A Raleigh man faces up to one year in federal prison for e-mailing death threats to national Hispanic and Islamic advocacy groups.
Christopher Michael Szaz, 42, pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to sending graphic threats to the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, both based in Washington.
Immigrant advocates said Szaz's threats were part of a rising tide of hate directed at immigrants as a national debate rages over immigration reform. They say his prosecution is a reminder that those who dash off racist slurs and threats from anonymous e-mail addresses are committing federal crimes.
"Mr. Szaz's offense is just part of a pattern that has yet to reach its peak," said Janet Murgu'a, president of La Raza. Murgu'a and North Carolina Hispanic advocates say death threats and anti-Hispanic messages have become common.
Hate crimes against Hispanics have risen steadily in the past few years, according to the FBI. The agency reports that 820 Hispanics were victimized because of their ethnicity in 2006, up from about 600 in 2004.
Prosecutors did not divulge the specific content of the e-mail messages Szaz sent, but Murgu'a said he threatened to kill staff members and "splay" their bodies and referred to Hispanics using a racial epithet. Employees of the Islamic group did not testify.
Both sides agree that Szaz did not intend to carry out his threats, and he was charged with two misdemeanors. He will receive his sentence today.
Szaz is a self-employed Web designer who dropped out of high school and lives with his mother. His Hungarian-born father, Zoltan Szaz, who died in 2001, became a prominent immigrant activist in Washington. Szaz has no criminal record.
Szaz said Tuesday that he had a severe drinking problem and wrote the e-mail messages in a drunken fog. He sent them in June and July 2007 and said he was so intoxicated he doesn't remember writing them.
"What was contained in those e-mails was disgusting," Szaz said. "I can't believe that came out of my keyboard."
Since his arrest, Szaz said, he has begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has not had a drink since January. He asked for house arrest so he could care for and support his mother, who is 78 and walks with a cane.
His mother and sister attended the hearing but declined to comment. Szaz's attorney, Jane Pearce, said his family was "mortified and disgusted on his behalf."
Pearce described Szaz as a "quiet guy with a quiet life" until he sent the threats.
But prosecutors said Szaz's threats left staff members at the two groups fearing for their lives.
"These readers did not know whether the sender was on another continent or downstairs waiting for them when they went to their cars," said Cyra O'Daniel, a Department of Justice prosecutor.
Andrea Bazán, a prominent Hispanic advocate in North Carolina and chairwoman of La Raza, said Szaz's threats were part of what prompted her to begin using guards at public events and to ask Durham police for frequent checks at her home.
La Raza's Washington office has hired a security consultant, and its executives now use private transportation and body guards for travel.
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