State police investigating death threat against state Rep. Cynthia Johnson

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Michigan State Police have opened an investigation into a death threat reported Tuesday by a House Democratic lawmaker. 

The threat against state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, was "laced with racist and misogynistic language," the House Democratic Caucus said. 

The threats were "nothing new," said Johnson, who in a statement likened them to violence and vitriol directed toward Black Americans, women in power and survivors of domestic violence. 

"This is not the first time domestic terrorists have tried to silence me with similar threats, but I will not be silenced," Johnson said in a statement. "How dare they think I will take this lying down. Black women have fought this fight for too long. We’re tired from this fight, but we will not take this lying down.”

Michigan state Rep. Cynthia Johnson

State police confirmed an investigation into the threat Tuesday and said the agency had other open threat investigations pertaining to other lawmakers as well. The police agency has had an increased presence at the Capitol since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

"We continually reassess security protocols and make adjustments as needed to continue to ensure the safety of our elected legislators and those who work at and visit the Capitol," said Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police. 

Johnson said Tuesday she was alerted to the voicemail left on her office phone by a staffer. She forwarded the message to state police, Detroit police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

In a recording of the voicemail reviewed by The Detroit News, a woman who left her name at the beginning of the message told Johnson "you will die." The woman told Johnson that she had a tier system assigning "points for much you all are worth once we kill you.”

The woman also said it "would be more fun" if Johnson attempted to run and later said she had "long-range shooters" who might shoot while Johnson was getting groceries. Racist language is used throughout the voicemail.

"Maybe write a will real quick. But you will die. You're a traitor and your name's going to go down in history as one of the worst ones," the voicemail said.

"I wouldn’t send anything like that to my worst enemy,"  Johnson said Tuesday. "I have worked very hard for protecting the vote and I don’t apologize for anything I have said.”

Johnson began getting threats last year after calling out a witness who spoke at a hearing involving Rudy Giuliani, the personal lawyer of former President Donald Trump, when he provided testimony and witnesses at a December Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing into potential irregularities in the Nov. 3 election.

House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, said "racist rhetoric" from national leaders had "emboldened" people to make the threats. 

"Domestic terrorists are making their racist voices heard, so it is up to us to speak louder," Lasinski said in a statement. "Silence is acceptance. We need to send a clear message that hate has no home here and we will not stand for these threats and political intimidation of Black members, specifically Black female members. A threat against one of us is a threat against all of us.”

Michael Varrone of Charlotte was arraigned in January on two counts of a false report or threat of terrorism and one count count of false report of a bomb threat. One of the terrorism counts related to a threatening phone call Varrone is alleged to have made to Johnson on Dec. 12.

Varrone, according to police, had left the threatening voicemail for Johnson on the office line of state Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell. Johnson was frustrated at the time of Varrone's arrest that she hadn't been alerted earlier to the threatening message.

Johnson was censured last year over a Dec. 8 Facebook video responding to the threats in which she told supporters to do "things right and in order" but advised Trump's 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.

Republican former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, removed Johnson from her committees after the Facebook post but she was given a new assignment on the House Appropriations Committee in January under House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.

In the past year, threats against Michigan public officials have increased amid rancor over pandemic restrictions and the November election. 

Last fall, the FBI and state investigators said they thwarted a plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer involving at least 14 people who are facing state and federal charges.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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