I am going to kill you!

I suspect that if you took a survey of federal trial judges, you would find that many of them have received threats. Most of the time those threats are not serious. Of course, the problem is that you never know.

02On February 28, 2005, federal judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow returned home to find the bodies of both her husband and mother in the basement of her home on the North Side of Chicago. Both Michael F. Lefkow, 64, and Donna Humphrey, 89, had been shot multiple times. The Cook County medical examiner’s office stated that the victims were killed with .22 caliber shots to the head. No weapon was found at the scene, but two .22-caliber casings were recovered; evidence of a break-in was found as well. Initial suspicions focused on the possibility that hate groups were involved. On March 4, the FBI announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the identification of anyone involved in the slayings. On March 8, investigators announced that DNA samples were obtained from a cigarette butt found inside the kitchen sink. Further evidence was recovered in and around the home, including a fingerprint, a bloody footprint, and a soda can.

On March 10, 2005, the Chicago Police Department and federal agents announced a possible break in the case. According to investigators, a van was stopped during a traffic stop in West Allis, Wisconsin, at 6 p.m. on March 9. As West Allis police officer Rick Orlowski approached the vehicle, the driver, identified as electrician Bart Ross, shot and killed himself.

Later that night, a suicide note was found in the van which admitted to the murders of Lefkow’s husband and mother, providing details about the crimes which would have been known only to the actual murderer. Ross was a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case that Lefkow had dismissed.

Investigators also found over three hundred .22 caliber shells in the vehicle, casings of the same caliber that were found in the Lefkow home. DNA evidence from Ross matched the cigarette butt found in Lefkow’s home. Ross also sent a handwritten letter to a TV station describing breaking into the Lefkow home with a plan to kill the judge.

Because of the Lefkow tragedy, any federal judge who wants one is provided with a rudimentary home security system.  We have one installed in our home. Frankly, it is a pain in the ass, but I know that my wife, Joan, feels better about being home alone knowing the system is in place. Note to reader: Joan is not afraid of anything, but she is not an idiot either.

Perhaps because I am bull-headed, I have left our name, telephone number and address in the telephone book. I don’t vary my route to work despite the suggestion of the resident judicial security specialist with the United States Marshals Service. Aside from the .22 rifle that I use to plunk the damn rabbits in Joan’s garden, I have refused the suggestion that I purchase and learn to shoot a handgun. None of this is bravery on my part. Rather, I insist upon living a normal life and most of the security tips seem over the top. Have I ever been seriously threatened? Frankly, I don’t know. But, I will give you four examples:

♦ Around 1990, when I was dating Joan, a friend of ours died who was a well-known trial lawyer. He lived in Kearney, about 200 miles west of Omaha where I served as a US Magistrate. I told Joan, who lived in Lincoln, that I would pick her up and we would drive out to the funeral. The evening before our trip, I lectured on the death penalty at the Creighton Law School. One of my daughters who was looking after Keller that evening received numerous telephone calls that were hard to understand but seemed threatening. That night when I returned home, she told me about the calls. In the morning, I called the Marshals and filled them in. I thought nothing more about it, and left for Kearney. When I arrived in Kearney, I noticed two US Marshals. It turned out that a few days earlier I had issued a writ to pick up some farm equipment owned by a member of the local Posse Comitatus group. When the Marshals checked my docket after I had reported the telephone calls, they became very concerned that the telephone calls may have come from that group, and they immediately notified the FBI* and sent two Marshals out to Kearney to follow us around until we arrived safely back at our homes. When I arrived at my residence that night, after dropping Joan off in Lincoln, I found the house filled with FBI agents and US Marshals.

A recording device was attached to the phone, the kids had been removed early from their schools, and our housekeeper was wide eyed. While nothing ever came of it, for the longest time Keller, who was then 10, wanted to become an FBI agent. The senior FBI agent who had been in our home was very kind to Keller and he went out of his way to explain what they were doing and why. Keller thought the world of him.

♦ On November 4, 1994, I began my first foray into the abortion morass.  A women had been raped, and a doctor performed an abortion of the fetus. The doctor then sought reimbursement  pursuant to the Nebraska Medicaid law. Nebraska refused to pay.  I granted relief to the doctor, and enjoined Nebraska from refusing to pay such claims. See Orr v. Nelson, 902 F.Supp. 1019 (D. Neb. 1994) (“Virtually all courts that have considered the issue have concluded that the 1994 Hyde Amendment preempts conflicting state law so that a state may not prohibit funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest while the state continues to accept federal Medicaid funds.”).

