Threats subsiding over time

Sophomore Marie-Claire Hernandez didn’t watch the original viewing of Sami Al-Arian’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor Sept. 26. But she felt the impact the next day.

Hernandez, a secretary for the engineering and computer science department, was about to leave the office to drop off a package and go to class when the phone rang. The man on the line asked to speak to Al-Arian, and when he was told Al-Arian was not available, he asked Hernandez for his home phone number, which she did not disclose. The man proceeded to raise his voice, threatening to kill and murder Al-Arian, at which point Hernandez hung up the phone.

“I just panicked and said, ‘Well, I have to go,'” Hernandez said. “At first, I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t take it that seriously.”

Hernandez told another staff member about the incident, and the USF Police Department was called. The man called back a few minutes later and apologized for his actions, saying he “was out of line and said some things (he) shouldn’t have said,” according to a police report.

Klingebiel said since Al-Arian’s appearance on Sept. 26, USF has received about a dozen threats, causing a ripple in the security and credibility of USF. The threats led USF President Judy Genshaft to suspend Al-Arian with pay in late September due to the issue of campus safety.

“Everybody at USF has been impacted,” said Dewey Rundus, associate chairman for the department of computer science and engineering. “It’s been more disruptive because people are asking persistent questions.”

Rundus saw the original airing of The O’Reilly Factor when Al-Arian was interviewed. He said he expected there would be a negative outcome from the situation but didn’t think the College of Engineering would receive death threats. He said the engineering department has suffered because it was previously understaffed, and losing Al-Arian as a teacher increased the problem. The department also continues to receive e-mails, although not threatening, expressing dissatisfaction.

“There has to be some immediate resolution of (Al-Arian’s) status,” Rundus said. “Then it kind of depends on what’s done.”Rundus said although many people have had a negative reaction to the engineering department, most people with vehement feelings are opposed to Al-Arian himself, not any part of USF.

University Police has been conducting the investigations regarding the threats, which are regarded as privacy investigations, meaning they deal with threats of injury and death. Sgt. Mike Klingebiel said they have received leads on the threats, but he was not sure of the full status of the investigation.

“‘Death threats’ is (a term) that’s been thrown around in addition to specific threats of violence,” Klingebiel said. “We’ve also had vague threats to the effect of, ‘Take action or else,’ in the context of 9-11 and Dr. Al-Arian being a liar.”

When the issue will be resolved is difficult to pinpoint at the moment, said Michael Reich, media relations director for USF.

“It’s hard to tell at this point, particularly because it’s a pending issue,” he said. “The feedback has been split.”

Klingebiel said the process of investigating a case involving a death threat begins with rereading any printed information. The police department then works with the state attorney to decide what direction the investigation should take. The next step is to determine the writer of the threat and assess the viability of the threats. If the writer cannot be identified, the intent is then analyzed, Klingebiel said.

“We always err on the side of caution,” he said.

Although death threats have recently become an issue at USF, they are not uncommon. Klingebiel said there was one threat made in 1996, during the same time frame Al-Arian was first being investigated by the FBI and right after the Gainesville murders. The Oracle office received a letter signed from “The One, The Leader of the War Purgers,” threatening to bomb an administration building and kill one white female professor on April 29, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. The letter was written in a manner to suggest the threat was being made by a group of Muslim terrorists, and as a result, the USF campus closed a week early, and finals were moved to accommodate the change. However, the author of the letter turned out to be a 19-year-old white male, sophomore, Damian Conrad Hospital, who was caught more than seven months after the letter was received.

He was charged and later sentenced.

“This campus was under siege,” Klingebiel said. “It was a tremendous endeavor and a tremendous resource.”

According to Florida Statute 836.10, a death threat is classified as a second-degree felony, and those convicted can serve up to 15 years in prison. If the individual is a habitual offender, extra fines of up to $10,000 can be issued.

Klingebiel said it’s unfortunate people feel the need to take their anger out on others, but no one can prevent anyone else from communicating. He said the university has received hundreds of e-mails from people expressing their anger about the situation, none of which contained threats of bodily harm.

“There’s a fine line to walk when dealing with (death threats),” Klingebiel said. “We can’t afford to be wrong – we can’t take that chance when we’re dealing with human lives.”

Contact Lindsay Fosterat