Exclusive-Two election workers break silence after enduring Trump backers’ threats

10 mins read
Fulton County employee Shaye Moss scans mail-in paper ballots

By Linda So and Jason Szep

ATLANTA – Death threats from angry Trump supporters forced Georgia election worker Ruby Freeman, a 62-year-old grandmother, to flee her home of 20 years. Some messages called for her hanging; one urged people to “hunt” her. Freeman showed hundreds of menacing messages to police and called 911 three times.

But a year after Donald Trump and his allies falsely accused Freeman – along with her daughter and co-worker Wandrea “Shaye” Moss – of election fraud, the threats have not been investigated by local police or state authorities, according to a Reuters review of Georgia law enforcement records. Federal agents have monitored some of the threats, but made no arrests.

Offering the first detailed account of their ordeal, the two women told Reuters about threats of lynching and racial slurs, along with alarming visits by strangers to the homes of Freeman and her mother. The intimidation began last December, a month after the 2020 election, when the Trump campaign released surveillance video they falsely claimed showed the two women, who are Black, opening “suitcases” full of phony ballots to rig the vote count in predominantly Black Fulton County, which includes part of Atlanta.

With no one arrested for threatening them, and no police security detail, the women said their lives were thrown into chaos. Freeman told Reuters she moved from house to house out of fear for her safety. Moss, 37, avoided leaving her home except for work and said she remains wracked with anxiety and depression. Moss’s teenage son – also targeted by threats and racist messages – started failing in school.

Their alarm peaked in January, Freeman said, when a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent told her a suspected Jan. 6 Capitol rioter had been arrested and found in possession of a list of names of people to be executed. Freeman and her daughter were on it, she said. The FBI declined to comment on the incident.

Freeman showed hundreds of threatening emails and text messages to police in Cobb County, where she lives, according to police reports reviewed by Reuters. She visited the Fulton County police station on Dec. 4, 2020, and told officers about the threats. While she was there, her phone buzzed nonstop with menacing calls, and an unidentified officer answered more than 20 of them, according to Freeman. In response to Freeman’s at-times panicked emergency calls to 911, Cobb County officers went to her home, according to a Reuters review of the call recordings. But police officials did not open investigations into the threats she faced, according to police records.

Among the uninvited visitors to Freeman’s home was a prominent Black supporter of Trump, Trevian Kutti, who said she came to offer help. A publicist for hip-hop artist and Trump supporter Kanye West, Kutti warned Freeman that she’d be arrested soon on voting fraud charges and sought to pressure her into confessing in exchange for help, Freeman said. (West has since changed his name to “Ye.”) 

Freeman said she ended the conversation. The episode made her wonder who she could trust. She concluded: “Nobody.”

Parts of Freeman’s account of the meeting are corroborated by police recordings reviewed by Reuters. Kutti did not respond to requests for comment. 

The family’s ordeal is an extreme example of a much broader paralysis in U.S. law enforcement as election workers faced an unprecedented wave of terroristic threats https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats this year. In addition to the several hundred threats described by Moss and Freeman, Reuters has documented more than 850 threats and harassing messages to election administrators, including about 100 that legal experts say could be prosecuted under federal law. Almost no one has been held accountable. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-law-enforcement

“There has to be charges brought against those threatening and encouraging the threatening of election workers,” said Matt Masterson, a Republican who ran election security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security between 2018 to 2020. “I don’t see a way out of this without real accountability being brought to bear.”

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

Reuters reported https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-georgia on the mother and daughter’s experience last week through public records and interviews with their associates. The next day, the two women filed a defamation lawsuit https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/two-georgia-election-workers-sue-far-right-website-over-false-fraud-allegations-2021-12-02 against The Gateway Pundit, a far-right news site that published a series of false stories https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-gatewaypundit accusing them of election fraud. The Gateway Pundit declined to comment.

For this story, the two women agreed to be interviewed on the condition that the reporters not take photos, publish audio recordings of the meeting or disclose where it took place. Both Moss and Freeman have changed their appearances since their photographs were widely circulated after the election; Reuters agreed not to describe how they look now.

After the threats started last December, the women grew desperate for help. Freeman said she spoke with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). The bureau’s response was to show her how to make her Facebook page private, she said. The GBI told Reuters that Georgia law only allows the bureau to investigate if asked by police or another governing official, which it said none did in the case of Freeman and Moss.

Freeman also spoke with the FBI. On Jan. 5, an agent recommended she leave her home for her own safety, she said. The FBI also advised her to change her phone number. The FBI had been monitoring threats to election workers and contacted Freeman after discovering messages targeting her, a former federal official told Reuters.

At the time, far-right users on Parler, a social media platform, were calling for her execution. “She will go missing very soon,” one post said. Another said she would be “suicided with 2 bullets to the back of the head.” One urged fellow Trump supporters to “hunt her down.” Yet another said: “Time for Ruby to die for what she believed in.”

Parler did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Making violent threats is a felony crime in Georgia when done with the “purpose of terrorizing another.” Federal law criminalizes threats explicit enough to put a reasonable person in fear of bodily harm or death.

Police in Cobb County did not respond to requests for comment on why the force did not investigate the hundreds of threats reported by Freeman. Fulton County police said it did not investigate because the two women did not make an official incident report to police. In addition to Freeman telling Fulton County police about the threats, her supervisor at the elections office asked the department for a security detail for the two women. County government officials denied the request, saying the threats against them did not rise to the level of crimes.

