NEW YORK — A former journalist fired for fabricating details in stories made at least eight of the scores of threats against Jewish institutions nationwide, including a bomb threat to the Anti-Defamation League, as part of a bizarre campaign to harass and frame his ex-girlfriend, federal officials said Friday.
Juan Thompson was arrested in St. Louis and appeared there in federal court Friday on a cyberstalking charge. He politely answered questions and told the judge he had enough money to hire a lawyer.
A crowd of supporters who attended said Thompson had no criminal record. His lawyer didn't comment.
Federal officials have been investigating 122 bomb threats called in to Jewish organizations in three dozen states since Jan. 9 and a rash of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries.
Thompson started making threats Jan. 28, a criminal complaint said, with an email to the Jewish History Museum in New York written from an account that made it appear as if it were being sent by an ex-girlfriend.
"Juan Thompson put 2 bombs in the History Museum set to go off Sunday," it said.
He followed that up with similar messages to a Jewish school in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and to a school and community centre in Manhattan, authorities said.
In another round of emails and phone calls, he gave the woman's name, rather than his own, the court complaint said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations received an anonymous email saying the woman put a bomb in a Dallas Jewish centre .
Thompson, who's black, then took to Twitter: "Know any good lawyers?" he wrote. "Need to stop this nasty/racist #whitegirl I dated who sent a bomb threat in my name." He later tweeted to the Secret Service: "I'm been (sic) tormented by an anti-Semite. She sent an antijewish bomb threat in my name. Help."
But police say it was a hoax created to make the woman look guilty. Thompson also made threats in which he identified the woman as the culprit, authorities said. It's unclear why Jewish organizations were targeted.
Republican President Donald Trump suggested in a meeting Tuesday with state attorneys general the threats against Jewish community centres may have been designed to make "others look bad," according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Trump also has condemned violence against Jewish organizations.
Thompson was fired from the online publication The Intercept last year after being accused of fabricating several quotes and creating fake email accounts to impersonate people, including the Intercept's editor-in-chief. One of the stories involved Dylann Roof, the white shooter of black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Thompson had written that a cousin named Scott Roof claimed the gunman was angry that a love interest chose a black man over him. A review showed there was no cousin by that name. The story was retracted.
The Intercept wrote Friday it was "horrified" to learn of Thompson's arrest.
Thompson had been accused of bizarre behaviour before.
Doyle Murphy, a reporter at the Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly in St. Louis, said he was subjected to social media harassment after writing about Thompson's troubled past in the fallout from his firing at The Intercept.
Murphy said Thompson set up anonymous accounts on Twitter and other social media posing as a woman who claimed she had been sexually assaulted by Murphy. Murphy said he contacted Twitter but every time one fake account was taken down a new one popped up. He said he contacted police but there was little they could do.
"It was a nightmare, and there's not a whole lot I could do about it," Murphy said.
The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it will grant an emergency waiver allowing Jewish community centres and their phone carriers to track the numbers of callers who make threats, even if the callers try to block the numbers. It said Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer had requested such a waiver earlier in the week.
According to the criminal complaint, Thompson and the ex-girlfriend, a social worker, broke up last summer. The following day, her boss received an email purporting to be from a national news organization saying she'd been pulled over for drunken driving.
The harassment got worse, authorities said. She received an anonymous email with nude photos of herself and a threat to release them. Her company, a non-profit that works to end homelessness, got faxes saying she was anti-Semitic. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got a note saying she watched child porn.
Thompson's IP address was used for the emails, but he told police his computer had been hacked, the complaint said.
The ADL said Thompson had been on its radar since he fabricated the story about Roof. According to ADL research, Thompson also claimed he wanted to dismantle the system of "racial supremacy and greedy capitalism that is stacked against us." He said he was going to run for mayor of St. Louis to "fight back against Trumpian fascism and socio-economic terrorism."
FBI Director James Comey met with Jewish community leaders Friday to discuss the recent threats, the agency said.
University City, Missouri, police Lt. Fredrick Lemons told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that detectives will question Thompson about the 154 headstones toppled last month at a Jewish cemetery there.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis, Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles and Jake Pearson and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show Thompson is accused of tweeting the Secret Service, not the FBI.
Colleen Long, The Associated Press