Calif. man arrested in threats against lawmaker

Posted Jan. 12, 2011, at 4:33 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 12, 2011, at 6:18 p.m.

SEATTLE — A California man was arrested Wednesday on a charge that he made threatening, obscene phone calls to the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott last month, weeks before a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona.

An FBI complaint unsealed in federal court said Charles Turner Habermann, 32, of Palm Springs called the Seattle Democrat’s office late Dec. 9 and early Dec. 10 and left two messages, each about four minutes long, after seeing him on television.

He began each message with his name and phone number and went on to threaten to kill the congressman — as well as his friends and family — over his opposition to extending tax cuts for the wealthy, according to transcripts recited in the complaint.

Habermann faces one count of threatening a federal official, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Habermann also previously left threatening messages on the voice mail of an unnamed congresswoman, listed in the criminal complaint as “C.P.,” and a California assemblyman, the FBI said.

Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, said when contacted by the Bangor Daily News that he was aware of the case but wouldn’t comment because of the ongoing investigation. The assemblyman is V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat who represents the Palm Springs area, said Perez spokeswoman Amy Wilson.

According to the transcript of one call to McDermott’s office, Habermann said, “He thinks he can steal money from people and give it away to losers and get away with it.” It continues, “I’ll [expletive] hunt that guy down and I’ll [expletive] get rid of him.”

In the other call, Habermann allegedly said, “If he ever [expletive] around with my money, ever the [expletive] again, I’ll [expletive] kill him, OK.”

Seattle FBI spokesman Fred Gutt said the complaint already was being drafted before Saturday’s shooting in Tucson that killed six people.

Habermann was due to appear in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Wednesday afternoon. His federal public defender, Joan Politeo, did not immediately return a call seeking comment, and a message left on Habermann’s voice mail was not returned.

The FBI said agents visited Habermann on Dec. 10, and he admitted leaving the messages and identified himself as the caller when he listened to a recording of the calls. He said he had been drinking when he made the calls, but was not so drunk that he wouldn’t have driven his car, the agents reported.

Habermann also told them that he never intended to hurt anyone and that he would never do anything to jeopardize his $3 million trust fund, Special Agent Dean Giboney wrote in the complaint.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said in a news release that citizens have a right to debate government officials but not threaten them.

“Those actions are intended to silence debate, not further it,” she said. “They instill fear, not just in the immediate victims, but in many who might hold the same views or take the same course.”

Habermann also left two voice mail messages for Perez on March 23, one of which threatened to kill the California assemblyman, according to court documents. A week earlier, Habermann met with one of Perez’s staffers and began ranting about the federal health care bill and how he didn’t want to support immigrants and Lati-nos, records show.

“He seemed agitated, paranoid and couldn’t keep still,” said California Highway Patrol Officer John Quintero, who referred to a report about the incident.

Habermann was escorted out of Perez’s office, and the case, along with the threatening voice mails, was referred to the California Highway Patrol’s Dignitary Protection Section, Quintero said. Habermann never was arrested.

“In this line of work, we often interact with agitated people for a range of reasons,” Wilson said. “Through the course of dialogue and providing service to them, you can assess how conversation is going to go. This situation escalated where we felt we needed to inform law enforcement.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also has faced threats recently. One man was sentenced to a year in prison for making threatening phone calls, and another is scheduled to face trial next month on charges he waved a meat cleaver toward her and threatened to kill her during an appearance in Spokane.

Associated Press writer Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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