SEATTLE — A Lynnwood man was sentenced Friday to two years in federal prison for threats to a Buffalo, New York grocery store, near the store where a white gunman killed 10 Black people just two months earlier.
Two months after the May massacre, a man identifying himself as “Peter” called a Tops grocery store near the store where the shooting occurred. The caller asked an employee how many Black people were in the store, according to the federal charges filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle. He said he’d make the news if he killed all of them.
The man, later identified as Joey David George, told the employee there was a chance he was already in the store or nearby. But if he didn’t see anyone there, he’d go to another Tops store on Jefferson Avenue — the actual scene of the mass shooting, according to the charges.
On the call in July, George said he has a really good shot and would “pick people off” from the parking lot.
Days later, he called the supermarket again. He said he would kill Black people and spare the white people. George said he’d be there in five minutes if the store wasn’t closed.
These were not the only threats George made, federal prosecutors alleged.
In September 2021, he called a cannabis dispensary in Maryland. In that call, George used racist slurs and said he felt “Black people do too much and have it coming.” The dispensary hired more security and closed for the rest of the day and the next day.
In May, he called a California diner and reported he’d shoot the Black and Hispanic patrons if the restaurant wasn’t closed within 20 minutes. The suspect later reportedly told investigators he made the threat to strike fear into the Black community.
Prosecutors alleged George also threatened a Denny’s in Connecticut and a Seattle cannabis dispensary.
On July 21, federal agents arrested George. In an interview with them, the defendant said of the Buffalo threats “I never knew that store existed until I seen the mass shooting. And I guess I was inspired to scare them.”
He acknowledged making threats elsewhere to scare people, according to court documents. He didn’t want to make threats on the internet so as to avoid “leaving a paper trail,” George reported. He acknowledged what he did was wrong.
Last month, George pleaded guilty to one count each of interstate threats and interference with federally protected activity.
“What he did in this case was deplorable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Woods said at sentencing Friday. “What he did, and I use this term deliberately, and it’s one a prosecutor should only very rarely say — what he did was evil.”
Woods noted the criminal justice system has long ignored calls for action from Black Americans.
“For generations in this country, since its very founding, people of color have understandably been distrustful of law enforcement and distrustful of the criminal justice system,” he said. “It too far often has not vindicated their rights and the harms perpetrated against them. This one sentencing, of course, does not erase that history, but it should be part of a recognition that this type of harm, this quantum of harm, this conduct, is one that is deserving of punishment.”
George’s public defender, Mohammad Hamoudi, said his client has autism and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after a tremendously traumatic childhood rife with abuse that caused him to disassociate from reality. After an examination, the U.S. Probation Office reported George was “raised to hate.” George said he was saying the N-word at 2- or 3-years-old.
He would watch Fox News for 10 hours a day, the Probation Office found.
While at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, the Lynnwood man has been seeing a psychologist, Hamoudi noted in court filings.
In court Friday, the defendant said he regrets his actions.
“What I did was wrong, and there is no excuse,” George said. “And I feel bad for the people that I scared.”
Under federal sentencing guidelines, George faced between 1¾ and 2¼ years in prison. Woods planned to recommend a sentence above that range, but given the defendant’s traumatic upbringing and history of mental illness, he pushed for the high end of that range.
Hamoudi asked for a 1-year prison term, noting his client has no prior criminal history.
“What happened here was reprehensible,” Hamoudi said at sentencing. “These people, these communities of color, were scared, but I don’t think additional time in prison is going to right that wrong.”
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez sentenced George to two years, the middle of the range in the guidelines. He called George’s actions “nothing other than terrorizing to the victims on the other end of those calls.” But he said the case shows the need for more mental health care.
“The fact that intellectually disabled people with severe mental health challenges end up in courtrooms and courthouses, rather than in places where they can be taken care of and perhaps helped, is one of the most difficult things in today’s society,” the judge said. “No, we don’t have enough doctors who can help. No, we don’t have enough mental health facilities that can step in. No, we don’t have enough early education centers and policies that would help stop someone like Joey George growing up in the environment that he grew up in.”
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
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