That decision was not popular, and it got a fair amount of publicity. About five months later, and on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. The official investigation saw FBI agents conduct 28,000 interviews, amass 3.5 short tons (3.2 t) of evidence, and collect nearly one billion pieces of information. Somewhere in that mass of information are my discussions with the FBI. Rumors abounded that the Omaha federal building, and perhaps the Lincoln federal building, had also been selected as potential targets.

Our Federal Public Defender, David Stickman, represented a client who had recently been held at the federal facility in El Reno, Oklahoma. David reported to the FBI, so I was told, that his client, who David refused to name without his client’s permission, had information about the blast including the fact that I might have been a target, probably because of my earlier abortion decision. The FBI discussed this information with me, and told me that unless Stickman cooperated that they would arrest him as a material witness. They asked me to lean on David, and I refused. I urged the FBI to calm down, but they were not about to do so. To this day, I am not sure exactly what happened, but I later learned that David’s client agreed to speak with the FBI, probably in exchange for a potential cooperation deal. As it turned out, the client’s information had a ring of truth to it but was based upon rumor and speculation. I have always held Stickman in high regard, and this incident, particularly his willingness to go to jail if need be, only buttressed that respect.

♦ In 2004, I declared the federal “partial-birth abortion” statute to be unconstitutional. See Carhart v. Ashcroft, 331 F.Supp.2d 805 (D. Neb. 2004). Earlier, I done the same thing regarding Nebraska’s “partial-birth abortion” statutes. Both cases ended up in the Supreme Court. When I issued the decision on the federal statute, I was inundated by e-mails at my unpublished personal government e-mail address. How the writers got access to that e-mail address is unclear, but there is reason think that a right-wing web site obtained the address somehow and broadcast it the readers of the site.

The e-mails were almost uniformly nasty, but also frequently funny in a twisted sort of way. That prompted me to put together a “top ten list” of the dumb and dumber ones for circulation to my colleagues. For example, one of the writers proclaimed that my decision made the writer “embarrassed to be a Husker fan.” By the way, Wisconsin slaughtered the Huskers yesterday, with Melvin Gordon running for 408 yards against the vaunted Husker defense. That was not my fault.

In any event, one e-mail caught my eye. It was explicit. The author was going to kill me. I turned the e-mail over to the US Marshals, and they in turn gave it to the FBI. Since the poor guy who wrote the e-mail did nothing to hide his address, it was a simple matter for the FBI to find the fellow. I later learned that two agents interviewed the writer who was a decent man with a family and a good job. He apologized over and over for his impulsive gesture and, with a stern warning from the FBI, that’s where it ended.

♦ Three years or so ago, I begun to have trouble sleeping in my bed. My left leg and hip hurt like the devil. So, I took to sleeping in a chair in the family room. I am fairly certain that this was a precursor to the blood clots and cancer that later developed. Sleeping fitfully in the chair one early morning, I heard someone trying to get through the locked front door. A fairly big guy was banging and leaning heavily on the door. I flipped on the lights, and the fellow staggered back. I opened the door and told him to get the hell gone. He swore at me, but eventually left. I called the police, and two young female officers showed up in two separate cruisers. I told them what had happened, and they left in an effort to find the guy. And then a police sergeant showed up too. He asked me to get in his cruiser and took me several blocks from our home, where the other officers were putting handcuffs on a man. I was able to identify the man, and the sergeant took me back home. Along the way, he told me that the two female officers were rookies and he had been dispatched to my home because the dispatcher’s computer screen flashed an alert that I was a federal judge, and he was sure his captain would want a full explanation.

By the time I got home, one of our Deputy US Marshals was there. Even though the putative intruder was in custody, the Deputy Marshal carefully walked around the home looking into bushes and such with his flash light until he was sure that no one else was there. I subsequently learned that the guy had a criminal record, but was drunk out of his mind when he tried to get into our home. When he sobered up, he said that he thought he was at his apartment and he believed his roommate had locked the door. He entered a plea to disturbing the peace. The Marshals concluded that the guy was harmless.

So, what should you make of this? Probably nothing. Stuff like this goes with the job of being a federal trial judge. That is easy for me to say when the fine men and women from the US Marshals Service, the FBI and the local police take these matters very seriously.


