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Judge: Man accused of threatening senators must remain behind bars

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Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media
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Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski both were targeted by Jay Allen Johnson, who left a total of 17 menacing messages threatening the senators and their staff members.

‘I am concerned for my personal safety if he is not detained,’ Murkowski says, citing menacing messages

A federal judge ruled Friday that a Delta Junction man accused of threatening to kill one of Alaska’s two U.S. senators must remain behind bars until an Oct. 19 preliminary hearing. That’s what Sen. Lisa Murkowski had asked the judge to do out of concern over threats that Jay Allen Johnson made against her and Senator Dan Sullivan.Murkowski wasn’t able to phone-in for Friday’s online detention hearing, because she was traveling back to Alaska. But she said in the letter that she’d be worried if the judge released Johnson from Fairbanks Correctional Center, where he’s been held since federal agents arrested him a week ago.“I am concerned for my personal safety if he is not detained while I’m in the state,” she wrote in the letter read aloud by federal Magistrate Judge Scott Oravec. She added, “If he is released, I would like to know what the FBI is doing to ensure my safety and security while I’m here in Alaska.
Murkowski’s concerns are based on threats that Johnson allegedly made in 17 messages left on her voicemail and Senator Dan Sullivan’s. Oravec read from transcripts from a couple of the profanity-laced messages, including one left on Sept. 2 in which the caller threatens to burn the senator properties and asks what happens when a .50-caliber bullet hits a human head.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Tansey argued that Johnson should remain in jail because he remains a threat and could flee the area. The prosecutor played an audio clip of a Sept. 29 message on Murkowski’s voicemail in which the caller claims he’ll hire a hitman from among the QUOTE “terrorists and assassins” that he said she was letting into the country.

In another message, he exclaims “Nobody in this state wanted you to impeach Trump!”

Tansey says some of the voicemails also threatened the two senators’ staff members. He cited an Aug. 30 message in which the caller says if the staffers don’t quit their jobs, “We are coming for you. The next insurrection will be an insurrection – period!”

Tansey called the messages, “extremely serious.” He says Johnson had the means to back up his threats, as shown when FBI agents raided his home last week and seized seven firearms. The prosecutor said it’s illegal for firearms to be left accessible to a felon like Johnson, who has what he said was a decades-long criminal record.

Johnson’s wife, Catherine Sue Pousson Johnson, told Tansey that those were her weapons. She admitted that they were not secured and kept inaccessible from her husband, as is required for a convicted felon.

But Gary Colbath, Johnson’s defense attorney, said there’s nothing unusual about having seven guns in a home located in a rural area in Alaska. He said Pousson Johnson wasn’t able to secure the weapons, because she was upset last month when she flew to Texas after her father died.

Colbath suggested that the court should release Jay Johnson from jail and place him in the custody of his wife, because she promises to lock up the guns and keep him from driving or using a telephone.

Pousson Johnson told Colbath that her 65-year-old husband is frail and disabled. “My husband is an old man,” she said, “and he gets very angry listening to politics on the news.”

When Tansey asked her if she knew that her husband has threatened the senators, she replied, “Who hasn’t? I think half the nation is very upset.”

Oravec cited those statements as part of his concerns over releasing Johnson to the custody of his wife. He said that arrangement wouldn’t protect the senators or the community of in which the Johnson lived. So the judge ordered him to be held at the correctional center until an Oct.19 preliminary hearing.