Texas man sentenced to 15 months' jail for online Covid-19 hoax

Shoppers at an H-E-B grocery store in San Antonio, Texas, on Feb 21, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

AUSTIN (NYTIMES) - On April 5 last year, Christopher Charles Perez posted a message on Facebook about an H-E-B grocery store in San Antonio, the United States federal prosecutors said.

"My homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked everything for the past two days cause we paid him too," Perez wrote. "YOU'VE BEEN WARNED."

The claim was not true, and the post came down after 16 minutes, according to court documents.

But someone anonymously submitted a screenshot of the post to the South-west Texas Fusion Centre, a group of law enforcement agencies that investigates possible criminal and terrorist activity.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation confronted Perez, he said he had been trying to scare people from going to public places "to stop them from spreading the virus", according to a federal affidavit.

This past June, Perez, 40, of San Antonio, was found guilty of disseminating false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons. On Monday (Oct 4), a federal judge sentenced him to 15 months in federal prison.

In a statement, federal prosecutors said that Perez had been trying to frighten people with threats of "spreading dangerous diseases".

His arrest in April last year came early in the pandemic, when there was still uncertainty over how the coronavirus spread, and as many people were wiping down their groceries and emptying stores of disinfectant.

"Perez's actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic," Mr Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio field office, said in the statement. The sentence, he said, "illustrates the seriousness of this crime".

Perez's lawyer, Mr Alfredo Villarreal, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

On Wednesday, Mr Villarreal filed a notice with the court stating that he would be appealing Perez's conviction to the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

The sentence fell at the lower end of federal sentencing guidelines that recommended a sentence of 15 to 21 months based on the offence and Perez's criminal history, according to a federal court official. The official declined to detail Perez's criminal record.

Ms Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge in Boston, said that since federal sentencing guidelines went into effect in 1987, judges have sentenced defendants to prison time on charges that once led to probation.

"I'm sure the judge was intending to send a message to people who would be involved in like hoaxes, which is important," said Ms Gertner, now a lecturer at Harvard Law School. "The question is whether he needed to impose a sentence of this length to send that message."

Prosecutors said that Perez sent two threatening messages. After warning people about the infected groceries, they said, he posted another message on Facebook that included a link to a news story about a store that had been forced to shut down after an employee tested positive for the virus.

"Lol, I did try to warn y'all," the post said.

"Nogalitos location next," it said, apparently referring to another San Antonio H-E-B supermarket, on Nogalitos Street. That post remained on Facebook for about 23 hours, according to a federal affidavit.

H-E-B representatives did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Perez's sentence, which included three years of supervised release, requires him to seek mental health treatment and take mental health medication.

As the trial approached, Mr Villarreal sought a delay, citing Perez's questionable mental state. He said in a motion that Perez "was unduly distraught" during a hearing on June 8.

"Mr Perez broke down in tears several times during this afternoon's hearing, sobbed, trembled, expressed to counsel that he did not understand the proceedings, repeatedly said, 'I am not a terrorist!'" Mr Villarreal wrote.

Just before the jury began its deliberations in June, Mr Villarreal filed a motion asking Judge David Ezra to acquit Perez, arguing prosecutors had not proven that "Mr Perez intended to cause harm or had any other malicious intent when he posted on Facebook.".

An H-E-B executive in charge of security testified during the trial that he had not been aware of the threat until the FBI told him about it, and that none of the stores were forced to close as a result of the Facebook posts, Mr Villarreal said in his motion.

Perez "either meant it purely as a joke or, at worst, intended that people take the pandemic more seriously at a time when public gathering and mask hesitancy were continuing to frustrate public health officials", Mr Villarreal said in a motion on June 17.

Mr Ezra denied the motion and the jury came back with a guilty verdict four days later.

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