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PORTLAND, Maine — A York man was sentenced Tuesday to 24 months in prison for sending spoofed and threatening emails that appeared to be from Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner, as well as an instructor at the York County Community College.
Austin Santoro, 23, of York, was sentenced for federal charges of “transmitting threatening interstate communications” and identity theft. Prior to his sentencing, Merner read a victim-impact statement.
According to the U.S. District Court of Maine clerk’s office, Santoro was taken into custody following a Tuesday sentencing hearing. He was given credit for pre-sentencing confinement and at the end of his prison term, will be subject to three years of supervised release, the clerk’s office reported.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Halsey had recommended Santoro serve the 24 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
“Between November 2017 and February 2018, the defendant, Austin Santoro, sent numerous harassing and threatening emails to individuals at police departments, other public entities, colleges and universities and one private business,” according to Halsey’s memo. “In several of the emails, Santoro — posing as other individuals and using their names and email addresses – threatened to sexually assault the recipients at gunpoint. In another, he claimed a bomb was present in the purported sender’s office. In another, he made vile racist and sexually explicit statements.”
Merner said he addressed the court by first summarizing his police career in Boston, Seattle, then Portsmouth. He said he’s faced dangerous and armed criminals, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and has “no problem” facing them. The chief said, “I do have a major problem with a criminal and a coward who hides behind a keyboard in the middle of the night.”
Merner said he told the court he was six months into his job as Portsmouth chief when Santoro sent the emails, that looked like they were from him, to members of his command staff and three female police employees. “This was not a victimless crime,” he said he told the court, explaining the case involved local police, the FBI and Homeland Security.
Merner said Tuesday it was “a couple of weeks” between the time the emails were sent to his employees and when Santoro was identified as the suspect.
Santoro’s lawyer J. Hilary Billings had asked the court to impose a time-served sentence. He reported to the court that Santoro has already served nine months, followed by four months of release, when his client has sought treatment and remained arrest-free. Billings reported Santoro has been employed and kept appointments with medical providers.
“Nothing would be gained from returning Austin Santoro to prison,” his attorney had argued. “All of his rehabilitation efforts over the last four months would be compromised in a very destructive way.”
Santoro was also alleged to have sent emails to the town of York and its police and school departments, the Kittery Police Department, Boston University and York County Community College. He had filed notice that he intended to launch an insanity defense, but was found competent by Judge D. Brock Hornsby during a December hearing.
According to Homeland Security, to mask the source of the emails, Santoro used an electronic service based in the Czech Republic, which cooperated with the investigation.