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Charlotte man faces terrorism charges after Capitol bomb threat, call to lawmaker

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A 48-year-old Charlotte man was charged Friday on allegations that he made a false bomb threat at the state Capitol Thursday and threatened the life of Democratic state Rep. Cynthia Johnson of Detroit in December. 

Michael Varrone was arraigned in Lansing Friday on two counts of false report or threat of terrorism and a count of false report of a bomb threat.

A false report or threat of a bomb is punishable by up to four years in prison, while a false report or threat of terrorism is a 20-year felony. 

Michael Varrone

One of the false report of terrorism counts is related to a threatening phone call Varrone made to Johnson, on Dec. 12, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. He called the Michigan House of Representatives six times that day and threatened Johnson in at least one of the calls, Nessel's office said. 

Johnson was outspoken at a hearing involving Rudy Giuliani, the personal lawyer of President Donald Trump, when he provided testimony and witnesses at a December Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing on the Nov. 3 election into potential irregularities.

"I am grateful this incident did not result in any serious injury or harm," Nessel said in a statement. "However, I hope this incident and the disgraceful tragedy that occurred Wednesday at our nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C., can serve as reminders of the security measures we must work to maintain and improve to protect the sanctity of our democracy and the safety of our people.”

Varrone's bond was set at $50,000 cash.

Johnson expressed frustration Friday that she wasn't alerted earlier that an individual had left a threatening message for her, let alone that Varrone wasn't arrested at an earlier date. She called for a full investigation into the issue.

"They didn’t arrest him when they had his information — I want to know who is responsible for that? Who had that information and didn’t do anything about that?” Johnson said. 

A Friday affidavit from Detective Sgt. William Luebs said Varrone left his voicemail threatening Johnson Dec. 12 on the office line for State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell. 

Varrone threatened to "take over the (expletive) building" and left his first and last name, spelling his last name, according to the affidavit.

"If I'm threatened by another senator or anybody like Cynthia Johnson, I'll personally take care of that (expletive) and their whole (expletive) family. There'll be no Johnsons left in Michigan," Varrone said, according to the affidavit. 

Varrone allegedly admitted to police Thursday that he left the December voicemail, explaining that he was "upset" with statements Johnson had made. He also said he was upset with the "current political climate" and the Wednesday insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. 

The Michigan Capitol is pictured on Tuesday. June 23, 2020.

State House sergeants alerted Michigan State Police to the December voicemail at the time, but the investigation into the voicemail was handled by State House police, according to State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner. 

A call from the suspect was referred to House sergeants, but it "did not include any immediate threats on the premises," said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth. 

House sergeants respond to immediate threats within the Capitol, D'Assandro said, but any issues needing further investigation or prosecution would be forwarded to the State Police.

"The information from that call was passed along to the Michigan State Police, and we are all glad they used that information to help track the suspect down after the bomb threat," D'Assandro said. 

The arrest comes as Michigan State Police have experienced an increase in reported threats at the Capitol — both non-specific messages protected by the First Amendment and ones not protected by the First Amendment that are investigated, State Police spokeswoman Lori Dougovito said. 

"While I don’t have specific data to share on the number of threats, there has been a noticeable increase in reported threats since November," Dougovito said. 

State Police on Thursday morning closed the Michigan Capitol for about two hours after Varrone allegedly called the Capitol facilities control office in Lansing at about 6:40 a.m. and made a bomb threat. 

Police alerted lawmakers to the threat, shut down the building and swept it for threats before reopening the Capitol. 

Varrone told police, according to the affidavit, that he could not remember calling the Capitol and "sometimes does not recall conversations and events when he first awakens in the morning."

The threat cam a day after sessions of the U.S. House and Senate were interrupted at about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday as rioters broke windows and got inside the building. Police put the Capitol on lockdown. Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding, as well as senators and representatives, were evacuated. 

Johnson reported receiving personal threats — including lynching threats — after participating in a Dec. 2 Oversight Committee hearing that featured Giuliani. During the hearing, Johnson spoke out against unproven claims of election fraud in Detroit and said witnesses were lying. 

The messages Johnson received at that time were left prior to Dec. 12, when Varrone is alleged to have threatened her in a phone call. 

State Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, speaks in a Facebook video on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

About a week after the Giuliani hearing, Johnson was removed from her committee assignments after she posted a "warning" to "you Trumpers."

She told supporters in a video to do "things right and in order" but told Trump backers to "be careful" and "walk lightly." She then said, "We ain't playing with you." She also told her supporters to "hit their a---s" in the pocketbook.

"Enough of the shenanigans," Johnson said. "Enough is enough. And for those of you who are soldiers, you know how to do it. Do it right. Be in order. Make them pay."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.