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The nightmares return

From 1977-79, USF police investigated death threats against several professors. Post-Sept. 11, threats against one - Sami Al-Arian - revived, and intensified, campus safety fears.

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


"I thought I was through having nightmares about that case," Pat Johnson says. "I thought I was through having nightmares about that case," Pat Johnson says.

Johnson has been a member of the University of South Florida Police Department for 26 years. As a detective, he worked countless hours on "that case." It pains him to remember it, but the big news on campus since Sept. 11 echoes it in some ways.

Between 1977 and 1979, more than 30 USF professors and administrators were the victims of death threats. They received hundreds of threatening and harassing phone calls. Callers told Jewish faculty members, "The ovens are waiting for you."

Thousands of dollars' worth of vandalism was committed on the campus and off it. The criminals, Johnson says, "were getting into places no one should have been able to get into. They were blowing our minds."

When they spray-painted swastikas and other graffiti inside locked offices, across a baseball dugout, over student paintings in an exhibit, they sometimes signed their work. They called themselves the Sons of Hitler. No one was ever arrested.

Today Johnson is the department's interim chief. Once again USF's police force finds itself investigating death threats against a professor and focusing intently on campus security. But in the wake of Sept. 11, almost everything is different.

After controversial engineering professor Sami Al-Arian appeared on The O'Reilly Factor on Sept. 27, the university received several voice mails and e-mails threatening him. The school of engineering was closed for a day after one call.

USF president Judy Genshaft put Al-Arian on paid leave, citing concern over campus security as her chief reason. She cited the same reason when she decided to try to fire him.

Twenty-five years ago, there was no talk of removing any of the professors who were threatened.

Long before Sept. 11, Al-Arian was a vocally political figure and the subject of investigations into his possible ties to terrorist groups. When he was threatened, the motive for the messages wasn't a mystery. "It's more a one-on-one threat," Johnson says.

The victims of the Sons of Hitler had no such notoriety. Some of them were politically active, but many were leading the quietest of scholarly lives.

"The issue back then was, we had professors here who were victimized who had years of experience here" without being connected to controversy, Johnson says.

No one knew what made them targets; some victims were Jewish but not all. The callers "threatened everything and anybody," Johnson says.

The reaction within the university community, he says, was largely one of concern and support for the victims. As for the rest of the world, "I don't know if the community worried about us as much then."

Although no physical injuries were investigated, callers knew details about victims' families and personal lives, their class lecture materials and daily habits. One caller told a victim he watched her walk her dog at night.

Several hundred leads were run down, dozens of people interviewed. The technology available to investigators then was less sophisticated, so tracing phone calls was difficult, and the calls that were traced led to pay phones. The targets of calls and vandalism changed seemingly at random, so stakeouts were fruitless.

Then, at the end of 1979, the incidents ended. "We used to sit around and try to figure out why," Johnson says. "We wondered if maybe they graduated."

Although the crimes received national news coverage, they weren't a part of a larger event, certainly not one with the huge emotional and political impact of Sept. 11.

That is the enormous shadow cast over campus security now. Although police knew the Sons of Hitler had the potential to be dangerous, no one 25 years ago could have imagined an attack as devastating as Sept. 11.

So a threat against a figure on campus is seen as a threat against its whole community. And in today's political and emotional climate, law enforcement is much more reluctant to take chances.

"Everything was so clandestine then," Johnson says. "People are a lot more open about their concerns now -- and about their hostilities."

Improved technology has made it easier to trace many of the threats against Al-Arian, Johnson says, though not every call or e-mail is traceable. USF police have checked into more than a hundred messages and opened about a dozen investigations.

Most of the people they have contacted were quite open about what they'd written or said. Some were embarrassed about the tone of their e-mails; they may have written them in the heat of reaction, Johnson says, then thought, " 'Maybe I shouldn't have sent that.' E-mail can make it a little too easy."

In some ways, the recent threats seem less ominous than the ones 25 years ago: A rude e-mail from someone halfway across the country isn't as personally chilling as a phone call from someone who tells you he knows where your child goes to school or says, "We are through with the paintings. . . . the killings will begin."

But USF police can't view the threats against Al-Arian as a personal matter.

"9/11 has made all of us in law enforcement much more aware of the criticality of security," Johnson says. "It used to be, if you had a Department of Defense contract and were working in the lab, we figured you took care of business. Now, we make sure that lab is secure. We're more aggressive."

Twenty-five years ago, Johnson lost sleep trying to guarantee the safety of professors on campus.

"Now, it's somebody who is not here. If he comes back, that's when we're worried about what will happen."

-- Times staff writer Colette Bancroft wrote about the Sons of Hitler case at USF for Tampa

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