TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A man charged with threatening to kill a Kansas congressman is harmless, believing he has a special relationship with God and his weapons are “meteors and plagues,” not “knives and guns,” a defense attorney argued Tuesday during a federal criminal trial.
The trial for Chase Neill, 32, began amid what authorities says is a sharp rise in threats to the nation's lawmakers and their families. Prosecutors say Neill became fixated on U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner and threatened to kill him in a June 5 voicemail left with the Republican congressman's Topeka office.
Prosecutors argue that Neill was upset with LaTurner, meant the June message as a death threat and prompted LaTurner and his staff to beef up security at his Topeka office. But defense attorneys argued that Neill also threatened “everyone in the universe” in the same call, and his concerns included witchcraft, unidentified flying objects and Neill's claim that a host of U.S. government agencies were monitoring him.
Kirk Redmond, a federal public defender representing Neill, told jurors in his opening statement that authorities in Neill's northeastern Kansas hometown of Lawrence concluded after the June call that he was harmless and did not need to be arrested or sent to a mental hospital. Redmond said Neill “never went anywhere near the congressman” because he believes he can “speak a word and it happens.”
“His weapons aren't knives and guns,” Redmond said. “His weapons are meteors and plagues.”
Members of Congress have faced a sharp rise in threats in the two years since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In October, an intruder attacked and severely beat former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer in their San Francisco home.
Local school board members and election workers across the U.S. also have endured harassment, intimidation and threats of violence. Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Monday arrested a former Republican candidate for a state House seat in a series of shootings targeting the homes or offices of elected Democratic officials, though none were injured.
LaTurner was a Kansas state senator and state treasurer before winning his U.S. House seat in 2020. Until the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature redrew political boundaries last year, LaTurner’s eastern Kansas district included Lawrence, home to the main University of Kansas campus, which is among the state’s most liberal communities.
In Neill's trial, after one of LaTurner's staffers testified as the first witness, Neill said he wants to represent himself. He had previously made that request through his attorneys Friday but withdrew it in court Tuesday morning before his jury was selected.
U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter ended the day early so that Neill could think more about his request overnight and told him, “I think it is an unwise decision.”
Neill said his attorneys weren't accurately portraying his beliefs. He said he didn't represent himself as God but conveyed messages from God using “an Old Testament perspective,” like prophets who spoke for God in the first person. A pretrial report on Neill said he saw himself as “the Messiah.”
When the first witness said Neill had talked about UFOs in a call in May, Neill interrupted by saying, “I think the UFOs made national headlines.”
He added, “Just so I don't look crazy in the courtroom.”
In court Tuesday, Neill wore khaki pants, a dress shirt and a navy blue jacket without a tie. He had a full beard. His ankles remained chained throughout the trial.
Teeter concluded during a hearing last month that "a preponderance of the evidence” showed Neill was mentally competent to stand trial. The official notes from the hearing showed Teeter relied on a psychological evaluation of Neill, but that document is sealed and closed to the public.
In a separate order in August, a U.S. magistrate judge who refused to released Neill from custody said in that order that Neill suffered a head injury four or five years ago “characterized as a head fracture.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Skip Jacobs played part of the June call during his opening statement. Jurors heard Neill identify himself as “the Messiah” and “the Son of Man,” a common description of Jesus in the New Testament of the Bible.
"I am saying I will kill you, but the insurance will say it's an act of God,” Neill said in the call.
The call also included a threat against all members of Congress.
Jacobs told jurors that Topeka police started a patrol around LaTurner's home. His staffer testified that in May, the Topeka office remained locked when only one staffer was present and that after the June call, it remained locked even during business hours, and cameras were installed.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna
John Hanna, The Associated Press