New: ‘This is absolutely racism’: Rep. Johnson says death threat wasn’t investigated for weeks

By: - January 8, 2021 9:17 pm

Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson | House Democrats photo

Updated, 9:23 a.m., 1/11/21

A Black female lawmaker from Detroit is accusing the Michigan State Police of “racism and implicit bias” in its handling of a death threat issued against her on Dec. 12. 

Chad Michael Varrone, 48, of Charlotte, was identified in mid-December as the man who called state Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Grattan Township) and left a message threatening to kill state Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson and her family. But he wasn’t charged for that crime until Friday* when MSP Det. Sgt. William Luebs connected him to a Thursday bomb threat of the state Capitol. 

“Not only is it racism, but it is implicit bias,” Johnson told the Advance Friday night. “This is absolutely racism. This is behavior from racists. This is racists who have been allowed to continue to be racist.”

The reason? Luebs had the full name, address, telephone number and photo of Varrone on Dec. 15, as well as the full voicemail threat against Johnson and other lawmakers. But according to Michigan State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner, he didn’t initiate an investigation of the threats until Thursday.

“The House sergeant-at-arms are MCOLES-certified police officers with full arrest powers,” Banner wrote in response to an inquiry from Advance. “They did share with us information about Varrone’s threat against Representative Johnson for our situational awareness; however, there was no request from the House sergeants for MSP to initiate any type of investigation or to become involved/assist in their investigation of him or the threats against Representative Johnson. This type of situational awareness information sharing is common among the three police agencies responsible for public safety at the Capitol.”

But the Legislative Sergeant At Arms Police Powers Act of 2001 specifically limits their enforcement to the grounds of the Capitol, any location where a legislative hearing is happening, legislative parking lots, legislative member and staff office buildings and any property immediately adjacent to those properties.*

“I think you’re misunderstanding what jurisdiction means in regards to a police agency’s ability to investigate a crime,” wrote Banner in an email. “In the Act, the jurisdiction is the physical location for which the legislative sergeants have authority; much like a city police department’s physical jurisdiction is the city limits. However, just because a city police department’s jurisdiction is their city, it does not prevent them from investigating or requesting a warrant for someone who lives outside their jurisdiction. The jurisdiction in this incident was the Capitol.”

She reiterated that MSP was not asked to investigate. 

“In this case, there was not a request for assistance with Varrone, nor was this matter ‘referred’ to us as I have seen to be alleged in other news stories. The December 15 communication to us from the House sergeant about Varrone was not a request for an investigation; it was provided solely for our situational awareness,” Banner said.

Ryan Jarvi, spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, said in a statement that officials learned of the death threats against Johnson and the bomb threat “simultaneously” on Thursday. He referred questions about the investigation to the MSP. The AG’s office has charged Varrone with two counts of two counts of false reports of terrorism and one count of false report of a bomb or harmful device. 

Days before Varrone allegedly left his death threat, Johnson was making headlines for releasing voicemail death threats she had received and referred to the FBI following a hearing on unfounded allegations of election irregularities featuring President Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. She mentioned one of those threats during a Facebook Live video that was manipulated to imply she was threatening violence against Trump supporters and circulated in right-wing social media. She was subsequently stripped of her committee assignments for the alleged threat by GOP leadership and criticized by several Democratic leaders. She called the entire episode of the Facebook video a “digital lynching.”

Banner’s claims on the Varrone investigation do not match the experience of former state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) when he received a death threat while in office. He said Friday evening that in 2012, his office received a call from a man who allegedly stated to a legislative staffer, “Tell Rick Jones that he won’t live through the weekend. I will kill him.” The threat was the result of Jones’ consideration of controversial Right-to-Work legislation. 

“That information was reported to the sergeant-in-arms, who collected the information and provided to the Michigan State Police,” Jones said. “Soon thereafter the MSP knocked on the guy’s door in Garden City and told him, in effect, ‘Knock it off.’”

Jones said the sergeant-at-arms staff do not have the capacity to travel and enforce laws. He is white and worked in law enforcement before his legislative career. 

“Does it surprise me? No,” Johnson said when Jones’ experience was shared with her. “You confirmed for me something that I already know.”

Jones declined to state whether he thought MSP dropped the ball on the Johnson death threat investigation without further information about the communications between the Dickson in the House and the MSP detective in December. 

Johnson alleges the MSP is covering up for its failure to act in December 

“Now for me to find out that Michigan State Police tried to lie their way out of it,” said Johnson. “The Michigan State Police got caught trying to sweep something under the rug. They got caught only because of that bomb threat.”

On Facebook, she questioned whether officials were “throwing” herself and House Chief Sergeant-at-Arms David Dickson, who also is Black, under the bus. “So, are we wondering why a building is more important than State Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson?” she wrote. 

“As a Black person, it pisses me off that Black people are often dismissed or blamed for actions or inactions they are innocent of,” she continued. “Enough is enough.”

Neither Dickson nor House GOP spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro responded to a request for comment. 

She’s now demanding an investigation as to why MSP failed to investigate the death threat against her. 

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Todd A. Heywood
Todd A. Heywood

Todd Heywood is an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience. He's worked in print, online, radio and television. His reporting has been cited by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as in the United Nations reports on HIV. He's an avid vintage Star Wars collector and lives in Lansing with his three dogs.