Man accused of threatening Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan must remain in custody, judge rules

Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski in August, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

A federal judge ruled Friday that a Delta Junction man accused of threatening to kill Sen. Lisa Murkowski must remain behind bars until an Oct. 19 preliminary hearing.

That’s what Murkowski had asked the judge in a letter to do out of concern over threats that Jay Allen Johnson made against her and Sen. Dan Sullivan. Murkowski wasn’t able to phone-in for Friday’s online detention hearing because she was traveling back to Alaska.

In the letter, Murkowski said she’d be worried if the judge released Johnson from Fairbanks Correctional Center, where he’s been held since federal agents arrested him a week ago.

“I am concerned for my personal safety if he is not detained while I’m in the state,” she wrote. “If he is released, I would like to know what the FBI is doing to ensure my safety and security while I’m here in Alaska.”

Murkowski’s concerns stem from threats that Johnson allegedly made in 17 voicemail messages to her and Senator Dan Sullivan.

Federal Magistrate Judge Scott Oravec read transcripts from a couple of the profanity-laced messages, including one left on Sept. 2 when the caller threatened to burn the senator’s properties and asked if she knew what happens when a .50-caliber bullet hits a human head.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Tansey argued that Johnson should remain in jail because he remains a threat and could flee the area. The prosecutor played an audio clip of a Sept. 29 message on Murkowski’s voicemail in which the caller claims he’ll hire a hitman from among the “terrorists and assassins” that he said she was letting into the country.

In another message, he said that “Nobody in this state wanted you to impeach Trump!”

Tansey said some of the voicemails also threatened the two senators’ staff members. He cited an Aug. 30 message in which the caller said that if the staffers don’t quit their jobs, “We are coming for you. The next insurrection will be an insurrection – period!”

Tansey called the messages, “extremely serious.” He said Johnson had the means to back up his threats, as shown when FBI agents raided his home last week and seized seven firearms. The prosecutor said it’s illegal for firearms to be left accessible to a felon like Johnson, who Tansey said has a decades-long criminal record.

Johnson’s wife, Catherine Sue Pousson Johnson, told Tansey that those were her weapons. She admitted that they were not secured and kept inaccessible from her husband, as is required for a convicted felon.

But Gary Colbath, Johnson’s defense attorney, said there’s nothing unusual about having seven guns in a home located in a rural area in Alaska. He said Pousson Johnson wasn’t able to secure the weapons because she was upset last month when she flew to Texas after her father died.

Colbath suggested that the court should release Johnson from jail and place him in the custody of his wife because she promises to lock up the guns and keep him from driving or using a telephone.

Pousson Johnson told Colbath that her 65-year-old husband is frail and disabled.

“My husband is an old man,” she said, “and he gets very angry listening to politics on the news.”

When Tansey asked her if she knew that her husband has threatened the senators, she replied, “Who hasn’t? I think half the nation is very upset.”

Oravec cited those statements as part of his concerns over releasing Johnson to the custody of his wife. He said that arrangement wouldn’t protect the senators or the community where the Johnson lives.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Judge Scott Oravec’s last name in one instance.

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