LONGMEADOW, Mass. — A Massachusetts man faces federal charges after he tried, but failed, to blow up a Jewish assisted living facility earlier this month, authorities said.
John Michael Rathbun, 36, of East Longmeadow, was arrested April 15 and charged with two counts of attempted arson, according to Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
Rathbun is accused of setting a homemade bomb April 2 near the entrance to Ruth’s House, described as a Jewish-sponsored assisted living residential facility for seniors of all faiths. According to the Longmeadow Police Department, a passerby spotted the suspicious item, which fortunately did no damage.
"The Longmeadow Police Department has zero tolerance for crimes motivated by hate," a statement from the department said. "Any incidents which are intended to cause alarm or terror in our community will be investigated aggressively and dealt with in a swift and strong response."
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, echoed those sentiments on Twitter.
"Anti-Semitism has no place in Massachusetts or anywhere else in this country," the former Democratic presidential candidate tweeted April 17. "I join with the people of Longmeadow and East Longmeadow in condemning the attempted arson of a Jewish assisted living facility, and all other acts of bigotry and hate."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson initially released Rathbun to home confinement hours after his arrest, according to MassLive.com. Jails and prisons across the nation are trying to empty as many jail cells as possible to stem the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Federal prosecutors immediately appealed the decision, arguing that Rathbun was eligible for a detention order because of the violent nature of the alleged crime, federal court records show. They also cited his flight risk and argued that there are no conditions of release that could reasonably assure either his appearance in court or the safety of the community.
“The offense is grave and the evidence is powerful; the defendant’s personal history, including his criminal history and history of drug abuse, is deeply troubling,” court documents submitted by prosecutors say. “The defendant committed the charged offenses while on state probation, and the defendant’s release returns him to the conditions in which he committed the crime: at home and just a few minutes’ drive from Ruth’s House, with his release unsecured by electronic monitoring or even a bond.”
Federal Judge Mark G. Mastroianni on April 17 ordered Rathbun returned to jail.
Lelling said if convicted of the charges, Rathbun faces up to 20 years in federal prison and fines of up to $500,000.
"In times of national crisis, hatred based on religion often blossoms into violence," Lelling said in a news release. "The charges in this case allege that the defendant tried to blow up a Jewish assisted living residence with a 5-gallon gas canister, at the same time that the facility was being discussed on white supremacist online platforms.
“We will find, investigate and aggressively prosecute anyone engaged in this kind of mayhem.”
Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, said the alleged bomb was found near a walkway about 50 yards from Ruth’s House, which is located within 1 square mile of three Jewish temples, a Jewish private school and a Jewish community center.
"This case highlights the very real threat posed by racially-motivated, violent extremists and make no mistake, the FBI will use every investigative tool available, along with the expertise and skills of our partners on our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, to identify, assess and disrupt threats like this one to keep our communities safe," Bonavolonta said in a statement.
The criminal complaint against Rathbun alleges that in March, FBI agents discovered a white supremacist group operating on two social media platforms, on which members promoted mass killings targeting religious, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. and elsewhere.
On March 4, a user on the first platform, dubbed User 1 by investigators, mentioned as a potential target a Jewish nursing home in Longmeadow, court documents say.
“Based upon my training, experience and knowledge of the case, I believe “that Jew nursing home in Longmeadow” refers to Ruth’s House, which is a Jewish-sponsored assisted living residential facility for seniors of all faiths located at 780 Converse St., Longmeadow, Massachusetts,” FBI Special Agent Ryan McGonigle wrote in the criminal complaint.
The activity on the first social media platform also included discussion of the users engaging in the crimes themselves and photos of weapons and tactical gear, the complaint says.
The weapons discussed included improvised bombs known as “Molotov cocktails” and the targets named included mosques and synagogues.
The group’s activity on the second social media platform was similar to that on the first, but FBI agents also found the group’s calendar, on which users were able to create events -- including dates, times and locations.
April 2’s “event” was “Hating (racial epithet) Day,” while April 3’s itinerary included “Jew Killing Day,” prosecutors said.
The location for the second event was “Jew Nursery Home,” but the user who created it did not include a specific address, McGonigle wrote.
The criminal complaint states that the user in question, dubbed User 2 by investigators, stated on his profile: “I hate Jews. We should make a real Holocaust sometimes. Only mistake Hitler made.”
The user also professed a hatred of black people, using racial epithets to describe them.
“Based upon the FBI’s preliminary investigation, I believe that User 1 on Platform 1 and User 2 on Platform 2 are likely the same individual,” McGonigle wrote.
The FBI agent described the user’s entry for “Jew Killing Day” as a “call to action that sought to incite users to target Ruth’s House with violence on or about April 3, 2020.”
The person who responded to that call was Rathbun, McGonigle wrote.
“The FBI has not yet determined whether Rathbun has been involved in any way with the organization or in any other white supremacist activities,” a footnote in the criminal complaint says. The FBI’s investigation is ongoing.”
Longmeadow police officers found the homemade bomb around 10 a.m. April 2, the criminal complaint alleges. It was feet away from a high-traffic walkway along Converse Street, a busy roadway in the city.
The device consisted of a 5-gallon plastic fuel container filled with what authorities allege was gasoline, the document says. A Christian religious pamphlet jutted from the nozzle of the canister.
“A portion of the pamphlet was charred and appeared to have been lit on fire in an attempt to ignite the gas,” the criminal complaint says. “The LPD observed what appeared to be bloodstains on both the canister handle and on the pamphlet.”
Read the entire federal criminal complaint against John Rathbun below.
The gas canister and pamphlet were sent to the Massachusetts State Police crime lab, where technicians found the blood to be human.
The DNA was matched on April 6 to Rathbun, whose genetic profile was already stored in the FBI’s Consolidated DNA Index System, or CODIS, due to his criminal record.
FBI agents executed a search warrant April 15 at Rathbun’s home, where they found him, his 18-year-old daughter and his parents, the complaint says. Rathbun was taken into custody.
“I observed that Rathbun’s hands had numerous cuts or wounds in various states of freshness, including an open wound on his right thumb,” McGonigle wrote.
The agent wrote that Rathbun agreed to talk. He reportedly told McGonigle that he is a heroin addict and would drive down Converse Street every morning on his way to a methadone clinic. Each morning, he would pass the Jewish school near Ruth’s House.
Rathbun denied anti-Semitic or racist sentiments and denied accessing the white supremacist group online, telling McGonigle he “only uses the internet to access a dating site and pornography.”
Rathbun denied his family had ever owned a yellow gas container like the one found at the crime scene and denied involvement in placing the makeshift bomb.
“When informed that his blood was found on the gas can found at Ruth’s House, he could not explain how this was possible,” McGonigle wrote.
He initially denied having any personal interest in religion but said his mother distributed Christian pamphlets, the document says. Rathbun’s mother told agents she printed her own pamphlets and said she did not recognize the one found in the gas can at Ruth’s House.
“When agents presented him with photographs of the bloodstained Christian pamphlet that had been used to light the incendiary device at Ruth’s House and informed him that his DNA matched the blood, Rathbun’s demeanor visibly changed, and a short while later, he stated that he did not know what he was going to do and that he wanted to cry,” the complaint states.
The investigation was led by the FBI’s Western Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force with assistance from the Longmeadow and East Longmeadow police departments and the Massachusetts State Police.