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Pasco commission candidate faces cyberstalking claims

Prosecutors are reviewing a cyberstalking complaint filed by a Tarpon Springs woman that accuses Pasco County Commission candidate Clay Colson of threatening her in e-mails.

The woman, Linda Gradual, knows Colson through the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, which they both attend. The two are on opposite sides of an internal dispute over the church's direction.

Over the summer, Colson, 55, sent out multiple mass e-mails about his views to church leaders, including Gradual, who serves on the board of trustees. On several occasions, Gradual asked to be removed from his e-mail list.

Colson responded to Gradual that the church-generated list was not his and that she needed to talk to the board president about getting removed from it. On June 21, he wrote that "it is a COMPLETE list, short of resigning from the Church or your untimely death you remain."

When she asked a third time to be taken off his list, he responded, tersely, on June 29: "When you die or resign!"

Gradual, a retired federal government worker, said she took those words as a threat.

"Yes, in fact, I did," she said in an interview. "With all the crazy people who are around, you think twice."

On Sept. 7, she contacted the Tarpon Springs Police, which classified her complaint as a "cyberstalking" case. Officers closed their investigation without charging Colson and forwarded the case to the state attorney's office for review, said Sgt. Michael Trill.

Colson, a Land O'Lakes community activist challenging commission incumbent Pat Mulieri, said in an interview that he had told Gradual to take herself off the church's list if she didn't want to get his mass e-mails.

Short of that, he told her, one gets off such lists by two other means: resigning or dying.

"I'm a practical person and this is about facts," he said. "If and when anything comes of this, even if you're going to print it, I'm going to sue Linda Gradual. She has in no way been stalked by me, cyber or otherwise."

He added that he does not believe she truly felt in fear after receiving his replies.

"She's not scared of anything," he said. "This woman is a little pitbull."

Colson and his friends, Dan and Anni Callaghan, are on one side of a rift that centers over whether the church should be more focused on social justice issues or on less political, more spiritual, matters.

The trio believe the former, and Dan Callaghan said he took heat from more conservative members because he organized Sunday talks on the School of Americas and invited members of the Uhuru Movement to speak. Dan Callaghan's resignations from various posts prompted the e-mail campaign from Colson.

Ultimately, the dispute resulted in Colson and the Callaghans being removed from the membership rolls by the board of trustees, though the church allows them to continue attending each week.

In a statement, the church said, "Decisions to remove disruptive members are always difficult for a congregation, but the board of trustees must consider the good of the whole. This has been a trying time for us, but we are healing from the hurt this has caused."

Gradual said Colson now makes a dramatic entrance each Sunday.

"He always comes into service after it starts and walks down the aisle and plunks down and crosses his arms," she said. "He's intimidating."

Dan Callaghan said Gradual has exaggerated the meaning of Colson's e-mail responses, which he said were meant to be informative.

"There's humor to it and there's sort of an element of truth to it, too: Once you're on a church e-mail list there's only two ways you get removed," said Callaghan, who is known in Pasco for his protests at the Chasco Fiesta parades. "I think it's a fraudulent report."

Why did Gradual wait until September to file her complaint? She said she contacted a Tarpon Springs police officer shortly after the e-mails, but he told her she didn't have a case.

But after thinking about it over the summer and talking to a lawyer, she said, she contacted police again in September and a different officer thought it was worth investigating.

Colson dismissed the relevancy of the cyberstalking accusation to his campaign.

"I don't believe this warrants a story at this time, unless it is the intent of the St. Petersburg Times to undermine my campaign for office," he said in a follow-up e-mail. "We live in a country where one is innocent until proven guilty ... I have not even been charged with a crime, let alone been arrested or convicted."

He said Tarpon Springs Police had not conducted a thorough investigation, interviewing him briefly only once and not contacting his corroborating witnesses.

Colson later e-mailed a reporter to say Gradual had neglected to forward an earlier, lengthier response from him. In it, he accused Gradual and another member of violating the church code after she asked, again, to be removed from the contact list.

"I do pity you both as the cross of hate you bare (sic) for me is so heavy and with each kind word or deed the weight increases," he wrote. "Maybe you should consult a Buddhist master regarding the laborious task with which you have saddled yourself."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco commission candidate faces cyberstalking claims 09/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:34pm]
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