How a Father With a Twitter Account Stopped a White Supremacist Terrorist from Shooting a Bunch of School Kids
How do you stop a bad man with a gun? How about a good man with a Twitter account? That’s how things played out over the President’s Day weekend.
It began on Saturday night with a single tweet by Jonathan Hutson—linking to a New York Times story about that day’s deadly attacks at a free-speech event and synagogue in Copenhagen—and a torrent of hateful responses, including threats to kill schoolchildren and Jews. It ended with the arrest of a 28-year-old suspect, David Joseph Lenio, late Monday afternoon at Whitefish Mountain Resort, near Kalispell in Flathead County, Montana, just one county east of Idaho, immediately south of the Canadian border. In the interim, Lenio had retrieved two rifles from a storage locker, one a semi-automatic to add to his semi-automatic pistol. If it hadn’t been a three-day weekend, there’s no telling what he might have done before the police and the FBI caught up with him.
“He had motive, and he had means,” Hutson told Salon, “and one sheriff’s deputy told me, ‘Thank God it’s Presidents’ Day weekend; because of the holiday we have an extra day to track him down and try to catch him.’ And they did. They also had a plan for the schools, to go on soft lockdown, and have enhanced security. They took it very seriously.”
Lenio is now in jail on felony charges of malicious intimidation and criminal defamation, and on a half-million dollar bond. But it’s easy to see that it could have ended up like another Sandy Hook instead.
“I can tell you as a mom, and as one of two rabbis in the Flathead Valley, this event really rocked the community,” Rabbi Francine Green Roston told Salon. That placed her in the very center of those most targeted by his threats.
“Thank you, Jon. Really, deeply, thank you,” Antonia Malchik, the mother of Whitefish first-grader tweeted Hutson in gratitude.
“I was terrified. It sounds so overblown,” Malchik, a writer, told Salon. “I’m from this area, but we recently moved back from upstate New York, and we lived quite close to Newtown, Connecticut, and ever since that happened … Yeah. I was terrified.”
“Thank you for your kind words, Antonia. I’m hearing from a lot of Montana Moms. I did what any Dad or Mom would do,” Hutson tweeted back.
“But you were paying attention & followed through,” Malchik responded. “For that we’re so grateful, to you & law enforcement.”
“I am a parent of a child in Whitefish, Montana,” another mother emailed. “Thank you for reporting David Lenio’s threats to the FBI. I cannot fully express my gratitude to you for your efforts in this particular situation and for the work you do for the Brady Campaign. Your humble response that you were just a concerned dad warms my heart.”
By day, you see, Hutson is communications director for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a job he’s held since last Dec. 1. But 24/7 he’s the father of a first-grade son, and that’s the role that was really key in motivating him, especially after his hate-filled interlocutor—original identified only as “@PyschicDogTalk2”— asked him where his own children went to school.
“That chilled my blood,” Hutson recalled, and it motivated him to keep working until the suspect, David Joseph Lenio, was safely in custody. By then, he’d already encountered “dozens of threats to execute grade-school kids and Jews.”
“It’s very difficult as a dad trying to explain to my first-grader what was going on,” Hutson reflected. “He got up on Sunday morning and he saw daddy on the computer, and he heard daddy on the phone, and he wanted me to play video games with him. And I wanted to, but I just couldn’t.” The pain was palpable in Hutson’s voice. “So I had to explain to him why I couldn’t play with him, why I had to be stuck on the computer and on the phone. And it broke my heart to shatter his innocence and reveal to him the idea, which was totally novel, that a bad man with the gun would want to shoot grade-school kids. And brag about it on the Internet.”
“His eyes got really wide and he thought about that all day,” Hutson continued. “That night, when I was putting him to bed, he said, ‘Daddy can you tell the police my idea? That man should be locked up for a long time, until he’s much, much better.’
“‘Yes, sweetie, I will,’ [Hutson replied]. And I did.”
While his own child’s safety—and the safety of others like him—was one factor looming large over Hutson, two others were the disturbing nature of the tweets—along with other online content from the same anonymous individual, who had already had one Twitter account closed down on Jan. 5 for violating terms of service—and his own experience as an investigative reporter, which he drew on to distinguish between ordinary Internet trollery and something distinctly more ominous.
