A 35-year-old California man who claimed to be a U.S. Air Force captain and retired sheriff sergeant was arrested in his home state early Tuesday for allegedly sending threatening text messages to family members of a New York City-based U.S. congressman and the relative of a journalist, federal prosecutors said.
The defendant, Robert Lemke, did not travel to the U.S. Capitol to participate in the siege on Jan. 6, but he did allegedly text a congressman's brother that day, telling him the congressman was "putting your entire family at risk with his lies and words," according to the complaint out of the Southern District of New York.
That text, sent from a number that was traced back to Lemke, includes a picture of a home in the same neighborhood as the victim and allegedly said, "We are armed and nearby your house," the complaint says.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' office later confirmed in a statement that he was the congressman named in the criminal complaint who was targeted.
"Congressman Jeffries extends his deep thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the FBI, U.S. Capitol Police, NYPD, and all law enforcement authorities involved for their commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of his family and all Members of the United States Congress," the release from the office read.
In a later interview with MSNBC, Jeffries said the main was spurred on by former President Donald Trump's widely unsubstantiated claims of a rigged election.
"What was chilling in the message that was received is that this individual said, "Stop telling lies. Biden did not win. He will not be president.' And so, he was radicalized by the big lie that Donald Trump told," Jeffries told Chris Hayes. "It certainly was unnerving ... it was clearly designed to instill terror."
The messages went on to espouse and said the Democrat did not win the presidency and would not be president. The number used was traced to Lemke.
On the same day, Jeffries' sister-in-law, his brother's wife, allegedly got a text saying, "Calm your husband down" -- and made claims that he had been caught in some type of situation on hidden camera, the complaint says. Those texts were also traced to Lemke's phone, the federal complaint adds.
The text to the New York City-based relative of the journalist also went out that Jan. 6 day, again from Lemke's phone, prosecutors said. The victim was in the Bronx when the person received a similar threatening message saying, "Words are putting you and your family at risk. We are nearby armed and ready. Thousands of us are active/retired law enforcement, military, etc. That's how we do it."
Once investigators connected the phone to Lemke, they looked up his social accounts. A Facebook account for "Robert Lemke" includes a photo of the suspect, his face partially blocked by the words "Trump 2020" and "U.S. Air Force Veteran." The background image is a picture of two people who were charged with criminal offenses over the summer for allegedly pointing firearms at Black Lives Matter demonstrators near their home in St. Louis, Missouri.
That couple later appeared at the 2020 Republican National Convention, where Trump was nominated for president (see photo included in evidence below).
Lemke's Facebook profile allegedly included hateful messages about other politicians, including New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, dating back to March 2019. That specific post called her out as a hypocrite for allegedly taking "gas-guzzling car rides" amid her Green New Deal pledge and linked to an article from the New York Post.
Days after the presidential election in November, when the Democrats were projected to win, a post on Lemke's page read in part, "Folks. Be ready for war" -- and again reiterated the electoral fraud claims Trump had repeatedly made.
Two days after that, Lemke allegedly posted a photo with text that suggested anyone who celebrated a "non-existent victory" for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should self-identify and block or unfriend him, the complaint says.
While that same criminal complaint states Lemke is a former U.S. Air Force captain and member of the Alameda County Sheriffs office, the latter denies he ever worked there -- and now investigators are checking into the Air Force claims.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea commended the FBI and its various agency partners on the arrest, saying in a statement Lemke's case should serve as a warning that the NYPD and its law enforcement partners, will ensure you are held accountable for your actions."
Lemke is expected to appear in federal court in California on Wednesday. Attorney information for him was not immediately available.
“As alleged, Robert Lemke was dissatisfied with the results of the 2020 Presidential Election and subsequent statements about the election made by a U.S. Congressman and journalist," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement. "Rather than peaceably disagree, Lemke allegedly threatened to harm those individuals’ families, demanding they retract their statements. The electoral process is the essential mechanism through which our democracy functions. While in any election it is inevitable that some will be disappointed in the result, threats of violence cannot and will not be tolerated.”
In a separate statement, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney accused Lemke of crossing "a bright line."
"The FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force is always on watch, and we act with speed to stop violence - whether the threat comes from within our borders or from outside them. That's how we do it," Sweeney said.
He encouraged anyone with additional information on Lemke's case or any other potentially active threats to call 1-800-CALL-FBI.