A long string of felony charges and a tip-off from the Department of Homeland Security led to the arrest of a Florida man for racist and antisemitic threats posted to Gab and Bitchute.
Joshua John Leff was taken into custody by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) on June 14. The 40-year-old was arrested for being a felon in possession of firearms and making a written threat to kill, do bodily injury or commit a mass shooting or terrorist attack. Authorities allege the threats in question were racist and homophobic screeds posted on video platform BitChute and Gab, the social media site that has become a nesting ground for bigotry and extremism online.
Authorities, in their police report, say Leff used the moniker “Paul Atreides” to post memes on Gab advocating for the murder of LGBTQ people, Jews and people of color. On BitChute, he made one video paying tribute to convicted mass murderer Dylann Roof, as well as George Zimmerman and David Duke, according to the FDLE’s probable-cause affidavit. Another featured a slideshow of photos of Leff posing with what police identified as a “suspected AR-15,” with Leff warning in a voiceover that LGBTQ people “live in terror of our coming vengeance.”
Leff’s arrest was the latest in a string of infractions in Florida that stretch back almost 20 years, including felony and misdemeanor drug offenses and probation violations. In 2009, he was charged with a felony for violently resisting a police officer in Coral Springs, Florida, and an additional felony for battery of a law enforcement officer. The officer involved, Gregory Tony, is African American. In his report he wrote that Leff was “hostile and aggressive,” and that he “direct[ed] numerous derogatory language to me.” Tony is now the sheriff of Broward County. When his office was contacted, Tony said he did not recall the incident. Leff pleaded no contest in the case and received probation, according to Broward County Clerk of Courts online records.
According to the probable cause affidavit from Leff’s most recent arrest, he also received a visit in 2015 from Florida’s Department of Children and Families, following allegations that “There are hand guns and shot guns accessible to the children.” The investigator noted during the visit that Leff had a handgun in a holster, and that he “keeps the gun on a shelf in the kitchen out of reach of the children.”
A Department of Children and Families worker completed another report in 2018. According to the FDLE, “The ‘Allegation Narrative’ included the statements: ‘The father has been arrested 45 times and he has guns’ and ‘Father is said to have guns in his possession.’” The worker declined to inform police about the situation. The Department of Children and Family Services declined to comment on either report, since they are confidential by law. By press time, a representative did not respond to questions about whether they had a policy about homes with guns possibly in reach of children, or reporting felons in possession of firearms to law enforcement.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating Leff based on a tip from the Department of Homeland Security, according to the probable-cause affidavit and confirmed by an FDLE spokesperson. Federal law enforcement has followed this pattern before, passing cases of online threats on to smaller municipalities to investigate and prosecute under state or local statutes.
In December 2018, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington arrested 20-year-old Dakota Reed. County law enforcement partnered with agents from the FBI after the Anti-Defamation League tipped off the Bureau about murder threats Reed allegedly made online.
The Everett Daily Herald, citing sheriff’s detectives and the FBI, reported Reed posted under the pseudonym Tom Shill and wrote: “I’m shooting for 30 Jews. No pun needed. Long ways away anyways. See you Goys.” Reed was charged in Snohomish County with two counts of threats to bomb or injure property. His case is still pending.
Early this month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) tipped off the police in Harlingen, Texas, about threatening posts they were monitoring on social media. When Harlingen police officers searched the residence of 18-year-old Joel Hayden Schrimsher on June 6, they say they found chemicals used for making bombs, along with hand-written formulas to make explosives like nitroglycerin, The Monitor reported.
On June 4, FBI Assistant Director Michael McGarrity testified before Congress about recent efforts to combat domestic terrorism, in particular terrorism motivated by what the FBI calls “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.” He told Congress that of the FBI’s 850 open domestic terrorism cases, 40 percent involved racially motivated extremists.
“Individuals adhering to Racially Motivated Violent Extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years,” McGarrity said, “and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by Racially Motivated Violent Extremists will continue.”
McGarrity highlighted the danger of online self-radicalization, and the role of social media in “distribution of propaganda, recruitment, target selection and incitement to violence.” In his testimony, he stressed partnerships with “federal, State, local, tribal and territorial partners to combat the domestic terrorism threat.” Jurisdictions with robust prohibitions against such threats can prioritize prevention over response. For instance, the Florida state statute on written threats to kill, do bodily injury or commit a mass shooting or act of terrorism specifically forbids threats made online or via “electronic communication.”
The Florida State’s Attorney office declined to comment on the charges against Leff. Judge Maria E. Gonzalez in the 20th Circuit Court set a high bail on the written threat charge – $1,000,000 – and $100,000 on the firearms charge. “Based on the allegations made in the [probable cause affidavit], the Court finds that the only way to ensure the safety of people and property is to set a high bond. [The defendant] poses an imminent danger/threat to self and others.”
Leff will be arraigned in the 20th Judicial Circuit in Lee County, Florida, on July 15.
Photo illustration by SPLC