*The US Marshals have the responsibility to safeguard judges. The FBI is called into handle any necessary criminal investigation.

16 responses

  1. Judge Kopf: Your anecdotes, particularly the one about the guy who threatened you for declaring the partial-birth abortion ban law unconstitutional, remind me of Arendt’s equation of banality and evil.

  2. Judge , everyone seems to get death threats, in law school usually from mentally ill students, had a couple, in practice because of controversial cases, one, but profs and lawyers have no marshalls. Incidentally you may be safe since most famous assailant, though marshal killed him, was former CJ of CA, so just avoid ex state supreme court justices, In re Neagle. Nice ethics issue should Brewer have sat since Field was his uncle, no blogs in those days to guide him.

  3. In Texas, many public officials can get license plates showing their offices. So, for example, we have “state judge” and “federal judge” plates. A friend of mine who is a federal district judge has those special plates even though I and others have told him he is making himself a target.
    The judge, who is a former U.S.Army paratrooper, does carry a pistol. In his briefcase. Lots of use there.
    Except for adoptions, somebody leaves the courtroom unhappy in every case. You and other trial judges on all levels should be careful. There are nuts out there.

  4. I really enjoyed six US Marshals living in my home for 5 months. They are amazing public servants. Several from your district where part of the rotation and they were absolutely the most professional and wonderful folks one would ever want to meet. Well the high school boys who attempted to place rolls of toilet paper on our neighbors trees were quite surprised when surrounded by US Marshals with assault rifles at 2am. Not quite what they expected.

  5. Rich, I was the subject of a death threat about a week after arriving at Creighton Law School. I was actually informed by a Creighton psychologist who was treating the person and had concluded that it was serious enough that he had a duty to inform me. All I had done was to send him a letter saying that his grades were too low to continue. Anyway, Creighton hired a body guard for me for a couple of weeks but he eventually left the area. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I actually stopped being scared after I met with him (with the body guard present). I would have liked the student better if I thought he might kill me. That would have required planning and purpose that he lacked. But a law dean at Appalachian Law School was killed several years ago by a student who was dismissed. Statistically speaking, though, you’re a lot safer being a judge or law dean than a coal miner or long haul truck driver. But the epic line of the whole thing belongs to a friend of mine from Albany Law School, from which I had left. I called her about something else and mentioned that I was under a death threat in my first week. She deadpanned: “Oh, I figured that would take months.” Pat.

  6. As Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” The Bart Ross affair is a textbook example of a catastrophic systems failure.

    Comparing his suit to those filed by relatives of victims in the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Ross sought $1 billion in damages, saying he had suffered ”total financial destruction,” having to sell his house, and ”total destruction of every other aspect of his life over the past 12 years and in the foreseeable future.” He said he had traveled 5,000 miles consulting 100 lawyers and 200 doctors, and that he had lost all his teeth, could no longer open his mouth more than a quarter- inch or eat solid food, and was ”continuously 24/7 on pain relievers morphine and Tylenol with codeine.” [Chicago Tribune]

    By 2004, Ross was up against it. Living in his van and on pain-killers 24/7 (and therefore, unable to work), but yet, unable to collect Social Security disability? When he said he was dead already, he was hardly exaggerating.

    You had to feel for Judge Lefkow. She was saddled with the unenviable task of explaining why a man who has been betrayed by “the system” on so many levels was beyond the protection of the law. And ultimately, it is “the system” that betrayed her, because the people have lost faith in the capacity of judges to serve as honest caretakers of our sacred legal traditions. Bart Ross could be forgiven for not taking Judge Lefkow at her word, as so many of her learned colleagues have demonstrated via their actions that even their sworn oaths meant nothing.

    As a society, we have surrendered. We can no longer rationally maintain the phantasmic belief that our Supreme Court “really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes.” Or, for that matter, that any of our appellate courts still qualify. But that “surrender” comes at a terrible price, as Honoré de Balzac famously observed.

  7. Judge, with all due respect, you’re nuts.

    You’ve made numerous rulings that the whackjobs are going to be upset over, and some of these whackjobs are insane enough to not even blink about taking out a federal judge or his family. You know this, you are intelligent enough to recognize the danger.