Here’s a sample of Lenio’s tweets from just a one-hour period two days before their first encounter, drawn from list Hutson sent to law enforcement:
2:52 a.m. – 12 Feb. “I want to shoot up a school”
2:55 a.m. – 12 Feb. 2015: “Talk mental health all you want but if I must work for piss poor #homeless slave #wages & can’t get property in my homeland..I may kill kids”
2:57 a.m. – 12 Feb. 2015: “I bet I could get at least 12 unarmed sitting ducks if I decide to go on a killing spree in a #school Sounds better than being a wage slave”
3:38 a.m. – 12 Feb. 2015: “USA needs a Hitler to rise to power and fix our #economy and i’m about ready to give my life to the cause or just shoot a bunch of #kikes…”
3:50 a.m. – 12 Feb. 2015: “If I had to pick between being homeless or shooting up a school and becoming dead, I’d say shooting up the school… Social security my ass”
“The tone and the pace of his tweets was frantic,” Hutson said. “He was tweeting obsessively at all hours of the day and night, becoming increasingly unhinged over a 72-hour period.” Hutson spent hours sifting through the tweets, culling the examples that were threatening from the ones that were merely offensive, creating a list of tweets “that would be relevant to a law enforcement officer.” He didn’t want to report it in a way that would be “sorted into the free speech bin,” he stressed. “The issue is not, ‘Hey, I’m offended,’ the issue is ‘Hey, this is threatening, and this is specific, and this guy is increasingly unhinged,” he explained. “It was threatening imminent violence and he was being specific and graphic.
“I’m relieved that instead of clicking on the radio or firing up the Internet and reading about school shooting in Kalispell, we’re reading about a dangerous man who has been locked away from the community and no longer has guns in his hands,” Hutson reflected. “I thought, if I don’t stay up and keep on this guy, to bring him down and he goes through with his threat, I won’t be able to bear that. And that’s what I tried to communicate to the sheriff in Oregon. And even after it turned out that this man had no tie to their tiny town, or their county or their state, they stayed with the story, because they got it, and they made sure that the police in Michigan and Montana got it, too.”
As he was putting together his list of tweets to make his case to law enforcement, Hutson was also looking for clues about the then-unknown tweeter’s identity, interests, habits and location.
“While I profiled this gentleman, I told the FBI and local law enforcement that the man threatening to shoot up a school and a synagogue was a young and athletic white supremacist, worked a low-paying job, probably in a restaurant, possibly as a cook, and that he enjoyed snowboarding and marijuana, and that he owned more than one gun,” Hutson said. “I said they could track his IP address through his Twitter account. [Which proved crucial in apprehending him.] I said he had a history of negative experiences with mental healthcare.”
Hutson then ticked off all the ways that had proven true. “When they arrested this white supremacist, he had just finished a day of snowboarding in Montana. He had marijuana and a pipe in his van (along with jugs of urine). He worked as a cook in a local restaurant, and had three guns. He had on Sunday retrieved ammunition and two rifles—a bolt-action and a semi-automatic—from his storage locker. His father, who lives in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area told Michigan police that he believed his son was mentally ill.”
He was less successful in identifying where Lenio was. Mistaking Lenio’s invocation of the white nationalist fantasy homeland “Cascadia” for an actual place—and reinforced by Lenio’s retweeting a tweet from Sen. Ron Wyden, saying “Happy Birthday, Oregon”—Hutson’s first guess was Linn County, Oregon, about 70 miles south of Portland in the Willamette Valley, home to an unincorporated community, and a state park named “Cascadia.” So Hutson first contacted the FBI office in Portland. Followed by the Linn County Sheriff’s Department, sending them an email with a culled collection of 37 tweets, including the ones listed above.
“There’s a Holocaust-denying bigot on Twitter who appears to be experiencing suicidal ideation–specifically, thoughts of suicide by cop—and who is tweeting that he wants to shoot and kill 30 or more ‘grade school children’ and Jews because he is angry at being homeless and ready to give his life ‘for the cause,’” Hutson wrote. “Over the past 72 hours, he has apparently become increasingly unhinged.”
