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Judge orders prison for Michigan man who made threats against Jewish people, synagogue

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A 20-year-old Michigan man was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in federal prison for using social media to threaten violence against Jewish people.

Seann Patrick Pietila, of Pickford, received his sentence after pleading guilty in November to a count of transmitting a threatening communication in interstate or foreign commerce via social media messages to someone outside of Michigan. Pietila had also demonstrated "sympathy with neo-Nazi ideology, antisemitism, and past mass shooters" in his messages, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan.

“Today and every day we will take swift action to detect and disrupt hate crimes,” U.S. Attorney Mark Totten said in a statement. “No Michigander should live in fear because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or any other protected status."

In addition to his prison sentence, Pietila was ordered to pay more than $10,600 in restitution and spend three years on supervised release after leaving prison.

Prosecutors had sought a prison sentence of nearly three years but Pietila was given a more lenient sentence with the state Federal Public Defender's office saying he had no prior criminal record and is remorseful for his actions.

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Hoped to record attack and share via internet

Pietila admitted that he told someone over Instagram in June 2023 that he "had a desire and a plan to kill or injure Jewish people and use a camera to stream his attack over the internet," according to court records. Authorities said he hoped others would record the attack and share it with more people.

Other messages he sent included anti-Semitic language and references to Adolf Hitler, and communicated plans to engage in a mass shooting "in a manner similar to a specific past mass shooter," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in the press release.

Pietila was living in the Lansing area at the time he made the threats last summer, but was residing in the Upper Peninsula when the FBI raided his home later that month. During a search of Pietila’s home, investigators found a cache of weapons, knives, tactical equipment and a red-and-white Nazi flag, the FBI said.

The FBI said Pietila also had written the name of the Shaarey Zedek congregation in East Lansing, near Michigan State University, in a note on his phone along with a 2024 date. Authorities noted that his actions were "painful" for the community and instilled fear in members of the Shaarey Zedek congregation, which increased its security in response to the threats last summer.

"We time it a day after each other," Pietila said in an online message, according to his indictment. "We would surely inspire others to take arms against the Jewish controlled state."

According to his defense attorney Sean Tilton, Pietila "never sent the note to anyone or posted it in a public forum." The state Federal Public Defender's office said Pietila has struggled with mental health issues and had access to only one of the weapons he mentioned in the note found on his phone.

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Incident came amid rise in antisemitic incidents nationwide

Pietila's case came amid an increase in antisemitic incidents across the United States.

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League reported 3,697 antisemitic incidents nationwide — a 36% increase from the 2,717 incidents reported in 2021. The ADL said 2022 had the "highest number on record" since the organization began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

And since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, reports of hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims have surged. According to the ADL's most recent data, there have been nearly 3,300 antisemitic incidents recorded between Oct. 7, 2023, and Jan. 7, 2024.

"This represents a 361-percent increase compared to the same period one year prior, which saw 712 incidents," the ADL said in a January press release.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Ken Palmer at kpalmer@lsj.com. Follow him on X @KBPalm_lsj.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan man sentenced to prison for threatening Jewish people