The peace and quiet usually enjoyed by Pueblo’s tiny Temple Emanuel synagogue was shattered this week with news of the arrest of a Pueblo man — a self-described former Ku Klux Klan member and skinhead — accused of threatening to blow up the synagogue and poison its water supply.
The arrest and threats that preceded it immediately focused unprecedented national media attention on the venerable Reform congregation of some 35 families in the southern Colorado city.
The FBI announced on Nov. 1 that it had arrested Richard Holzer, 27, in a Pueblo motel after a weeks-long investigation that included an elaborate undercover operation in which agents, posing as fellow white supremacists, provided the suspect with two fake pipe bombs and 14 inert sticks of dynamite that Holzer said he would use to destroy Temple Emanuel’s circa-1900 building, whether or not people happened to be inside it when it happened.
“I want something that tells them they are not welcome in this town,” Holzer allegedly told the undercover agents, referring to the members of Temple Emanuel. “Better get the [deleted] out, otherwise people will die.”
According to an extensive FBI affidavit filed Nov. 2 in US District Court in Denver, federal agents initially contacted Holzer in late September through Facebook after the suspect had posted numerous anti-Semitic and racist comments and threats on several accounts.
In repeated contacts and meetings with Holzer in September and October, FBI agents detailed a series of often bizarre and obscenity-laced comments made by the suspect that included death threats against the Jews and Hispanics of Pueblo, a desire to ignite a racial “holy war” (or RAHOWA, as the suspect allegedly called it), and his intention to die by “suicide by cop” in a shootout with police.
Holzer also allegedly told undercover agents that he paid $70 to an unnamed accomplice, whom he referred to as “Mexican Hitler” to “hex and poison a local Synagogue” by putting arsenic in its water supply.
The FBI reported that Holzer shared with them photographs and videos showing himself dressed in clothing bearing white supremacist and Nazi symbols.
On its final meeting with him on Nov. 1, shortly before his arrest, the FBI reported that the suspect brought along a Nazi armband, a knife, mask and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.
When he was shown the fake pipe bombs, according to the affidavit, Holzer allegedly said they were “absolutely gorgeous.”
In that meeting, Holzer allegedly told the agents, “This is a move for our race.”
Holzer reportedly intended to use the explosives to blow up the synagogue in the wee hours of the following morning, which would have been Nov. 2.
FBI Special Agent John W. Smith, who prepared the affidavit, concluded by recommending that Holzer be charged with “attempting to obstruct religious exercise by force using explosives and fire.”
Holzer was expected to face a preliminary hearing on Friday, Nov. 8, and could be looking at 20 years in prison.
At a news conference Monday, Nov. 4, officials from the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI classified Holzer’s alleged crimes as domestic terrorism.
Troy Davenport, Pueblo’s chief of police, said at the conference: “Pueblo is a diverse community, a community characterized by inclusiveness and not these types of behaviors. This kind of behavior is frankly intolerable in our city.”
In comments made to the Intermountain Jewish News this week, Temple Emanuel’s president, Michael Atlas-Acuna, expressed gratitude to law enforcement and insisted that the synagogue would not be intimidated by the threats Holzer allegedly made against it.
“We are grateful to the FBI and Pueblo Police Department for stopping this from happening,” Atlas-Acuna said. “Temple Emanuel takes its security seriously and will be taking further action to keep us safe. We also will continue to have services and won’t allow ourselves to be victimized. We will protect ourselves.”
Among the security measures the congregation plans to incorporate, he added, would be security cameras mounted on the outside of its buildings. In addition, Pueblo police have reportedly said they would increase patrols in the synagogue’s neighborhood.
Atlas-Acuna added that as far as he knows, Temple Emanuel had never been threatened with anti-Semitic violence in the past. “This has never occurred in this community,” he said. “The person who intended to do this was a transplant.”
He emphasized that Holzer’s claim that the synagogue’s water supply was poisoned is false.
“This is not true and never happened,” Atlas-Acuna said. “We did not have it checked and we have been drinking the water with no incidents. A person would have to get into the Pueblo water system which would be an attack on all citizens.”
The synagogue has no plans to alter its worship and activities routine, he added. It plans to go ahead with Shabbat services on Friday evening, to be led by Rabbi Birdie Becker.
“We are planning services as usual and the Pueblo chief of police or his deputy are planning on addressing the congregation.”
Atlas-Acuna made a point of thanking Pueblo’s non-Jewish community for reaching out to the synagogue “over and over and over” since the threats were reported.
He praised Pueblo for its long tradition of tolerance and said that Holzer’s actions do “not reflect one bit on the climate” of the city.
“We get a lot of support,” he said. “For example, a woman came to the synagogue and gave me flowers and a card and was crying. She was not Jewish, but this is an example of the respect we receive from our community.”
The Anti-Defamation League said this week that it has had Holzer on its radar since May, 2016, when it first became aware of his “online rhetoric.”
A statement released this week by the ADL’s Mountain States region reported that the organization “has repeatedly shared information with law enforcement, citing concerns he might be a danger to public safety.”
In the wake of recent deadly attacks against American Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. — and in a season of dramatically increasing acts of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism and threats — such incidents as the recent threats in Pueblo underscore the seriousness of vigilance and precaution, the ADL said.
Since the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October, 2018, the ADL reported that the Pueblo threats mark the 13th time that a white supremacist has been arrested for plotting attacks or making threats against the Jewish community.
“White supremacists continue to pose a serious threat to Jews and other communities in the US and in our own backyard, as this arrest indicates,” ADL regional director Scott Levin said in the statement.
“We commend law enforcement for acting quickly to prevent this individual from engaging in life-threatening violence. No one should have to live in fear of white supremacy simply because of who they are or where they pray.”
Meanwhile, Jews in Denver have felt the shockwaves of the events in Pueblo over the past few days, especially members of this city’s Temple Emanuel, much larger and better known than the synagogue with the same name in Pueblo.
Apparently, some have made the assumption that the threats were actually made against the Denver congregation.
In a letter sent out this week to members, Rabbi Joe Black, spiritual leader of Denver’s Emanuel, sought to put those fears to rest.
“While our congregation was never a target, any news of racist violence — especially against a synagogue — is difficult to hear in this post-Pittsburgh world in which we live,” the rabbi wrote.
“Since we share a common name with Temple Emanuel in Pueblo, over the past several hours we also have received many calls from the national and international press and well-wishers expressing their concern for our wellbeing and sharing their solidarity with the Jewish community.
“We appreciate these gestures of support. They are yet another sign that, despite the ugliness and evil that increasingly is being manifest in our society, the vast majority of people are good and will never allow such horrific and hateful acts and beliefs to become the norm.”
Rabbi Black also informed congregants that “local and federal law enforcement agencies have reached out to assure us that our congregation is in no danger and that this is an isolated incident.”
Denver Police, he said, as well as Temple Emanuel’s own security guards, have stepped up their vigilance in the wake of the Pueblo threats.
“I have reached out to Rabbi Birdie Becker of Temple Emanuel, Pueblo to offer any support that she and her congregation might need at this difficult time,” Rabbi Black added.
Offering Temple Emanuel’s clergy to counsel anyone who needs emotional support, the rabbi said: “May we continue to be a force for good in the world and may the day soon come when acts of terror and bigotry are replaced by acts of love and caring.”
Chris Leppek may be reached at IJNEWS@aol.com.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News