Hutson also examined Lenio’s online videos, and interactions with other like-minded individuals. The picture that emerged from these was not as frantic as the recent Twitter record, but it was clearly disturbed. “It seems that he’s intelligent, but it seems to me that he’s mentally ill,” Hutson said. “He’s intelligent, his ideas are sophisticated, although illogical.” Indeed, while his thought processes showed disturbing content, they could be seen as potential evidence either of mental illness, or of a sophisticated epistemological strategy.
At the time, Hutson was focused entirely on the former, concerned with the very real threat of imminent violence. He even reached out to other white supremacists, to see if they could help identify or locate @pyschicdogtalk2. He figured they might help, since his threatened execution of school kids would be terrible for their cause. It didn’t pan out, but Hutson was willing to try anything that might help avoid a tragedy.
Yet, it’s a mistake to think that only crazy people think the way Lenio did. The point was addressed head on by Rachel Carroll Rivas, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network. On the one hand, “It is important to note that there are only a few actors in these larger extremist movements that act violently on their legitimate frustrations of economic insecurity,” she said, but “it is also important to remember that while some of those violent actors may struggle with mental health instability, the ideology of these movements can make everyday people spin deeper and deeper into the fear, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories to the point of violence.”
Now that Lenio is no longer an imminent threat, we can look at that same online material to see what it can tell us about how that ideology works to warp people’s understanding. Rivas said something more that drives home how important this can be. “Just like far-right extremists succumb to conspiracy theories that give simple answers to complex questions, society as a whole does the same when placing the blame only on the individual and/or their mental state and not on the movement, ideology, beliefs and those spewing hate through the microphones,” she said. “In addition, we vilify those struggling with mental health issues when we call all of these violent actors ‘crazy.’ There is more to it and it behooves us to understand and stand against these beliefs and movements of the extremist right.”
Precisely because Lenio’s online ideological ramblings are so uneven, crude in some ways, sophisticated in others, they provide an interesting way to approach such material. One of his most telling YouTube creations is “Channel Surfing for 9/11 Truth: A Video Investigation,” a nearly 90-minute video, combining his own ramblings with a variety of video clips from different sources. It provides examples of his muddled, illogical and/or self-contradictory thinking, at a more leisurely pace, so that watching it one can become familiar with the themes, catchphrases and mental tics that obsesses him, as well as the fears and forces he is struggling with.
The video started off to be a short five-minute distillation created for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Lenio explains. But he just couldn’t fit everything into such a compact format. In fact, it takes him almost 13 minutes of multilayered digressions to get to the first clip of his compilation. He makes clear at the beginning that he’s not interested in proving that 9/11 was a hoax; instead he simply asserts it as a fact, citing physical evidence that Popular Mechanics comprehensively refuted long ago, with more recent updating as well. Rather than proving his case, he wants to focus on who would benefit, and how—which, logically, does nothing to prove the underlying assertion—but does make it more psychologically satisfying to embrace.
Similarly, he also says, “Israelis were involved with it, it’s just a fact.” He says there were “some factions” of the U.S. government involved, but, “There were some people that were loyal to another government. And that’s Israel.” Then he adds, “You know when you start talking about Israel, and Jews or whatever, that’s taboo, the Holocaust, or whatever.” In short, he takes for granted a whole constellation of conspiracist beliefs, and he takes the fact that others find this odd, unproven or even unbelievable as proof that he is in the know and others are foolish or ill-informed.
This reflects an aspect of conspiracist thinking that I talked about in a previous story for Salon. Regarding conspiracy theories, the philosopher Brian L. Keeley observed, “These theories throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals plays in the justification of our beliefs. The ultimate point of such theories, then, is to destroy the foundations of how things are known—not just to question specific factual claims.
