Ohio man gets 2.5 years in prison for death threats made in 2022 to Arizona’s top election official

An Ohio man who acknowledged making death threats in voicemails left for then-Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs during the 2022 election season was sentenced Monday to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Joshua Russell of Bucyrus, Ohio, had pleaded guilty in late August to a federal charge of making an interstate threat against Hobbs, a Democrat who, as secretary of state, was Arizona’s chief elections officer in 2022 and now serves as the state’s governor.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan commended Russell for undergoing substance abuse treatment and other counseling since his arrest and getting his life in order, but concluded Russell must spend time in prison, saying he has traumatized people who work in the secretary of state’s office.

The judge, who read Russell’s profanity-laden threats aloud in court, said Russell had accused the victim of being a terrorist, while he was threatening her life. He rejected Russell’s characterization of his actions as immature. “None of these people deserved it,” the judge said.

“I was looking for an outlet to cast my inner turmoil onto,” Russell told the judge before he was sentenced. He hugged his parents and sister in the courtroom before he was taken away to start serving his punishment.

Hobbs was not present in court during the sentencing hearing.

The three voicemails left by Russell were among the countless threats made against Hobbs for her role in certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory over Donald Trump in Arizona and her responsibility in running the 2022 midterm elections. As secretary of state, Hobbs at times had round-the-clock security due to threats from Trump supporters who falsely claimed that his loss in Arizona was marred by fraud. She has described threatening phone calls to her office and said critics tried to get her husband fired from his job.

Russell’s case is among the cases brought by the U.S. Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force, which focuses on threats of violence against elected officials, workers and volunteers to ensure they can oversee elections free of harassment.

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for making an online threat to bomb Hobbs’ office in February 2021 when she was still the secretary of state.

In February, an Alabama man accused of sending death threats to a social media account for the Maricopa County Elections Department was charged with making interstate threats. And an Iowa man was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for his conviction for threatening Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, both Republicans. “Death threats are not debate. Death threats do not contribute to the marketplace of ideas,” said John Keller, leader of the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force. “Death threats are not First Amendment-protected speech. Death threats and any threats of violence are condemnable criminal acts, and they will be met with the full force of the Justice Department.”

The task force, which has opened dozens of threat investigations across the country, has won 13 convictions out of the roughly 20 people who have been criminally charged so far, Keller said.

In voicemails that began on primary election day and ended a week after the general election, Russell called Hobbs a traitor and made explicit threats, telling the secretary of state that “her days are extremely numbered,” she had “just signed your own death warrant” and she will either be sent to jail “or we will see you to the grave.”

Prosecutors had asked the judge to send Russell to prison for 2 1/2 years, saying Russell’s threats caused deep fear and apprehension for Hobbs and employees of the secretary of state’s office and that election workers should be able to do their jobs without fear and intimidation.

Prosecutors also said the sentence should reflect the seriousness of the crime and should serve as a deterrent against anyone making similar threats in the future.

Russell’s lawyer, Jazmin Alagha, had sought a sentence of only probation, saying her client deeply regrets his actions, “was recklessly expressing disagreement with the political culture at that time,” was struggling financially and spiraling into a deep depression, and that his actions were driven mostly by his substance abuse problems.

In a document written by Russell and submitted to the court, Russell described his situation at the time he made the threats, saying he was depressed and angry and that his drug use fueled his isolation.

“All I did was hide in bed all day scrolling thru social media and political forums – looking at blogs or anything that could serve as an outlet for my pent up anger combined with all the pain I was suppressing,” Russell wrote.

Russell also wrote an apology letter to Hobbs, saying social media and news stories had become another addiction for him, but has since taken courses on anger management and substance abuse.

“I am truly sorry for my actions,” Russell told Hobbs in the letter. “I’m not a violent man, I am a broken man. No one should be the target of such disrespectful behavior.”

Logan suggested Russell read the U.S. Constitution while in prison and appreciate that the United States has free and fair elections. The judge also denied Russell’s request for 45 days to get his affairs in order, telling him he had to say goodbye to his family.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.