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California Online Threat Case Shows Heightened Fears by Police

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rants, racist remarks and menacing words permeate the Internet these days, so why did police decide to arrest a Yale dropout for investigation of making online death threats against children and hold him on a bail amount usually reserved for suspected killers?

Authorities said they considered several factors in the case against 21-year-old Eric Yee, who was arrested last week after commenting about a story on ESPN's website about the cost of new Nike sneakers named after LeBron James.

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Authorities claimed Yee said he wouldn't mind killing children, and there were unregistered weapons in the Santa Clarita house overlooking two schools where he lived with his parents.

ESPN is based in Connecticut, where police said the posting that led them to Yee also referred to a shooting that would be like the one in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed and 58 others injured during a screening of the latest Batman movie.

Arresting Yee and imposing the steep bail was a sign of how seriously investigators in the digital age are taking threats that could escalate, Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Steve Low said.

"These cases are not always cut and dry," said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles that files less than 10 threat cases a year. "While there are challenges, we have to be vigilant because people sometimes follow through on these threats."

Some of the nearly 3,000 reader comments on the ESPN website talked about children possibly getting killed over the expensive sneakers. Yee posted that he was watching children and wouldn't mind killing them, authorities said.

He was booked for investigation of making terrorist threats, and the case is expected to be turned over to prosecutors on Wednesday.

His attorney, David Wallin, said Yee was simply trying to give his social and political commentary on shoes that cost $270 and was paraphrasing from the movie "American Psycho."

"His entire intent was to talk about his views on these shoes and what they represented," Wallin said. "I could say this is felony stupid but he's not guilty of making criminal threats."

California law states that a person can be convicted of making a criminal threat — whether verbally, in writing or by means of email or on the Internet — if someone takes it as a threat and even if the person doesn't intend to carry it out.

Investigators wouldn't say if there is any evidence that Yee might act on the threat, but legal experts believe the bail amount was very high for a person suspected of the offense.

The presumptive bail for making a criminal or terrorist threat is $50,000, and it would take many specific circumstances to push it much higher, said Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former federal public defender who is not involved in the case.

Wallin acknowledged there were two firearms in the home — a rifle and pistol — that belonged to Yee's father. He added that Yee planned to leave the house after recently signing a lease for an apartment in New York, where he planned to start an investment business.

"The way this has been portrayed in the media from the accounts given by law enforcement is scaring the hell out of everybody," Wallin said. "He's been portrayed as Atilla the Hun."

The alleged posting touched on two topics that draw increased attention from law enforcement — killing children and a mass shooting. Such comments could be protected as free speech under the First Amendment, but even that freedom can be trumped in the post-9/11 era.

"I think that it really comes down to exactly what was said, how the threats were made and if they were credible," said Doug Mirell, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases. "Bottom line is, if this is a true threat it's not protected by the First Amendment."

Sheriff's investigators said they were looking at several computers to see if Yee had made any similar posts on the Internet. They also were working with police in Bristol, Conn., and Yale University, which said Yee was a student until he withdrew this May for undisclosed reasons.

Yale officials said he had been expected to graduate with a bachelor's degree in economics this past spring. A Yale website listed him as a member of its class of 2012 and a participant in a leadership training program.


Associated Press writers David Collins and Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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