Texan Accused of Threatening to Spread Virus in Grocery Stores

(CN) — A Texas man is facing a terrorism-related charge after allegedly saying on Facebook that he hired someone to spread the coronavirus at grocery stores, a threat that federal authorities say was ultimately found to be a hoax.

Christopher Charles Perez, 39, of San Antonio was arrested without incident in the neighboring city of New Braunfels, Texas, on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the FBI’s office in San Antonio said.

A section of meat and poultry is left empty after panicked shoppers swept through in fear of the coronavirus at a local grocery store in Burbank, Calif., on March 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Prosecutors accuse Perez of making a threat on Facebook in which he claimed to have paid someone to spread the novel coronavirus at grocery stores in the San Antonio area.

According to court documents, Perez later claimed the post was just “shit talking” and that he had actually posted it to prevent people from going to the stores and spreading the virus themselves.

The threat, prosecutors said, was a hoax. Nobody actually spread the virus at the stores.

Federal authorities on Tuesday charged Perez with a felony under a terrorism-related law that criminalizes false information and hoaxes about the use of biological agents.

Court records did not immediately list an attorney for Perez.

Authorities said they were tipped off by a person who saw the Facebook post and took a screenshot.

According to an FBI affidavit unsealed on Wednesday, Perez allegedly made the post using the moniker “Christopher Robbins” and said in part “my homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked every thing for past 2 days cause we paid him too [sic].”

“Perez said he ‘thought it was stupid for people to be out shopping and he was trying to scare people from the stores in order to stop them from spreading the virus to keep people safe,’” FBI special agent Raymond Martinez III wrote in the affidavit.

“Perez did not intend to cause a mass panic, but prevent the spread of coronavirus by keeping people at home because he believes people are out there intentionally spreading the virus,” Martinez wrote. “When asked if he was happy a grocery store closed as a result of his threat, Perez stated he was ‘50/50.’”

The arrest comes just a couple weeks after the Justice Department’s second-in-command advised prosecutors across the U.S. that people who engage in threats or fraud schemes related to the virus could face terrorism charges.

In the memo obtained by Politico, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen told prosecutors that because the coronavirus “appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent,’” hoaxes and threats about the virus “could implicate the nation’s terrorism-related statutes.”

“Threats or attempts to use Covid-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote.

Rosen’s memo specifically highlighted that prosecutors could pursue charges for coronavirus threats using the very law that authorities now accuse Perez of violating.

The San Antonio case is not the first of its kind to surface during the pandemic.

Police north of Dallas reportedly arrested an 18-year-old woman on Tuesday for claiming in a Snapchat video that she had intentionally spread the virus, while a grocery store shopper in New Jersey was similarly arrested in late March for allegedly coughing near an employee and telling her had the virus.

Along with prosecuting threats, the Justice Department has launched an effort to go after coronavirus-related fraud.

In March, the DOJ filed its first enforcement action related to the pandemic in a federal court in Austin, accusing a website of engaging in a wire fraud scheme to collect credit card numbers by selling nonexistent coronavirus vaccine kits.

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