally would execute anyone.
Vermont’s state police intelligence unit tried but failed to identify the caller. Police examined the number, which bore a Vermont area code, but said it was untraceable, according to an email between state police officials. The unit’s commander, Shawn Loan, wrote to Trudeau saying that the threats could be part of a “larger campaign” and the calls “may have been scripted.” He added that the caller used voice-over-internet technology. Two former FBI agents said such calls can be harder to trace than those made from landlines or cellular phones.
Loan was not immediately available for comment, a spokesperson said.
Vermont State Police didn’t pursue the threatener. Rory Thibault, the state’s attorney in Washington County, which includes Montpelier, supported Trudeau’s decision in a four-page Dec. 15 memo to state police. The messages were “protected speech,” Thibault wrote, because they were not “directed at a single person or official.” They were “conditional” on a “perception of malfeasance in the election process,” and the caller didn’t indicate he would personally inflict harm, he said.
Zick, the William & Mary professor, said a threat doesn’t necessarily have to single out a specific individual to be prosecuted under federal law. If someone calls in a bomb threat to Congress rather than to a specific senator’s office, for instance, “that’s still a threat.”
In an interview, Thibault said Vermont laws pose unique challenges for pursuing such cases because they offer greater protections for individual rights than federal laws. He added that the threats and the rise of extremist rhetoric are leading to a push for tougher anti-harassment laws.
Vermont State Representative Maxine Grad said she plans to introduce a bill in the January session aimed at broadening protections for people who have received criminal threats, such as election workers.
On Dec. 16, a day after the state’s attorney ruled out an investigation, the unidentified caller taunted Vermont election officials in a new voicemail. “All the traitors will be punished” in the “next few weeks,” he said. “Kill yourself now.”
This time, the caller used a different number that appeared to be a pre-paid “burner” phone.
Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete was concerned. “Very disturbing,” he wrote to state police, security and secretary of state officials after reviewing the Dec. 16 threat. “Fits profile of someone who may act.”
Again, state police declined to investigate because the caller didn’t threaten a specific individual, according to police emails.
The phone numbers used by the caller left few clues about his identity. One reverse phone lookup service linked his number to Bennington, a town of about 15,000 people in southwest Vermont. Denver police couldn’t identify the caller, but found “decent information” linking the number to Bennington, according to a Denver Police Department report on the threats to Dominion.
Surrounded by the Green Mountains, the Bennington area is known for its picturesque farm houses, a towering Revolutionary War battle monument and blazing autumn foliage. Less known is that the rural, mostly white town and other parts of southern Vermont have seen a rise in Trump-inspired militia activity in recent years, residents and state officials say.
In April, the town agreed to pay a $137,500 settlement to Kiah Morris, the state legislature’s only black female elected official, who resigned in September 2018, following complaints that Bennington police failed to properly investigate racially motivated harassment against her. Morris declined to comment for this story.
The calls from the still-unidentified man threatening election officials and reporters were referred to the FBI, according to police emails.
Reuters first reached the man on Sept. 17. In a brief interview, he referenced the Dominion conspiracy theory. Asked for his name, he swore and hung up.
A week later, the journalists contacted him again on the same number. He admitted leaving the voicemails to express his “absolute dissatisfaction” in the election. In three subsequent phone interviews on Oct. 6 and 7 that spanned a total of two and a half hours, he opened up about his views.
The man said he believed thousands of fake ballots were cast in Arizona, repeating debunked claims. He said members of the media would face tribunals and be executed like the Nazi leaders who were hung after the Nuremberg trials in the 1940s and that perpetrators of election fraud would be sent to military prison.
He said he lived “in the woods,” and worked in construction. He didn’t own a gun, but said he had “a baseball bat and a machete.” He shared videos from the far-right website Bitchute and said he watched “all kinds of stuff that definitely needs to be investigated.”
Then he turned on the Reuters journalists.
In an Oct. 11 voicemail, he threatened to sue the reporters for obtaining his telephone number from state records. Over the next 25 days, he texted them 91 times, sharing misinformation on the origins of the coronavirus and other conspiracy theories. On Oct. 17, he left the new voicemails at the Vermont secretary of state’s office, including the one threatening that the reporters and election staffers would get “popped.”
The next morning, the caller followed up with more texts to the journalists. “I am going to destroy you and that is a threat.” In multiple texts, he said he would “ruin” the life of one of the reporters. On Oct. 30, he left two more voicemails for them. “You are all going to f‑‑‑‑‑‑ hang. I’m going to make sure of it,” said one. “Bad s‑‑‑ is gonna to happen to you,” said the other. “Your days are f‑‑‑‑‑‑ numbered.”
He also sent the reporters four messages with the same picture: a grainy black-and-white photograph of a public execution that has been shared widely in far-right social media, with a caption claiming it showed “members of the media” hanging in “Nuremberg, Germany.” (In fact, the photo was taken in Kiev, Ukraine, depicting Nazi officers being hung for war crimes.)
The man’s threats and the rise in extremism in Vermont and nationwide since the election are a concern for Peete and his small staff in the Montpelier Police Department.
“It’s something that keeps me and all of us here up at night,” the police chief said.