James Benjamin Jones walked into the Halal Meat and Grocery Store in Fort Myers, Florida, on June 26 to deliver a message to its Muslim owner: Shut down the store.
And if the owner didn’t do so within a month?
“Four people will come with guns and they will blow up” the owner, Jones said. He added that he and others would be “keeping an eye” on the owner and that they “will blow up all Muslims and get this land back.”
Those threats were included in a set of facts that Jones accepted as part of a guilty plea on Wednesday, according to federal documents.
In all, Jones pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes related to that incident, as well as a similarly threatening incident at a different Muslim-owned grocery store less than a month later, according to federal court documents.
‘You got two months to go, to leave’
In that second incident, on July 9, Jones visited the Sahara Mediterranean Market, a Fort Myers store that sold halal meats adhering to Islamic religious law.
There, he approached the owner with a threat, according to federal court documents.
“We decided whatever happened in Orlando is not gonna happen again,” Jones said, according to federal court documents.
“We don’t need no halal business in the area, either you or the other guys back there,” he said, referring to the Halal Meat and Grocery Store.
“So for your safety and your family’s safety, you got two months to go, to leave,” Jones said, according to court documents.
Chris Brown, a defense attorney for Jones, said his client regrets the incident and never had an intention to harm anybody.
Jones has a lot of friends in the gay community in Fort Myers, Brown said, and the grocery store incidents were his reaction to the mass shooting at the Orlando LGBT nightclub Pulse, in which a man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS killed 49 people.
“Mr. Jones does not hate Muslim people,” Brown said. “He really regrets if he scared those people and saying the things he said.”
Anti-Muslim bias on the rise?
Anti-Muslim bias played a role in 257 hate crime incidents in 2015, a significant rise from the 154 anti-Muslim incidents in 2014, according to data compiled by the FBI.
There were 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015, and the majority were motivated by anti-black bias, according to FBI data.
A sentencing hearing for Jones has not been set. He could face up to 11 years in prison, though federal documents show prosecutors plan to recommend he be put on probation.
“The defendant made violent threats in an attempt to extinguish people’s economic livelihood simply because of their religion,” the Justice Department Civil Rights Division’s acting assistant attorney general, Tom Wheeler, said in a statement.
“The Justice Department is committed to vigorously prosecuting the federal laws that prohibit such conduct,” he said.