A Holliston man was arrested yesterday for allegedly threatening to blow up a Los Angeles airport in a handwritten letter that mentioned the actress Jodie Foster, and federal prosecutors said it was nearly identical to about 100 other letters mailed to people in the Los Angeles area since September.
Michael Smegal, 42, was arrested in Massachusetts and charged with mailing a bomb threat, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokeswoman for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan.
The case immediately evoked memories of the notorious episode more than two decades ago when Foster was stalked by John Hinckley Jr. The deranged fan attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 and said his motive was to impress Foster.
Smegal's lawyer from the federal public defender's office, Oscar Cruz Jr., could not be reached for comment. No one returned a message left on an answering machine at Smegal's home yesterday.
Officials at Van Nuys Airport received an envelope addressed to the airport on Dec. 6 and opened it to find a single sheet of paper bearing the cryptic message "Jodie Foster S" and "going to be a gas bomb this building," according to an affidavit by an FBI agent in Boston, Joseph H. Altman. The letter was postmarked "Brockton, MA," but bore no return address.
While investigating the threat, Altman spoke with an FBI agent in Los Angeles who said the letter was one of 100 nearly identical bomb threats mailed to celebrities, businessmen, airports, and other institutions in Los Angeles from September 2007 to January of this year, the affidavit said.
All the letters were postmarked Massachusetts or Rhode Island and bore distinctive handwriting, and some contained references to Foster, said the affidavit.
The FBI interviewed a private security guard for Foster in California who said that she began receiving anonymous letters and packages from Massachusetts in fall 2004, the affidavit said. One of the packages contained a prepaid cellphone with a request that Foster call a specific number. The security guard said he called the number and spoke with a man who identified himself as Smegal.
Smegal used the phone to transmit photographs of himself and his dog to the security guard, said the affidavit. In August 2005, a postal inspector interviewed Smegal at his home in Holliston, and Smegal admitted sending the letters and packages to Foster and promised to stop.
Late last year, the Los Angeles police compared DNA samples taken from two letters Smegal admitted sending to Foster in 2004 with the more recent batch, the affidavit said. In January, the FBI interviewed Smegal, and he admitted sending several of the newer letters, the affidavit said.
He said he sent the letters to airports because he believed the Screen Actors Guild had offices there and felt the union had made disparaging remarks about Foster.
Altman said he searched Smegal's house and found numerous unsent letters identical to the one received by Van Nuys Airport.
Smegal appeared before US District Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler and was released on an unsecured $10,000 bond to remain with his parents, with whom he lives, said DiIorio-Sterling. He was barred from using the mail and Internet and prohibited from having contact with Foster.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.