While engaged in this sort of destructive process, it helps to adopt a “reasonable,” “non-threatening” demeanor, and to the best of his ability, this is just what Lenio does in the video, “Just keep in mind, there’s no hate in this video,” he says, straight-faced. “I’m not saying that all the Jews did it, or whatever.” Then, however, he begins to slip: “But at times some of the things I say, I feel that kind of sounds like skin-headish shit, and like, until I started investigating 9/11, I never thought I’d say some of the things I’ve said about Jews. So, I don’t know, I’ll probably make a video about what I think about Jews, too…. I’m not spreading hate, I just want a real investigation in 9/11.”
“I’m not spreading hate, I just want a real investigation,” it might as well be the GOP’s national motto in the Obama years. But who does he think he is fooling? One can’t help wondering, watching the video. It seems like perhaps he’s trying to fool others, in order to fool himself. Self-deception and redirection of anger and blame reappear again and again in his videos—and more rapidly, in the blink of an eye, in his twitter stream.
At one point he starts out in a place he returns to frequently, commenting on his own poverty and lack of resources, and how it limits what he can do with his 9/11 video. He then imagines what he could do if he had some real power—but this quickly escalates into a brutal fantasy, which he must quickly disavow—but only halfheartedly (“whatever”) and certainly not enough to forgo the pleasure of contemplating his imaginary triumph:
“I’m just a kid whose broke, and dealing with how I’m going to eat… I don’t have a job doing this. I’m just doing this from what I found on YouTube, to show you that the information is out there. And, if I was a lawyer, or somebody, getting paid and had subpoena power to put somebody on the stand and say ‘You’re going to get on the staand and answer these questions’, well, shit would be a lot different. And if I was waterboarding some of these assholes—which I don’t condone, and I think is wrong, you know, whatever, shit would be a lot, lot, lot different.”
Ruminations like these—and others, unrecorded, which must have helped form them—give evidence of a familiar mental landscape of anti-Semitic mythology, which in turn makes some of his tweets chillingly familiar, even as they are wildly at odds with his “I’m not spreading hate” claim:
3:00 p.m. – 13 Feb. 2015: “I think every jew on the planet deserves to be killed for what kikes have done to our #dollar and cost of living Killing jews > wage #slave”
3:04 p.m. – 13 Feb. 2015: “Best way to counter the harm #jewish #politics is causing is #ChapelHillShooting styling [sic] killing of #jews til they get the hint & leave”
Then there’s the added element of systematic denial, which Lenio’s online record shows he not only applies to the Holocaust and 9/11, but to high-profile mass killing like Sandy Hook. And yet he’s ambivalent, because he is so fascinated with spectacles of destruction. Hence we get tweets like the following;
4:14 p.m. – 14 Feb. 2015: “I’m not even opposed to shooting up a random school like that sandy hoax stunt only realer, to voice my displeasure with being a wage slave.”
9:45 p.m. – 14 Feb. 2015: “Now that the holocaust has been proven to be a lie Beyond a reasonable doubt, it is now time to hunt the Nazi hunters.”
He’s also ambivalent on the subject of his own mental health—clearly resenting that it might be questioned, yet simultaneously wearing his state of distress as a PTSD-style badge of honor:
4:17 p.m. – 14 Feb. 2015: “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it #Poverty is making me want to kill folks #MentalHealth?”
4:19 p.m. – 14 Feb. 2015: “No one faults slaves who snapped & violently lashed out at their masters or the society which enslaved them. Why different for wage slaves?”
This fragmented mental landscape was ultimately overwhelming for Lenio, offering no coherent way forward for him. But for a high strategist with a decent income, and none of Lenio’s material existential angst, the way forward is obvious: use this fragmentation and confusion to undermine the existing order, working every angle you can find, in the manner that Keeley suggests.
That’s the path that’s been taken by a far more prominent white nationalist resident of Flathead County, clean-cut Richard Spencer, head of the Virginia-based National Policy Institute, a white nationalist “think tank,” who strives to present his racism with a well-groomed, wholesome facade, as described for Salon by Flathead native Lauren Fox in a September 2013 profile, (“The Hatemonger Next Door”): “We have to look good,” Spencer said, adding that if his movement means ”being part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.”
