In college, Juan Thompson surrounded himself with Jewish friends and a Jewish girlfriend. He spent time with her family. He spoke favorably about Israel, not always a popular thing to do at Vassar College, a liberal arts school in New York state where some students have embraced the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
But the FBI is now accusing Thompson of threatening to blow up Jewish Community Centers and the Anti-Defamation League headquarters. He allegedly wrote that the bombs would create a “Jewish Newtown,” referring to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Jewish institutions have already received more than 100 bomb threats in 2017, and Thompson is the first suspect whom authorities have named publicly. Vandals also have toppled hundreds of headstones across three Jewish cemeteries.
In a criminal complaint unsealed Friday, federal authorities alleged that Thompson sent eight bomb threats to Jewish institutions in January and February as part of a harassment campaign against an ex-girlfriend. Some of the threats named her; in others, he allegedly named himself in order to pretend that the woman was framing him, authorities said.
But according to several of Thompson’s former college classmates, the federal allegations don’t match the person they knew at Vassar, a selective school in Poughkeepsie, New York, about two hours north of New York City. For all the talk of how Donald Trump’s presidency has “emboldened” white supremacists, anti-Semites and others to commit acts of hate, Thompson, an African-American man from St. Louis, doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Interviews with those who knew him suggest he was an opportunist who saw the recent waves of threats against Jewish institutions as a convenient way to get back at an ex-girlfriend.
“When I found out that Juan had allegedly sent bomb threats,” a 2013 Vassar graduate says by email, “I was shaken to my core. I knew Juan as a caring, deeply intellectual man, who had a deep and abiding respect for people of all faiths.” That person asked that Newsweek not name him because of privacy concerns.
Another former classmate who requested anonymity, also citing privacy concerns, agrees: “He never gave any sign or hint of anti-Semitism.”
“These despicable threats of violence against Jewish centers are abhorrent, and we condemn them as we condemn all acts of bias,” a Vassar spokesperson said in a statement. “Every act of hatred is a crime against us all and cannot be tolerated.”
An ‘Affinity For Jews’
Thompson arrived at college later than most, when he was in his 20s. He studied political science and enjoyed having policy discussions with classmates, according to those who knew him. “Juan always seemed like a man with more interests than time,” the 2013 graduate says. Thompson was an opinions editor, guest columnist and podcaster for The Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper. None of his writing stands out as extreme. He wrote that New York state shouldn’t ban Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage that at the time contained energy ingredients, and about how former President Barack Obama was “underrated.” He took the occasional strong political stance, but those positions don’t seem out of the ordinary for a liberal arts college student.
Some Jewish community members and watchdog groups have singled out Vassar as one of several colleges where, they believe, the line between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism is sometimes blurred. A report by the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel nonprofit, included Vassar on a list of 18 schools with the “highest overall anti-Semitic activity” in 2015. (Vassar is at the bottom of the list.)
But Thompson never took part in what some felt were anti-Semitic acts on campus, according to those who knew him. “I’d had many a long conversation with Juan about Israel, Judaism, Jewishness,” the 2013 graduate, who is Jewish, says by email. “[He] often remarked of his affinity for Jews, Judaism and Jewish thought.” Thompson at the time had a Jewish girlfriend, according to multiple people. (A different woman was later the subject of his alleged harassment campaign.)
Those people also describe him as having been a good friend. “Juan, as I knew him, always seemed to be a caring man, with nary an ill wish towards anybody,” the 2013 graduate says. “Juan helped me through several personal struggles, and I will always be thankful to him for that.”
The other former classmate says, “He was always supportive, never seemed like a mean-spirited guy.”
He also showed certain conservative political leanings, people who knew him say, a far cry from the person who in recent months tweeted favorably about communism.
Thompson also appeared in a video for Vassar’s YouTube channel, titled “Vassar Close Up: Juan,” part of a series featuring students explaining their journeys to campus. Following the arrest on Friday, Vassar removed the video. He should have graduated in 2013 but never did, a school spokesperson says.
A ‘Stunning’ Discovery
After college, Thompson moved to Chicago. He interned for a local news website and a radio station. Interviewed by Vassar’s alumni magazine for an article published in early 2014, he said he was working as a freelance writer and planned to attend the University of Chicago Law School that fall. He doesn’t appear to have ever gone there, and instead took a job at The Intercept, a news website, in November 2014.
Those who knew Thompson say they lost touch with him in the past year or two, especially after February 2016, when The Intercept’s editor-in-chief said the website had “discovered a pattern of deception” with Thompson’s reporting. The discovery made national headlines (The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple called it “stunning”), and Riverfront Times, an alternative newsweekly in St. Louis, published a cover story on the fallout. Around five months later, Thompson began harassing his ex-girlfriend after she broke up with him, authorities said. That alleged effort continued until just before his arrest on Friday.
He also apparently harassed Doyle Murphy, the Riverfront Times reporter. “You are a white piece of shit who lies and distorts to fit a narrative,” Thompson wrote in an email to Murphy, according to the reporter. Murphy said that Thompson also used multiple Twitter accounts to contact Murphy’s wife, employer and other journalists, falsely alleging that Murphy was a rapist.
The conscientious, level-headed person who classmates knew at Vassar changed. Last July, around the time that authorities allege Thompson began harassing his ex-girlfriend, he started taking a more extreme political stance on Twitter, posting harshly about white people. (“Dating white women leads to police terror,” said one tweet, from last August.) While he had praised Obama in the student newspaper years earlier, he now called him “a war criminal” and said the former president made him “want to vomit.” And while in college he had spoken favorably about Israel and claimed to have visited the country, once saying Tel Aviv was one of his favorite cities in the world, according to a former classmate, he now tweeted about how the U.S. government was giving money to Israel but not fixing the Flint water crisis, and criticized an Israeli bombing operation in Gaza.
Details of how Thompson allegedly became someone capable of making such threats will likely emerge as the case moves forward. “The Juan Thompson that [allegedly] called in bomb threats and conspired against a woman,” says the 2013 graduate, “is not the Juan Thompson that I knew.”
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