World News

American-Israeli Teenager Is Sentenced to 10 Years for Bomb Hoaxes

Posted November 22, 2018 7:51 p.m. EST
Updated November 22, 2018 7:54 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — A Tel Aviv court on Thursday sentenced a 19-year-old American-Israeli man to 10 years in prison for sowing havoc and terror with fake bomb threats against hundreds of institutions, including schools, hospitals, malls, police stations and Jewish centers in the United States and other countries.

For months, prosecutors said, the teenager, who has not been publicly identified, threatened airports and commercial airlines, prompting the authorities to scramble fighter jets to escort planes forced to make emergency landings.

His targets included the Israeli Embassy in Washington and state Sen. Ernesto Lopez of Delaware who had issued a statement condemning the hoaxer. Lopez received a call warning him that if he did not pay blackmail, his daughter would be murdered.

The actions of the defendant caused panic and forced mass evacuations, and his focus on Jewish institutions stoked fears of rising anti-Semitism.

“One can easily imagine the terror, the fear and the horror that gripped the airplane passengers who were forced to make an emergency landing, some of whom were injured while evacuating the plane,” Judge Zvi Gurfinkel wrote in his verdict, “and the terrified panic caused when there was a need to evacuate pupils from schools because of fake bomb threats.”

A U.S. indictment has also been served against the hoaxer, who holds both Israeli and American citizenship, as the Justice Department has accused him of hate crimes.

The teenager from southern Israel was a legal minor when he began his campaign of terror. He was convicted of the crimes committed after he turned 18, including extortion, making threats and false reports, conspiracy to commit a crime, and money laundering.

Using sophisticated software to camouflage his voice and disguise his location, he offered his services to others on the dark net and traded in drugs, bomb-making guides and child pornography — all from his bedroom in the fifth-floor apartment in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, where he lived with his parents, officials said.

After months of an investigation by the cyberunit of the Israeli police, in cooperation with the FBI and other foreign police and security agencies, the apartment, in an upscale neighborhood, was raided in March 2017, and officers arrested the teenager.

During the search of his room, police said, he grabbed a pistol from a police officer and had to be wrestled to the ground.

According to court documents, the defendant demanded payment for his services on the dark net in bitcoin, the virtual cryptocurrency, and earned nearly 184 bitcoin, now worth about $800,000.

In his decision, the judge provided details of the defendant’s price list for his services. A phone threat to a private house cost $40; a call to a school cost double that; and for a call warning of a bomb on a plane, he charged $500.

Since the defendant refused to reveal the codes to access his bitcoin wallet, most of his earnings have not been recovered. Only a few thousand dollars were found in cash, according to Israeli authorities.

The teenager’s defense lawyers argued that his judgment had been impaired because he had severe autism and a brain tumor and is not able to distinguish right from wrong, making him unfit to stand trial.

A medical panel found that he was autistic but concluded he understood that his actions were forbidden and that he was responsible for them.

Gurfinkel said the young man’s condition had been taken into consideration in sentencing, otherwise he would have faced 17 years in jail.

After the sentencing in Tel Aviv on Thursday, the teenager’s mother told reporters outside the courtroom: “This is the most cruel, cruel thing in the world. I’m very sorry, but I am ashamed that the country acts this way.” She added that her son needed treatment and rehabilitation and that “his place is not in prison.”

Because of the court restrictions, little is known about the man’s family. His behavior was considered unusual from an early age, according to court documents, and he was home-schooled because he never adapted to regular educational frameworks.

At the time of his arrest, neighbors said the defendant’s father was an Israeli-born engineer in his 50s and his mother was a Westerner, presumably an American.

The hoax calls appear to have started in the spring of 2015, when he would have been about 16. Between April 2015 and March 2017, prosecutors said, he called about 2,000 institutions, claiming bombs had been planted or threatening an imminent shooting attack, prompting evacuations and bringing out the police and emergency services.

The hoaxer usually chose elementary schools, because those threats created more chaos and were taken more seriously.

In addition to the United States and Israel, threats were received in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

Flights were canceled and planes grounded. In the family’s apartment, a few blocks from the beach, the defendant had installed a powerful antenna enabling him to connect with distant wireless networks. He then followed the reports in the news media and documented the results of his actions.