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Michigan man charged with threatening synagogue massacre


DETROIT — A 19-year-old Michigan man has been charged with threatening a mass killing at a synagogue on the fifth anniversary of the massacre at two New Zealand mosques by a white supremacist gunman, federal officials say.

Seann Patrick Pietila of Pickford, a township in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was arrested Friday and charged with transmitting a communication containing a threat to injure another, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Prosecutors say he planned to target the Shaarey Zedek congregation in East Lansing.

He allegedly made threats on social media, including Instagram, that included comments about neo-Nazi ideology, antisemitism and glorifying mass shootings, most notably the 2019 shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, The Detroit News reported.

Pietila was arrested the same day a truck driver was convicted of storming a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and fatally shooting 11 congregants in an act of antisemitic terror. The attack at the Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history and came after the attacker had ranted incessantly on social media about his hatred of Jewish people.

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Rabbi Amy Bigman of Shaarey Zedek said the synagogue had notified its congregation of 220 families after learning Friday afternoon about the investigation from FBI agents, and that an arrest had been made and that person had been charged.

“We wanted our congregation to know that federal, state and local authorities are aware of the situation that didn’t happen because our law enforcement was on top of things, which we are thankful for,” Bigman told The Detroit News.

She said the synagogue was maintaining its usual security measures as it headed into Saturday’s services.

The investigation began with a tip earlier this week that someone was making threats on Instagram to commit a mass killing, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court.

When FBI agents arrested Pietila at his home Friday, they found a cache of weapons, knives, tactical equipment, a red-and-white Nazi flag and makeshift plans for killing members of the Shaarey Zedek congregation on March 15, 2024, according to the complaint.

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The Michigan case focuses on numerous antisemitic social media posts allegedly made by Pietila. Prosecutors say he made apparent references to the New Zealand shooter, who is serving life in prison for killing 51 people and injured 40 others in the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks.

Pietila is being held temporarily without bond pending a detention hearing Thursday in federal court in Grand Rapids. If convicted, he faces up to five years in federal prison.

His lawyer, Elizabeth LaCosse, declined to comment Friday to The Detroit News.

U.S. Attorney Mark Totten said in a statement that he’s “incredibly grateful to the FBI for their swift action to identify and arrest Pietila.”

“Antisemitic threats and violence against our Jewish communities — or any other group for that matter — will not be tolerated in the Western District of Michigan,” he added. “Today and every day, we take all credible threats seriously.”

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Published: 2023-06-19 00:26:06

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