Man avoids prison for threatening vaccine bill sponsor
SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — A Maryland man who worked for a Defense Department contractor was sentenced on Tuesday to six months of home detention for threatening to kill a member of Congress who sponsored vaccination requirements for public school students.
Darryl Albert Varnum told U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett that he was drunk when he called in the death threat last year and is ashamed by his impulsive actions. Varnum had been upset when he read a post on social media that misrepresented a pro-vaccine bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, said defense attorney Brendan Hurson.
“Mr. Varnum is not a disgruntled adherent to some extremist belief who acted in accordance with those beliefs,” Hurson said. “He is a man who is a very good man who had a very real illness and was quite frankly too drunk to control himself on the day he made that call.”
Bennett also sentenced Varnum to two years of court supervision. Sentencing guidelines called for a sentence ranging from no prison time to six months in prison.
Varnum, 43, of Westminster, said he has listened to a recording of his threatening phone call and heard a side of himself that he never knew existed.
“I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said.
Court records don’t publicly name the Congress member who was threatened by Varnum, but Wilson confirmed her office received it.
“It was just so vile and so scary. I was petrified,” said Wilson, who represents Florida’s 24th District and has a district office north of Miami.
Varnum apologized to her, but Wilson wasn’t on a video conference of the proceedings to hear it. She said nobody notified her of Tuesday’s sentencing and only learned about the hearing because an Associated Press reporter contacted her spokeswoman seeking comment. She thinks authorities should have consulted her before the hearing.
“I’m just wondering why,” she said. “That’s a law that I am supposed to be notified.”
Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Robert Hur’s office, said office records indicate prosecutors emailed a notice of Tuesday’s sentencing hearing to Varnum’s victim in early May.
“We’re reaching out to the victim to determine what happened,” Murphy said.
Varnum pleaded guilty in February to making a threat in interstate communication, a charge punishable by a maximum of five years in prison.
On June 26, 2019, Varnum used his cellphone to call one of Wilson’s district offices and left a profanity-laden voicemail message in which he threatened to travel to Miami and kill her “if you do that bill.”
His voicemail didn’t specify which bill. About 12 minutes later, however, Varnum posted a Facebook message that included a photograph of an American flag and the words, “H.R. 2527 Vaccinate All Children Act 2019.” That legislation, sponsored by Wilson, called for states to require students in public elementary or secondary schools to be vaccinated.
“Holocaust has begun!” Varnum wrote, according to a U.S. Capitol Police special agent’s affidavit.
“All of our guns are next, been trying for years!” he wrote in another post that night.
Varnum, who was arrested last July, worked for government contractor Sealing Technologies at the Defense Information Systems Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. He had access to “sensitive information” and was prohibited from having a cellphone in the Defense Department agency’s building, the special agent’s affidavit said.
In a court filing last September, before Varnum agreed to plead guilty, Hurson argued that his client’s voicemail message “appears to be crude political speech, but not a crime.”
“The Supreme Court has concluded that, in order to qualify as constitutionally unprotected criminal speech, a threatening statement must amount to a ‘true threat’ rather than mere political hyperbole or idle chatter,” wrote Hurson, an assistant federal public defender.
In 2017, President Donald Trump lashed out at Wilson after she said Trump told the widow of a soldier killed in an ambush in Africa that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
Trump accused Wilson of fabricating her description of his phone call with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four servicemen killed in an attack by Islamic State-linked militants in Niger. Wilson stood by her statement.
Wilson said she was flooded with menacing phone calls and social media messages after her political fight with Trump.
“That was a very scary time for me also,” she said.