Threatening letters sent to mosques aren't hate crimes, authorities say, but they're still searching for the authors

A series of letters sent to mosques throughout California that threaten genocide against Muslims does not rise to the level of a hate crime, but police are still searching for the author or authors of the racist screeds, officials said Monday.

Flanked by faith leaders and police commanders at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, law enforcement leaders said they are still doggedly pursuing the letter-writer or writers to ensure they don’t pose a larger threat.

“We know that incidents routinely evolve into crimes,” LAPD Cmdr. Horace Frank said. “We don’t want to wait until this evolves.”

The gathering near Koreatown was sparked by a series of handwritten messages recently sent to Muslim faith centers in Los Angeles, Signal Hill, Northridge, Claremont, San Jose and Savannah, Ga. Each missive was addressed to the “Children of Satan” and called Muslims a “vile and filthy people.” The letters also praised President-elect Donald Trump and called for Muslims to be eradicated in the U.S.

“Your day of reckoning has arrived,” the letter read, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Greater Los Angeles chapter. “There’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims.” 

The letter, signed only by “Americans for a Better Way,” said Trump was “going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”

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Stephen Woolery, who heads the counterterrorism division of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the messages are too vague to constitute a hate crime.

“The letters don’t specifically contain a threat. The letters don’t speak directly about a threat of violence, and that’s what the FBI looks for when we investigate,” he said.

While the FBI does not have an open investigation into the letters, police in Los Angeles, Pomona, San Jose and other jurisdictions are still trying to find the author or authors, and plan to document the threats as a “hate incident.”

Frank said threats like these could be indicative of a larger threat, pointing to the October arrest of an Agoura Hills man who called the Islamic Center of Southern California and threatened to kill people there because of his “hatred for Muslims.” When that man, 40-year-old Mark Feigin, was arrested, a search of his home turned up thousands of rounds of ammunition and several weapons, police and prosecutors have said. 

Investigators said the letters appear similar, and it is likely each was sent by the same person.

Frank said the LAPD was making “significant headway” in tracking the source of one of the letters sent to a Los Angeles mosque, but declined to elaborate. The letters have similar handwriting and phrasing, though it is unclear whether they were sent individually or if the same message was photocopied and sent out, according to Woolery.

The letters were sent to the Long Beach Islamic Center and the Islamic Center of Claremont, CAIR’s greater Los Angeles chapter said in a statement. The same letter was also sent to the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose. 

Faith leaders on Monday called for the person behind the threats to come forward and discuss their concerns with Muslims, rather than hiding behind a pen and paper.

“You are a coward, unless you come here and debate the points that you apparently believe so much,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Let us bring this darkness that you are in to light, and let us discuss these issues directly.”

The Los Angeles and Bay Area chapters of CAIR have called for increased cooperation with law enforcement agencies to protect mosques.

Reported hate crimes increased by 7% across the U.S. in 2015, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Incidents targeting Muslims saw a particularly sharp increase, with 257 reported bias crimes last year compared with 154 in 2014.

Los Angeles and San Francisco police have also reported an increase in hate crimes this year, but investigators warned that increase is based on an extremely small sample size.

A spate of bias incidents that followed Trump’s election victory has also drawn serious concerns from police and human rights activists. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 701 incidents of harassment since Trump’s win, with most occurring in the first three days after the election. Of those, 206 incidents were anti-immigrant and 51 were anti-Muslim. 

There were also 27 reported anti-Trump incidents, according to the SPLC’s data, which are self-reported and have not been independently vetted. 

 Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA, blamed the perceived surge in bias crimes on the “irresponsible, hateful rhetoric” of the Trump campaign.

“I’m not saying [Trump] created racist people,” he said. “He normalized it. While he might say he’s not responsible, and I respect that, I remind President-elect Trump that he has a responsibility to act as a president for all Americans.”

Imam Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini, president of the Shia Muslim Council of Southern California, said he would still welcome the person behind the letters into a mosque despite their hateful words.

“We may hate the act, but we don’t hate the person,” he said. “We live in a country that is based on love, harmony and togetherness.”

james.queally@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

 

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UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This story was updated with comments made during a press conference held at the Islamic Center of Southern California

This article was originally published at 7:10 a.m.

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