MORRISTOWN, New Jersey – The defense lawyer for an unemployed Morris Plains man who is accused of calling in death threats last month aimed at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., said Wednesday that the alleged threats may be protected speech under the First Amendment.
“This case is about speech, not action,” attorney Brian Neary said after a review hearing in Morristown for defendant Robert W. Kerekes Jr., 53, who was ordered released from custody while the charges are pending and to appear in Superior Court on Aug. 14 for a pre-indictment conference.
Kerekes, who is not married and lists his father in Whippany as his emergency contact, was charged by the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office on Monday with terroristic threats, criminal coercion and causing a false public alarm at Evergreen State College in the state of Washington on June 1 and June 2.
Kerekes, whose demeanor was calm and polite, appeared via closed circuit television between the Morris County jail and a courtroom for an initial appearance before Judge Joseph Deming. Kerekes has no prior criminal record but he was charged in Florida in 1984 with trespass and the charge was dismissed because he was deemed incompetent at that time.
Morris County Assistant Prosecutor Noelle Fiorentino said that Kerekes – who has no connection to the college but has read news reports about student protests on campus about alleged racial discrimination – said Kerekes is charged with making two explicit threats against the college.
In one threat, the caller said: “I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a .44 Magnum. I am going to execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of.” Authorities have said the threat, made to the Thurston County Communications Center in Washington state, led to a college shutdown on June 1 and June 2 for an investigation.
Kerekes allegedly said: “I’m going to murder as many people on that campus as I can.” Criminal complaints filed in Superior Court, Morristown, said the caller stated he intended to target African Americans. Fiorentino said the caller’s second threat was that he physically was on campus and the murders were about to begin.
A current public safety assessment performed by the court’s pretrial services unit recommended pretrial release but Fiorentino asked the judge to impose a special condition that Kerekes undergo a mental health evaluation.
“We don’t believe an ROR (release on own recognizance) without any conditions will protect the safety of our community,” Fiorentino told the judge. “Based on the content of those threats, we ask that the defendant refrain from possessing any firearms, destructive device or other dangerous weapons.” She asked that Kerekes also be forbidden from contacting the college or any of its students or representatives.
Fiorentino said a mental health evaluation is warranted so that the public can be better protected if Kerekes does have an untreated mental health condition. The judge agreed and ordered the evaluation, though the defense lawyer objected.
“To impose that burden on him right now, understanding of course that he has the presumption of innocence, I think is a form of over-condition,”
The judge responded: “What troubles me most at this point is the nature of the charge. It’s obviously true that he’s innocent until proven guilty but to look for logic or rationale or basis or purpose, meaningful purpose, in the conduct that’s described…it escapes me.”
Besides ordering the mental health evaluation, the judge said Kerekes has to report on a monthly basis to pretrial services workers and is barred from having weapons or contacting the college.
According to criminal complaints filed in Superior Court and national news reports, the college has been the site the past two months of student protests over alleged racial discrimination on campus. A caller, later identified as Kerekes, allegedly used his personal cell phone to make the threats.
Court records state that detectives interviewed Kerekes on Monday and he admitted being home on June 1 and making a threatening call on his cell phone from his home in Morris Plains “after seeing media reports of race-related issues at the university.”
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