On Lion Controversy

Politician who favors mountain-lion hunting gets Internet death threats; but did FBI arrest the wrong Web browser?

When Jose Saavedra signed up for an Internet account through Primenet, the Phoenix-based online provider, he had no clue that he had set in motion a series of events that ultimately would land him in a jail cell on felony charges. But that's exactly what happened.

A college freshman at the University of Texas in El Paso, Saavedra was arrested last May on a no-bail warrant charging him with making death threats to a California state official. As he stewed for 13 days in a Texas jail cell, the Sacramento District Attorney's Office initiated extradition proceedings.

And all for an electronic message traced to him through Primenet. It is a message Saavedra says he neither wrote nor sent.

That message, bearing his e-mail address--zumaoPRIMENET.COM--WAS ELECTRONICALLY DISPATCHED TO A PASSEL OF POLITICAL USENET GROUPS--DISCUSSION FORUMS ON THE INTERNET--IN EARLY MARCH. REFERRING TO A CALIFORNIA STATE SENATOR'S EFFORTS TO PLACE AN INITIATIVE ON THE STATE BALLOT LEGALIZING THE HUNTING OF MOUNTAIN LIONS, THE MESSAGE OFFERED A RATHER CAUSTIC PROPOSALo "Instead of hunting lions in California," it began, "let us declare open season on state Senator Tim Leslie, his family, everyone he holds near and dear, the Cattlemen's Association and anyone else who feels that lions in California should be killed.

"I think it would be great," the missive continued, "to see this slimeball, asshole, conservative moron hunted down and skinned and mounted for our viewing pleasure. . . . Pray for his death. Pray for all their deaths."

A few days later, in response to a query from a California journalist, "Zuma" posted a "clarification" to the Internet: "Do I recommend that we hunt down and kill Tom [sic] Leslie and his family? NO. Not as long as it is illegal to do so. . . . Would I be happy if some nut actually did such a thing? YES, just like a German Jew would have celebrated the death of Hitler."

When Senator Leslie, a Republican from northern California, learned of the postings, which he interpreted as explicit "death threats against me," he alerted the California Department of Public Safety. The FBI followed the electronic footprints on the e-mail message to Primenet of Phoenix, which sells Internet access accounts throughout the country. Hand-delivering a subpoena issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento, FBI agents ordered Primenet to turn over Zuma's account information, including his home phone number. A month later, Saavedra was behind bars in El Paso on felony charges of making terrorist threats and threatening the life of a public official.

Saavedra, a 19-year-old music-studies major, insists he is innocent. And if he's telling the truth--and New Times has learned of several recent developments in the case that suggest he may be--his story is a cautionary tale for the information age. It illustrates how information on the Internet can be manipulated and misconstrued, and how law enforcement officials can act on that misleading data.

And whether Saavedra is actually the source of the e-mail message, the incident also raises hot-button First Amendment issues about the distinction between protected political speech and politically motivated threats.

"When the FBI explained to me who this person was," Saavedra says, referring to Senator Leslie, "I had never heard of his name; I had never heard of what he's done." As a matter of fact, adds Saavedra, speaking to newtimes.com by phone from the El Paso electronics store where he works, "I pretty much don't care about political issues."

The electronic trail that led officials from Sacramento to Phoenix to El Paso may not have been the stuff of an open-and-shut case, but the FBI managed to slam-dunk a confession from the confused 19-year-old in his parents' home, before he had even thought to find an attorney. Saavedra maintains that FBI agents manipulated him into confessing to an alleged crime in which he had no part.

"The FBI told me," he explains, "that if I didn't confess, they were going to extradite me to California immediately, and that I'd be in jail for quite a long time. And to be honest, I was quite scared when they told me that. I panicked--I didn't know what to do. They made a negotiation with me, saying that if I did confess, they'd drop all charges. I didn't have any other way to get around it, so I told them I did it."

A month later, law enforcement officers returned to the Saavedra house with a felony warrant for Jose Saavedra's arrest.

Two recent developments tend to bolster Saavedra's claims of innocence. First, late last month, the Sacramento D.A.'s Office quietly downgraded the felony charges to misdemeanor offenses, expunged Saavedra's case from the National Crime Information Center database, dropped the extradition request and canceled the fugitive warrant. According to Albert Locher, assistant chief deputy district attorney, the charges were reclassified as less serious offenses because the D.A.'s Office learned that Saavedra had a clean background and, apparently, no motive. Per Saavedra's lawyer, Michael Gibson, the Sacramento D.A.'s Office told him it plans to "let the misdemeanor charges sit--they won't pursue it any further."

So after Saavedra spent two weeks in jail, nearly lost his job, and had his name plastered around the Internet and in the mainstream press in connection with "felony" death threats, the case against him has all but evaporated.

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