ROANOKE, VA. — Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts told the jury this afternoon that his “blood ran cold” when he received an E-mail from white supremacist Bill White with his home address, telephone number and a reference to his wife.
When he clicked a link in the E-mail and saw that White had also published the information on the Internet, he realized it was now available to anyone who accessed White’s website, including potentially violent extremists who share White’s ideology. “It’s terrifying because it makes you vulnerable in a way you haven’t been before,” he said.
Pitts, who spoke with little emotion, spent nearly three hours on the stand during the second day of testimony at White’s federal trial. The former neo-Nazi leader is charged with threatening various people with whom he disagreed, including Pitts, a writer for The Miami Herald whose column is syndicated in some 250 newspapers. White was infuriated by a June 3 Pitts column taking white supremacists to task for their propaganda about a black-on-white murder case.
Pitts said his ordeal began when the phone rang at his Bowie, Md., home around 11 p.m. on June 3, 2007. His wife answered. Pitts, who was in bed, listened as she became increasingly agitated. It was White, who identified himself as leader of a neo-Nazi group and insisted on speaking to Pitts about a column he’d written. She told him not to call again and finally hung up on him.
The next day, Pitts saw that he’d gotten an E-mail from White with the subject line “N----- Pitts.” The E-mail, filled with racial slurs, gave Pitts’ contact information and told readers that “his wife gets very upset when you call.” White had published the same information on his now-defunct website, Overthrow.com.
A few days later, David Wilson, an editor at the Herald, E-mailed White with a request to remove Pitts’ personal information. White refused. In a reply that he copied to a neo-Nazi Yahoo! group and posted on Overthrow.com, White wrote: “Frankly, if some loony took the info and killed him, I wouldn’t shed a tear. That also goes for your whole news room.”
Pitts began getting hate mail and telephone calls at home. One package arrived from White. After deciding it didn’t appear to contain a bomb, Pitts marked it “return to sender” and stuck it back in the mailbox. But the FBI disagreed and descended, along with a bomb squad and a haz-mat team, on Pitts’ quiet neighborhood. The family — including Pitts’ wife, who was ill with sepsis, a blood disease — waited outside their home while the package was opened. In it were two magazines from White’s neo-Nazi group, the American National Socialist Workers Party. At that point, Pitts testified, “I feel like I’ve been violated, and I feel like the sanctity of my home has been invaded — and there’s a lot of anger and a lot of concern. The concern is that this will lead to violence, to bloodshed.”
On June 8, 2007, threatening E-mails arrived in the inboxes of Pitts and Herald editor Wilson, who testified this morning. One E-mail to Wilson asked Pitts if he had life insurance because “we don’t want your little ones to go hungry in case something happens to you.” Another, sent directly to Pitts, said the columnist would soon receive a visit from the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent, racist prison gang. It also included Pitts’ personal information, clearly copied from Overthrow.com. By the following night, the Miami Herald had arranged for Pitts to have 24-hour, armed security guards at his home — the first time in Wilson’s 33 years at the Herald that the newspaper had done so for a journalist in the United States.
Pitts’ daughter, now a 19-year-old college student, recalled her father telling her about the postings. Instead of just dropping her off at school that day, he got out of the car to alert her principal to the situation. During her second period history class, Ongel Pitts sat down at a computer as a few classmates looked on. “I googled ‘N----- Pitts’ to see what was going on because my parents wouldn’t tell me anything,” she said. The search took her to Overthrow.com.
During cross-examination, defense lawyer David Damico portrayed Pitts as a liberal columnist who’d benefited financially and professionally from his own provocative commentary. “Is it safe to say that Mr. Pitts is no shrinking violet in the rough and tumble of political discourse?” he asked Wilson at one point.
Damico noted that Pitts previously had been called racial slurs by angry readers and played a recording of a voicemail left at the Herald in which a man said Pitts ought to be lynched from a lamppost. He got Wilson and Pitts to acknowledge that many other readers besides White had taken issue with Pitts’ June 3 column, which criticized extremists for using the brutal murder of a white couple in Tennessee to claim that black-on-white hate crimes are underreported by the media. Damico also pointed out that most of the information White posted was available on the Internet, including Pitts’ date of birth and his wife’s name.
Alex Linder, who runs Vanguard News Network (VNN), a neo-Nazi Web forum, testified very briefly via video conference. The government asked Linder to confirm that usernames and passwords connected to White were from VNN’s database. Not only was Linder a witness at the trial, but he’s also publishing commentary about it: His forum includes a lengthy discussion about the case.