Prosecutors called Daniel Frisiello of Beverly a prolific letter writer who filled his missives with white powder to terrify the sons of President Trump and other high-profile public figures.
His family and doctors said the case was more complex: At the time of his arrest in March 2018, Frisiello was a 24-year-old autistic man with serious cognitive problems and little understanding of the chaos and fear he had caused.
On Friday, dozens of his relatives filled a Boston courtroom and waited anxiously to hear the decision of US District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton, a judge known for handing down tough sentences and following the recommendations of prosecutors, who in this case were seeking three years imprisonment.
“I’m not going to send the defendant to jail,” Gorton said.
Frisiello lowered his head in relief and his lawyer, William Fick, patted his back. The FBI agents who had pursued the case were stoic as Frisiello’s relatives gasped and began to cry.
“Thank God,” one of them whispered.
Frisiello’s supporters had sent about 90 letters imploring Gorton to spare Frisiello from prison. He had pleaded guilty in October 2018 to 19 counts of mailing threats and hoaxes.
It was an unexpected outcome in a case that drew national attention in large part because of the people Frisiello targeted in his letters: Eric Trump and his older brother, Donald Trump Jr.; Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat; law enforcement leaders in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and the office Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn III.
In his letter to Quinn’s office, Frisiello threatened to shoot the prosecutor in the case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself.
In February, 2018 Frisiello sent a letter to the New York home of Donald Trump Jr. that said, “You are an awful, awful person . . . This is the reason why people hate you, so you are getting what you deserve.”
Trump Jr.’s then-wife, Vanessa, opened that letter and was rushed to the hospital after white powder fell from it. The powder was not toxic, but prosecutors said the substance showed Frisiello wanted to intimidate people he disagreed with politically or simply disliked.
“He understood and intended that his victims would be scared,” Assistant US Attorney Scott Garland wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
In court Friday, Garland said that he took into account Frisiello’s condition in his sentence recommendation, which fell below the five-year maximum. Other, similar cases have resulted in three to four-year sentences.
“It wasn’t a matter of impulse control,” Garland said. “There are many people who suffer the limitations Mr. Frisiello has but who don’t commit these crimes.”
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the sentence, as did Quinn’s office and the US attorney’s office.
Frisiello’s therapist and family had encouraged him to write letters to celebrities and political leaders, believing it would help him gain a stronger sense of self-worth. They did not know he was threatening people, according to one of his doctors, who wrote a report on Frisiello’s behalf that was cited in the defense sentencing memorandum.
“The tragedy in this case is that Daniel’s letter-writing, which began as a benign activity, was an important outlet for his self-expression, and allowed this socially anxious, cognitively limited, and deeply isolated young man a meaningful connection to the world,” the doctor wrote.
Fick said that Frisiello accepts responsibility for his actions but argued that prison would be the worst place for someone like him. After his arrest, he spent 12 days at the Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island where he was kept in isolation for nine days. Fick said in that short amount of time Frisiello became withdrawn and unable to engage with visitors. His mother, Joyce Frisiello, wrote of how he sobbed uncontrollably during her visits.
“Although an adult by age, Daniel is still emotionally, intellectually and functionally still a child,” Joyce Frisiello wrote Gorton on April 8. “I am almost certain that incarceration in federal prison would destroy him physically, mentally and emotionally.”
It appeared those concerns swayed Gorton. He imposed strict conditions on Frisiello, who will spend one year under house arrest and cannot leave unless it is for work, religious services, or mental health treatment. Frisiello also cannot access the Internet, send e-mail or letters, or even use a cellphone unless he receives the permission of probation.
“If you violate any of those conditions . . . your probation will be revoked and you will indeed go to prison,” Gorton warned Frisiello. “Do not underestimate how seriously I am treating your crimes.”
Frisiello, whose dark hair had recently been cut and who wore a black suit and a pink tie, thanked Gorton.
“The last 13 months have been hell and a lot of stress for my family,” Frisiello said. “Especially for my mother.”
After the hearing, he hugged his mother and appeared overwhelmed as weeping relatives embraced him. He declined to comment.
Fick later released a statement.
“Daniel deeply regrets the fear and harm he caused and will work very hard to be a better person and citizen,” Fick wrote.
Jonathan Inz, who has been Frisiello’s doctor for 10 years and attended the sentencing, shook his patient’s hand after the hearing.
“I’m very relieved,” Inz said. “The judge’s decision was fair and kind.”