But that facade is not nearly good enough for other facade-builders on the right, when things get hot enough. Spencer was spotlighted by Rachel Maddow in May 2013, when it was revealed that a researcher previously affiliated with Spencer as a contributor to his online white nationalist magazine had been hired by the Heritage Foundation as part of its team that produced its anti-immigration reform study. Heritage immediately tried to downplay that contributor’s role, and distance itself from his other writings.
While Spencer tries to make racism respectable, and respectable conservatives try to pretend they have nothing in common with him, he can’t help attracting the very sorts of “crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid” people he is trying to distance himself from, particularly since other white supremacist figures who’ve moved into the area continue peddling their more gut-level messages, figures like April Gaede, whom Rivas singled out as a local leader Lenio had interacted with online, and may well have been responsible for drawing him to the area
Flathead County, home to Kalispell (pop.~ 21,000) and Whitefish (pop. ~ 6400), is Montana’s third most populous county, and although it’s been Montana’s most popular destination for white nationalist and assorted hate groups who have moved there over the years, it’s also home to a vigorous community-based countermovement embracing diversity and tolerance, spearheaded by the local group Love Lives Here, which works closely with the Montana Human Rights Network. Although outside leaders like Gaede and followers like Lenio have gravitated to the area over the years, they’ve never been able to tip the community balance—which may be part of the story behind Lenio’s seemingly explosive frustration.
“When the issue comes up, the people of Whitefish have rallied in support of diversity, in support of minorities,” Rabbi Roston said. “That was evident when there was an issue about Richard Spencer. People thought he was going to be opening an office here in Whitefish, and they were concerned. And the town very quickly drafted a resolution. It wasn’t any sort of legal law or statute, but it was just a resolution stating the values of the community. I was very impressed.”
Yet, she’s also feeling quite shaken and vulnerable in the wake of Lenio’s arrest. She’s a transplant from New Jersey where she’s accustomed to security in public meeting places as a matter of course. “There is a culture, as you may know, in Montana of trust … People are very loose with security … People leave their keys in their cars.” Now, for the first time, there will be security at their next public event.
“It’s something that our community has grown accustomed to,” said Tanya Gersh, a longtime lay leader in the local Jewish community. “It seems like every three, four or five years something happens, or someone, or some groups, or something like this that rolls through, and definitely shakes us all up. And we discuss it, and we count our blessings that nothing happened. But it’s not something that we are hung up and worried about. I would say, in general, we feel very, very safe in this community.
“Something we understand is that every once in a while there’s going to be some crazy lunatic that’s going to come through and have his opinions about one thing or another, and that’s something that Jewish people, in general, have been used to forever. Since the beginning of our time, we’ve had this.”
So it’s not a perfect community. But it’s far more hospitable for Jews than it is for anti-Semites. “We’re not dwelling on it. We do feel like it’s a very specific incident, and we don’t anticipate more problems. We’re not sitting home afraid,” Gersh said. “This town does not let hate groups stay.”
So the bigger question is not about Whitefish or Kalispell. It’s about America. Because you can’t say that about America as a whole. Perhaps a human-level, collaborative response in protecting our children would be a place where we could at least make a start.
Now that the immediate threat of violence is over, Hutson hopes others will learn from the experience. “Whether Lenio purchased his guns legally or not, and whatever his mental health evaluation suggests—we should all want to take this as a teachable moment, that there are things we could all do to keep guns out of dangerous hands,” he said, including “terrorists, convicted felons, and the dangerously mentally ill,” such as Lenio. “One of the best ways to do that is through Brady background checks,” Hutson said. “Since Congress passed the Brady law, with bipartisan support, 1993, Brady background checks have blocked the sale of 2.4 million attempted gun purchases by dangerous people. So, background checks save lives …”
“But another is if you see something, say something. Give law enforcement the opportunity to act on a tip from a concerned dad or mom. We can all play a role in making this the safer America we all want. As parents we can ask, ‘Is there a loaded, unlocked gun where my child plays?’ So, for me this is a story about how any concerned citizen can play a role in making this the safer America we all want.”
Given that those thanking him included proud gun owners, perhaps there really is an opening for common sense to help draw people together, and make us all more secure. It’s a good first step toward building wider trust, and finding even more that we can hold in common.