    You said “I insist upon living a normal life and most of the security tips seem over the top.” No sir, they are not over the top. They are made for good reasons. I joke with my family that I’m avoiding ambushes when we always take a different route when coming home than when we left. It’s really not a joke, and I don’t have the need to protect myself or my family like you do. I don’t publish my phone number and address for the same reason, although it could still be found, it would leave traces.

    I pay attention to my surroundings. I’m no longer an officer, but I still carry a gun every day (although not in court or school, which leaves me with a feeling of unease likely related to normal police paranoia). You should carry too, because you are not just responsible for your own safety, but also for those around you. Yes, I know that may not be a legal requirement, but it is, I would submit, a moral one. You also know that the police (or Marshals) can’t get there in time if something does happen.

    I urge you to reconsider purchasing a handgun. We need to keep you around.

  8. ECLS,

    In the 90s, I knew a really good guy who was a long time narc. He also ran a drug dog. He got involved in a big DEA deal between LA and Nebraska. Flew out to LA with a bunch of fellow Nebraska officers to participate in a city wide takedown of some street gang types. Long story short, as he jumped into the back seat of a car with a bunch of others, all wearing tactical gear, he discharged his weapon into his foot. Hilarity, and screams of pain, ensued. It took them three tries before they found an LA hospital that would treat him. When he arrived back in Nebraska on crutches to receive a royal ass chewing from his superiors, his buddies presented him with a blown up photo of his drug dog covering its face with both paws as if in utter shame. Now, imagine me with handgun.

    Thanks for your concern. All the best.


  9. Particularly for a law clerk, I was a relatively biggish guy and well put-together at about 6’1″, 205. the judge and I were out grabbing a bite to eat once when we crossed paths with a defendant’s family. They kept their distance, but I heard some moppet ask his mom, “Who’s that man with the judge?” Mom replied, “His bodyguard.”*
    Point is, your honor, that the public is generally oblivious to such things. I’m not sure I’d recommend a blog entry that disabuses anyone of the notion that judges (let alone the Justices) receive anywhere near the same level of protection at home and other locations away from the courthouse as, say, does the wife of some lieutenant governor or deputy mayor. It’s better to let such things fly under the radar. Frankly, there’s no need to tell anyone what armaments are, or are not, on you kitchen table. Judges as much as anyone ought to practice safe SECs. And also receive a belgian malinois upon investiture.

    *Which I guess is sort of true, if by “guard” you mean “from ERISA and patent cases.” Actually, from time to time, I did forward to the Marshals the names of a couple of pro se plaintiffs who had never said or done anything to show up on the USMS’s radar. In fact, all had a legitimate beef they’d been screwed by the system; but 10 years of pro se fumbling left them empty handed. Unfortunately, from experience, these are exact guys who tend show up at Chambers with something of a Michael Douglas in Falling Down vibe, looking to talk to the judge. (This is also why I took my name off my voicemail.)

  10. Judge:
    Here in my neck of the woods–New York City–I recall that a federal judge was assassinated by the father of an unsuccessful litigant in the late 1980’s when the judge was mowing his lawn on a Saturday morning (the federal courthouse in White Plains is, in fact named in his honor). I commend to you two words that inform my daily commute on the New York City subway: “Situational Awareness.” It may be a bit of an illusion but I try to cling to the idea of being situationally aware, at all times, when I am out in public. I can only hope that you please do the same.

  11. Charlie D.,

    A story regarding your experience as a “body guard:”

    A long time ago, I was fairly fit. With a bunch of others lawyers, we where in Denver to take depositions. In the evening, we got together and went to a high-end disco after first hitting a low end strip joint. Back then opposing lawyers often liked each other and tried to settle cases at all manner of watering holes.

    One of the guys convinced the manager of the disco that he was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and the rest of us were his body guards. He was tall like Paul Volcker, the real Fed. Chairman. We got to sit in a special room and were comped drinks all night. The case didn’t settle, but we had a helluva a lot of fun.

    Thanks for the good advice. Coming from a former body guard, I am especially appreciative.


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  13. Back in the 1980’s a federal judge was assassinated here in San Antonio by a drug gang. Yes, those things do happen. Just recently, Judge Biery received numerous death threats when he presided over a prayer-in-school case. As a country, we really just need to stop and take a breath every now and then. But, until folks calm down a bit, I would pack a pistol, Judge. But, I agree that if you carry a pistol, you need to be pretty darn comnfortable with it.

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