On Lion Controversy

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 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.

New Times has also learned that Gibson recently received a letter in the (postal) mail from an anonymous person claiming to be the actual sender of the open-season-on-Senator Leslie message. "I received a packet in the mail," explains Gibson, "and a phone call from someone claiming to be the true perpetrator. He sent me some computer print-outs and said that it proved conclusively that someone other than my client did it." Gibson, a First Amendment attorney who calls himself "computer illiterate," forwarded the print-outs to the FBI, and didn't make copies.

Gibson says he asked the anonymous confessor, "Well, why don't you belly up to the bar if you done it?"

"You'll never catch me," the caller replied, explaining that he didn't trust the government and couldn't afford an attorney anyway. "And then he became very upset when I told him my client had already confessed," adds Gibson.

Albert Locher of the Sacramento D.A.'s Office says he's heard about the hard-copy files in the FBI's possession but hasn't seen them yet.

Saavedra blames his troubles on leaky security at Primenet. He claims that he hadn't used his account since last October, and thinks that someone illicitly got ahold of his password and user login.

Jim Lippard, who, as manager of Primenet security, released Zuma's account records to the FBI, is skeptical of Saavedra's claims. Given Saavedra's assertion that he hadn't used his account since last fall, Lippard says, "I find it very suspicious that he called to complain almost immediately after we canceled his account" earlier this year.

However, Lippard does point out that most of the time the Zuma account was accessed not from El Paso, where Saavedra was attending school, but from Los Angeles. He concedes that if someone else had learned (or been given) Saavedra's password and login name, he could have used Saavedra's Internet account from just about anywhere. And among computer hackers, there is a brisk traffic in contraband Internet passwords.

Talking to Saavedra on the phone, it's hard to reconcile the naive college kid with the political provocateur of the Internet. In addition to the notorious mountain-lion message, Zuma's byline turns up in dozens of equally incendiary--and puerile--messages, usually aimed at conservative politicians. In one such message, titled "Celebrate the Death of Conservatives," Zuma deadpans that "[g]roups are now being formed around the USA to celebrate the [pending] death or other personal tragedy of" GOP ideologues ranging from Jesse Helms to Pat Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh.

Browsing Zuma's postings, it's clear that the messages are calculated to infuriate. And that, say the First Amendment watchdogs who have taken up Saavedra's case, places the "threats" in the realm of political satire. Regardless of who sent them.

"It's very clear that this is protected speech," says Ann Brick, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union office in Sacramento. "This is political rhetoric and satire, and nothing more." Brick cites a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision--Watts v. United States--in favor of a Vietnam war draft resister who declared at a protest rally in Washington, D.C., that if the Army handed him a gun, the first person "in my sights is LBJ."

"Just like the Watts case," says Brick, the Zuma flame "is in the context of political controversy; it is part of a political dialogue and not a true threat. As the First Amendment tells us, we don't have to be polite in our speech. We can be caustic, we can be outrageous."

To be sure, free-speech protections have no bearing on the other issue in the Saavedra case--the claim that a person's right to privacy was violated, leading to an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.

Brick has a word of caution on that point, too. "The Saavedra case tells us that we need to be extremely careful before we start pointing the finger and leveling criminal charges based on information that may not be correct in terms of who is sending a message." Saavedra says he's wary of opening a new Internet account and is checking to see what security measures providers offer.

"A lot of them really don't have that protection in there," he says, "that blockade of your personal information.

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John Whalen