TAMPA — A Florida appellate judge found himself on a witness stand Tuesday trying to recall one of the thousands of defendants he sent to prison while he served as a circuit judge in Tampa for eight years.
The judge said he couldn't specifically remember the case or the face.
But the defendant, a sex offender, hadn't forgotten him. From a prison psychiatric ward, he sent the judge two letters that threatened him and his family and caused the Hillsborough County Courthouse to be evacuated in 2009, a jury learned Tuesday.
Kenneth McElwaney, 43, self-proclaimed member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations and nicknamed "Lizard Man," is charged with mailing the threats to Judge Anthony Black, then a Hillsborough circuit judge. Black now serves on Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
Because of Black's Hillsborough court ties, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone was brought in to preside.
Lawyers sparred all day over whether everything McElwaney claimed was true. He was in a prison psychiatric ward but said he faked his way in for the air-conditioning. Detectives found no connection to the Aryan Nations other than his boasts. They did find that he was a prolific letter writer and was somehow being fed personal information on court officials from the outside.
In 2005, Black sentenced McElwaney to 30 years in prison for violating probation two years before. McElwaney had originally gotten probation from Circuit Judge Harry Lee Coe after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of attempted sexual battery in 1988.
Prosecutors said McElwaney brooded over Black's prison sentence for five years before writing the letter that Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz read to jurors.
"Thanks for f------ my life up," the letter said. "I have not forgotten you. I've been keeping up with you more than you know."
The writer claimed that his fellow Aryan Nations soldiers had orders to blow up the judge's house, kill him and kidnap "very sexy" female family members to rape and torture. The writer claimed to know where the judge lived and went to church, though the letters were mailed to the courthouse.
The writer also claimed that his soldiers killed Judge Coe, whose July 2000 death was ruled a suicide. The writer said the suicide was staged. "I gave orders to have him killed."
It concluded "Rest in hell, judge" and was signed "McElwaney Kenneth."
A judicial assistant opened that letter and gave it to Black. Testifying Tuesday, Black said he didn't want to make too much of the threat. But a second letter addressed to Black, opened by a court clerk, contained a white powder, causing an evacuation of the courthouse on April 27, 2009. The powder, feared to be anthrax, turned out to be harmless.
Black sent a detective to Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to tell McElwaney to stop writing letters.
Hillsborough sheriff's detective Jose Morales testified that McElwaney insisted he had a right to send all the letters he wanted. The detective said he asked McElwaney why he was in the psych ward.
"He chuckled," the officer testified. "He said, 'Have you been next door?' " — meaning the main prison. McElwaney said it was hot there, so he misbehaved to get moved to the air-conditioned ward.
He was charged with making deadly threats and brought back to Hillsborough.
That's when the court clerk who had found the white powder got a letter at home. It threatened her, too, for preventing the powder letter's delivery. "I'll make you pay as well," it said.
A jail guard testified that McElwaney bragged that someone had mailed him documents that showed the clerk's name and address. The guard said McElwaney claimed he had written a stepbrother, telling him to burn the clerk's home down.
McElwaney's attorneys offered no opening statement. Jurors were told they may offer an insanity defense today, before the trial concludes.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.