In the wake of a controversial decision this month to drop the felony intimidation charge against David Joseph Lenio—a 29-year-old White Nationalist who tweeted threats last year to shoot up a grade school in Kalispell, Montana, and “put two in the head of a rabbi,” then retrieved a weapons cache—the Investigation Discovery channel will premier the next installment of “Hate in America,” which explores the growing movement of strong-man worshiping populists, nativists, and armed anti-government militants across the country through the lens of Montana’s Flathead Valley.
In “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” which premiers Thursday, March 24 at 8pm ET / /7pm CT, Emmy Award-winning journalist Tony Harris introduces America to this beautiful valley nestled outside Glacier National Park.
The case of David Lenio is opening up many questions about the criminal justice system and White supremacy. Specifically, questions about how terroristic threats are treated when the person making them comes from a wealthy White background versus someone who is low-income or a person of color.
Armed and Ready
On December 30, 2014, the day he arrived in Montana, Lenio tweeted several times that he felt so angry at being economically disadvantaged that he wanted to “shoot up” a grade school in Kalispell. This short-order cook and snowboarder who falsely claimed to be destitute and homeless but who is actually the son of influential banker Remos Joseph Lenio, who co-founded the private investment bank Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids, blames a Jewish conspiracy for his sense of being disinherited from his economic birthright. He bragged that, in retaliation for his supposed life of poverty, he could kill more people than the 20 school kids and six adults who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.
Here is one of his tweets from the day he arrived in Kalispell, threatening Kalispell school children and teachers: “I David Lenio am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.” There are only five elementary schools in Kalispell.
From then until his arrest six weeks later, he obsessed about mass shootings and terrorist attacks – which he invariably claimed were hoaxes and false-flag operations perpetrated by Israel or the federal government.
By February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the American economy, stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. “USA needs a Hitler to rise to power and fix our #economy,” he tweeted, “and i’m about ready to give my life to the cause or just shoot a bunch of #kikes …”
Calling for a Chapel Hill-Style Mass Shooting of Jews
Lenio also seized on the February 10 murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to call for a Chapel Hill-style mass shooting of Jews in retaliation for those murders and for his sense of economic disempowerment. On February 13, he tweeted: “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.” He added, “Best way to counter the harm #jewish #politics is causing is #ChapelHillShooting styling [sic] killing of #jews til they get the hint & leave.”
“I bet I could get at least 12 unarmed sitting ducks if I decide to go on a killing spree in a #school,” he tweeted on February 12th. “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”
The same day, he tweeted, “What do you think costs more in most U.S. cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 100 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment,” he tweeted. Then he wrote: “What would I rather do? Be a #wage slave for the rest of my life or tell society fuck you & do your kids a favor by shooting up a #school?”
‘I Bet I’d Take Out At Least a Whole Classroom’
Two days later he expressed a desire to emulate the shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – in which a White man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting three Muslim students – Lenio wrote: “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 #mental health.”
The line between free speech and true threats is crossed when one goes beyond scapegoating and conspiracy theories to threaten the indiscriminate shooting of 30+ school kids and teachers, as well as threatening to put two bullets in the head of a rabbi (of which there are only two in the Flathead Valley) to salve a sense of economic grievance and to advance White supremacy. There is also reason to believe that Lenio planned to put his murderous ideas into action.
Police found that on February 15, just after I reported his threats to law enforcement, Lenio had retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from his storage locker. He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest – along with extra ammunition clips and jugs of urine.
The First Amendment protects unpopular, crude, and controversial speech. But First Amendment protection is not absolute. Certain speech acts, such as extortion, false advertising, and true threats which would make a reasonable person fear violence and take precautions are not protected. Nor should they be.
In the Lenio case, the threats resulted in a nationwide effort involving FBI, police, and sheriffs from three states. Flathead County schools contacted every parent to let them know that the schools had enacted a security plan to respond to the Twitter threats, and extra police and sheriff deputies were deployed to guard the schools. When parents received the calls, they were scared for their kids, as any parent would be. And, for the first time ever, the Flathead Valley’s synagogues hired security guards.
As Rabbi Fancine Green Roston and I wrote in the Flathead Beacon, “Each of us writing this piece knows what it is to be threatened by Lenio. One of us (Francine) is one of only two Flathead Valley rabbis and has kids in the local schools. Lenio tweeted to the other of us (Jonathan) to ask where his kids go to school. Lenio crossed the line between hate speech and hate crime.” However, we presciently titled our op-ed “David Lenio Reloaded?” because the justice system was already bending over backward to show Lenio undue leniency—unlike other defendants.
In the “Hate in America” series, produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions for the Investigation Discovery channel, former CNN news anchor and Emmy-winning journalist Tony Harris teams with noted civil rights advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), to showcase stories from the organization’s files, including the David Lenio case, which SPLC’s HateWatch has reported on in detail.
Why did the justice system give David Lenio preferential treatment by releasing him into the custody of his wealthy banker dad without bail in July 2015? Why did the authorities fail to act when Lenio violated his release conditions at least 348 times in August 2015 even though 37 other Flathead County Detention Center residents had been rearrested for violating their release conditions? Why did the prosecutor and judge keep delaying the trial and finally agree to drop the felony charge of intimidation against him without any meaningful conditions? And what could be the significance of those jugs of urine in Lenio’s van? Those are topics about which I plan to write more extensively in the future.The same week Lenio received a deferred prosecution, a 24-year-old mentally ill transient in Oregon (who actually was homeless, unlike Lenio, who merely pretended to be while enjoying expensive snowboarding jaunts in the nearby resort in Whitefish) got 18 months in prison for making Facebook threats against unnamed police officers. In the Oregon case, the offender, Timothy Loren McCoy Fleming, didn’t possess a real, working gun; he had an inoperable pellet gun. In contrast, Lenio had fetched a working semi-automatic pistol and a working semi-automatic rifle along with a busted bolt-action rifle and spare ammunition clips after making his threats specifically against a Kalispell grade school as well as threats to put “two in the head” of a rabbi, in a Montana valley where only two rabbis reside.