- Date of Incident
- October 15, 2021
Man who threatened CNN and ABC anchors, politicians sentenced to three years in prison
A California man was sentenced to three years in prison on Dec. 20, 2021, after pleading guilty to sending threatening messages to nearly 50 politicians and journalists, including multiple broadcast anchors from CNN and ABC News.
Robert Lemke was arrested and charged on Jan. 26 by federal prosecutors with making threatening interstate communications to multiple victims from November 2020 through early January 2021. Lemke pleaded guilty on Oct. 15 to a federal charge of sending threatening messages to a family member of a journalist reported to be George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.
According to CNN anchor Brian Stelter, both he and his colleague Don Lemon attended Lemke’s sentencing hearing because they, too, had received threats. Both journalists delivered “victim impact statements” before U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, while other testimonials from Lemke’s targets and character letters from his family members were submitted to the court.
Hellerstein ultimately sentenced Lemke to three years imprisonment — minus the nearly 11 months he has served — along with three years of supervised release.
"Robust political debate is a hallmark of our democracy," Hellerstein said, according to Stelter’s reporting. But "threats to intimidate are not debates."
A California man pleaded guilty on Oct. 15, 2021 to a federal charge of sending threatening messages to a family member of a journalist reported to be George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. His indictment revealed the man had also messaged nearly 50 politicians and journalists, among them Brian Stelter of CNN.
According to the Department of Justice, Robert Lemke was arrested and charged on Jan. 26 by federal prosecutors with making threatening interstate communications to multiple victims from November 2020 through early January 2021.
Prosecutors said Lemke was angered by the results of the 2020 presidential election and allegedly sent threatening text messages to reporters, their family members and to Democratic New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, among others.
“Rather than peaceably disagree, Lemke allegedly threatened to harm those individuals’ families, demanding they retract their statements,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said.
Prosecutors said Lemke used at least three different phone numbers and various electronic accounts in an attempt to mask his identity when sending the threatening messages.
Following Lemke’s guilty plea, Stelter revealed on his CNN talk show Reliable Sources on Oct. 17 that he was who prosecutors had labeled as “victim-1” in Lemke’s indictment. According to Stelter, Lemke sent him and his brother a series of text messages, including one that read, “You can either choose to dig the hole deeper or stop digging. Because we're not fu***** around.”
Stelter said on his program that in addition to those messages, Lemke sent voice messages and a picture of his father's gravesite before moving on to other victims, which Stelter said included other CNN journalists, politicians and a nonprofit CEO. He did not respond to a request for comment.
In thanking the FBI and prosecutors for their work, Stelter said harassment of journalists was pervasive.
“Threats and harassment hinder a free press,” he said. “So many reporters have stories like this one. They’re usually all bottled up, never shared with the public and never prosecuted by authorities. But this case, with dozens of victims, can be a statement.”
While the indictment does not name ABC chief anchor and Good Morning America co-host Stephanopoulos as one of Lemke’s victims, The New York Times reported that Lemke sent text messages to a relative of Stephanopoulos that read “Your brother is putting your entire family at risk with his lies and other words. We are armed and nearby your house.”
Lemke's sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 14, 2021. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]