Over prosecutors’ objections, a federal magistrate judge released a man to home confinement this week following his arrest for allegedly trying earlier this month to firebomb a Jewish-sponsored assisted living facility in Longmeadow, legal filings show.
Magistrate Judge Katherine A. Robertson released John Michael Rathbun, 36, Wednesday following his initial appearance in US District Court in Springfield, records show.
In a written objection, Assistant US Attorney Steven H. Breslow wrote that Robertson’s decision to release Rathbun, of East Longmeadow, “appears to have been greatly influenced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Breslow wrote that concerns about the pandemic, “while entirely laudable,” were not a sound basis for releasing Rathbun, who presents both a flight risk and a risk to public safety.
And, Breslow wrote, the Hampden County House of Correction, where Rathbun would be detained pretrial if he had been ordered held, “has established precautionary measures to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.”
Rathbun’s federal public defender declined to comment, except to say that he’d be filing a written response to prosecutors’ objection to the release order.
Breslow wrote that Rathbun, a “habitual” drug user with multiple prior arrests, was taken into custody Wednesday after he allegedly “placed a firebomb outside Ruth’s House, a Jewish-sponsored assisted living facility on April 2, 2020.”
The Anti-Defamation League of New England released a statement Thursday evening condemning Rathbun’s alleged actions and criticized Robertson for releasing him to stay at his mother’s home, just five minutes from Ruth’s House.
“Based on the allegations, Rathbun represents a clear and present danger to the community,” the league said. “Releasing this individual, whose DNA-evidence was found at the scene, and who allegedly engaged in online platforms that included anti-Semitic and racial threats of violence, undermines the safety and security of the entire community.”
Prosecutors say DNA evidence links Rathbun to the crime targeting the Ruth’s House facility, which they’ve described as an act of anti-Semitic violence.
Rathbun, Breslow wrote, allegedly “placed a homemade firebomb consisting of five gallons of gasoline at the entrance to an assisted living facility, within feet of a commonly used pedestrian walkway and a busy thoroughfare (Converse Street) in the heart of Longmeadow. The firebomb was lit, but fortunately failed to detonate when the pamphlet failed to burn into the gas canister.”
A partly burned Christian religious pamphlet was found in the canister’s nozzle — apparently charred in an attempt to light the fuel, the court filing said. Bloodstains on the pamphlet and the canister were linked to Rathbun’s DNA one week after the device was found, according to an affidavit.
The defendant, who lives with his parents and his teenage daughter, made his court appearance Wednesday on charges of interstate transportation and receipt of explosive with intent to kill, injure, and intimidate any individual, and to damage and destroy any property, and attempt to damage and destroy any property used in interstate commerce by means of fire and explosive, legal filings show.
He did not enter a plea.
About a month before the alleged arson attempt, a person connected with a white supremacist organization posted a social media message suggesting two locations for mass killings, including “that jew nursing home in longmeadow massachusetts (sic),” according to the affidavit.
An online calendar used by the white supremacist group indicated that April 2 was a day devoted to hatred of Black Americans, referring to them by a racial slur, and that April 3 was “jew killing day,” according to US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office. That calendar entry gave the location “Jew Nursery Home” but no specific address.
The profile for the user who created the calendar entry contains the message, “I hate jews. We should make a real holocaust sometimes. Only mistake Hitler made,” according to the affidavit.
Investigators believe the same person was responsible for both anti-Semitic posts.
When Rathbun was arrested at his home Wednesday, a gas canister was found on his front porch and several more in a nearby shed, according to court documents. Rathbun said the canisters were used to power a leaf blower and a lawn mower, the filing said.
He denied any involvement with the attempted arson and told authorities he does not have anti-Semitic beliefs and is not involved with any white supremacist groups, the affidavit said.
But Rathbun allegedly reacted strongly when told of the DNA match.
“When agents presented him with photographs of the bloodstained Christian pamphlet . . . and informed him that his DNA matched the blood, Rathbun’s demeanor visibly changed,” the affidavit said, ”and a short while later, he stated that he did not know what he was going to do and that he wanted to cry.”
In Breslow’s written objection to Robertson’s order releasing Rathbun, the prosecutor wrote that the government “respectfully requests that the defendant be detained pending his trial.”
Robertson hadn’t responded to Breslow’s filing as of Thursday evening.