As a standup comedian, Vermonter Chris King made a living by pushing the limits of free speech. But the 43-year-old resident of Bellows Falls crossed the line when he threatened on Twitter to kill President Obama.
On October 8, U.S. Secret Service agents arrested King for violating the federal law formally known as Threats Against President and Successors to the Presidency. The gist: Anyone who knowingly threatens to take the life of, kidnap or inflict bodily harm to the president, vice president or others in the line of succession faces up to five years in jail.
According to published reports, King, an honorably discharged Navy veteran, once lived in Orlando, Fla., where his comedy routine included off-color jokes about the 9/11 terror attacks, his penis and being a gay man. In 2004 the Orlando Sentinel called King “a dour-looking guy with a sardonic sense of humor and the ability to make a room erupt in laughter in no time flat.”
But nobody found it humorous when, in August, King started tweeting a series of menacing messages to the White House — from @SmellyOlTerriss. The tweet that got him arraigned last month in Burlington reads, “I am dying inside. And I am plainly stating to you that I am going to kill the president.”
A review of court records and his blog reveals King, who is believed to suffer from mental illness, has been leveling veiled threats against elected officials for years. On his blog, King states he believes 9/11 was an inside job and that his work in uncovering the truth landed him on a “terrorism watch list,” which in turn left him unable to earn a living.
“As a result of my audience’s reluctance to financially involve themselves with someone with the designation of ‘terrorist,’ my audience do not feel comfortable buying their tickets to my show,” King writes in a letter to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy that is posted on his blog. “As a result, my house is now in foreclosure ... I am unable to pay for required medical care.”
The White House receives threats against the president’s life by the thousands, but it’s apparently rare that a Vermonter is implicated in one. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Masterson recalls only one other case of a Vermonter being charged for presidential threats: the 2007 arrest of Stephen Dees Sr. for threatening in an email to strangle former First Lady Barbara Bush with a plastic bag. A transient who was ultimately found incompetent to stand trial, Dees apparently blamed Bush and her husband’s administration for the death of his father, a combat veteran.
Read literally, the threats-against-the-president statute could apply to someone overheard mouthing off in a bar, Masterson says, though authorities aim to prosecute only those individuals deemed to pose credible threats. In King’s case, Masterson says a combination of factors — his repeated threats online, his mental condition and the fact that he owned guns — persuaded authorities he posed a risk.
There’s no indication King attempted to carry out his threats against Obama, according to Masterson. But he did travel to Washington, D.C., in late June — a trip that is documented on video at King’s Ustream page.
David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Leahy, tells Seven Days that King showed up at the Capitol, looking for Leahy, on June 28 — the opening day of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Carle wasn’t sure whether King made it into the room where Leahy was chairing the hearings, but says he later showed up at Leahy’s Senate office. There, King met with Leahy’s deputy chief of staff, who gave King $10 for breakfast because she worried he looked too thin, Carle says.
On his own video, King films himself standing outside Leahy’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building, saying, “I feel like Truman in The Truman Show. I’ve been spied on for five years now and I’ve figured out my environment and I just decided to stop playing games.”
King’s public defender, Steven Barth, isn’t claiming King’s threats were a gag. But he says, “The threat must be a ‘true threat’ as opposed to political hyperbole, no matter how offensive or vituperative.” While acknowledging there is “a mental health component to this case,” Barth argues that King’s antigovernment blog posts were “not simply a delusional stream of consciousness but, instead, a comment on U.S. practices grounded in documented fact.”
Barth says a hearing scheduled for next Monday will determine whether King should be reviewed for competency or released from jail into a mental health treatment facility.
King’s are the latest in a string of death threats sent to Obama via Twitter. The news website Gawker has coined the term “death tweet” and documented at least two other cases, including a Secret Service investigation of conservative blogger Solly Forell, who wrote, “The next #American with a #Clear #Shot should drop #Obama like a bad habit.”
King, who moved back to Vermont in 2005 to care for his sick father, himself picked up on the trend in 2009, linking on his blog to a story about an Oklahoma man arrested for threatening mass murder at a Tea Party rally via Twitter.
“What does it take to get arrested around here? I have said way worse things,” King wrote in response on April 26, 2009. “Here’s one for starters, something that I said about George Bush: Ahem: ‘I openly advocate the immediate killing of the president by any means available.’”
Two days earlier, King advocated on his blog the execution of every member of Congress.
“I think that to bring decency to Washington, you’d have to dig a trench near the Capitol Building, kneel 535 people in front of it, and machine-gun them all to death,” he wrote on April 24, 2009.
Regarding Obama, King called the president a “usurping illegal alien,” and tweeted to the White House, “I’m not being duplicitous toward you. But obviously you gotta go. I will not tolerate illegal aliens ruining my country.”
Secret Service agents visited King at least twice at his home, once on December 17, 2009, and again on August 23, 2010 — the latter visit coming two days after his tweets threatening to kill Obama. Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna says the fact that King continued his threatening behavior after the first visit is a red flag.
Hanna, who closely follows federal criminal cases, explains, “They’ll visit people, if the person keeps coming up on radar, to get a sense of their dangerousness. If it continues after the Secret Service visits you, that’s cause for alarm, because it suggests that you might not be deterred.”
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