Law enforcement has been more aggressive in pursuing people who threatened high-profile politicians. Police have arrested at least 12 people, almost all of them Trump supporters, who have threatened members of the U.S. Congress since the 2020 election. Last month, a New York man was arrested just days after allegedly making a death threat against Congressman Andrew Garbarino, a New York Republican who voted for an infrastructure bill that has been a priority of Democratic President Joe Biden.

Threats against election workers should be taken just as seriously, said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, who told Reuters she is pressuring the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) to act. “This is an escalating problem,” said Klobuchar. “Law enforcement has to start looking at these cases for what they are, which is a very threat to our democracy.”

The DOJ said it “is fully committed to ensuring that all reported incidents of threats of violence to election workers and officials are carefully assessed for threat mitigation. That includes victim outreach and FBI intervention, and when a matter does rise to the level of a criminal threat, vigorously investigating the matter with all our criminal tools and aggressively prosecuting the matter where appropriate.”

While the people threatening Freeman and Moss got little scrutiny, the election workers were investigated over Trump’s false fraud allegations against them. Freeman said she met with investigators from the FBI, the GBI, and officials from the Georgia secretary of state’s office to answer questions about her work on Election Day. “They were trying to figure out if we actually did steal ballots,” she said.

On Dec. 4, a day after Trump’s allies publicly accused the women of fraud, then-Attorney General Bill Barr asked Byung J. “BJay” Pak, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta at the time, to look into the allegations, according to two former federal officials with direct knowledge of the matter. It wasn’t because Barr suspected the women committed fraud, they said. State officials had already debunked Trump’s claims. Rather, Barr wanted to be fully apprised so he could respond to Trump’s inquiries, they added.

After that previously unreported discussion, FBI agents spoke with Freeman and examined the surveillance video and other evidence, concluding there was no fraud, the officials said. By the time Barr stepped down on Dec. 23, he was confident there was no wrongdoing, the former officials said. But Trump kept up pressure on the DOJ, one of the sources said. Trump also continued to accuse Moss and Freeman of fraud.

The FBI would not confirm or deny whether it is investigating threats against the mother and daughter. Nationwide, just one person has been arrested and charged with a federal crime involving threats to election officials related to the 2020 presidential contest, a woman accused last December of threatening an election official in Michigan. That case is ongoing; the accused has pleaded not guilty.

In a statement, the FBI said it works with other agencies “to identify and stop any potential threats to public safety” and “investigate any and all federal violations to the fullest.” After Reuters reported the ongoing harassment of election officials and their families in June, the DOJ announced a task force that month to investigate threats to election workers. 

A department spokesperson said the task force has “criminal investigations open across the country.” The task force has yet to announce any arrests.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Moss recalled the first time she saw the onslaught of threats, in early December 2020. Shocked at the often violent and racist messages, she said she was “just stuck and standing there for a while.”

“And the first thing I thought about was my son,” Moss said.

The 14-year-old high school freshman was using her old cell phone, with a number she had since college. He needed the device to connect to the Internet for virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic, the only way he could get online. Moss earned a modest $36,000 annually. She said she couldn’t afford WiFi.

As threats inundated her son’s phone, he couldn’t concentrate. His grades slipped. Strangers battered him with threatening and racist voicemails and texts. 

One, she said, told him: “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920. You would be hanging along with your mother.”

One threat shook her deeply. It said she had a “cute little boy,” which she took as a veiled threat to his life.

Her only child was reluctant to tell her about the threats he received. “He’s always tried to be my protector,” said the single mother.

Instead, he started shutting down the phone to stop receiving the threats, cutting off his only avenue to virtual learning. Moss didn’t discover what he had been doing until May. By then he had failed all of his classes, she said, and had to attend summer school. When he returned for the next school year, the talented football player couldn’t join the team. He had to focus on his grades.

Before she became a target of Trump’s supporters, Moss said she enjoyed being the outgoing face of the Fulton County elections office, getting filmed for training videos and answering calls from voters. She tucked her business card into the envelope of every voter registration application she mailed out. When voters called for help, she enjoyed talking to them.

Today, when her office phone rings, she’s afraid to answer and tries to avoid giving her name. She rarely leaves her cubicle. Aside from commuting, she avoids going out in public. She says she’s lost the energy to cook, clean or walk the dog. 

Her son helps out. When she’s overwhelmed by stress, he brings her medicine and water. 

“I can’t enjoy anything,” she said in a soft voice. “I just really have lost myself.”

A WARNING FROM THE FBI

Like her daughter, Freeman was targeted with hundreds of threats and racial slurs immediately after Trump’s team publicly accused her of fraud on Dec. 3, 2020.

Over the next month, strangers showed up at Freeman’s home, sometimes banging on her door, according to Freeman and police reports reviewed by Reuters.

When Kutti – the Kanye West publicist and Trump supporter – paid her a visit, a wary Freeman called police and arranged to meet and talk with Kutti at the Cobb County police station. Kutti told an officer that Freeman “was in danger” and had “48 hours” to speak with her before “unknown subjects” turned up at her home, according to a police report.

The next day, Jan. 5, an FBI agent called Freeman and urged her to leave her longtime home because it wasn’t safe, Freeman said.

“What do you mean, leave?” she recalls telling the agent. She says she made quick arrangements to stay at a friend’s place.

The following day, on Jan. 6 – the day of the U.S. Capitol riots – Kutti’s prediction that people would descend on Freeman’s home in 48 hours proved correct. Freeman fled hours before a mob of angry Trump supporters surrounded her home, shouting through bullhorns, according to the lawsuit Freeman and Moss filed last week against the Gateway Pundit. Reuters was unable to independently corroborate that incident.

Freeman left her friend’s home two weeks later, after finding out about the arrested Capitol rioter who had Freeman and her daughter’s names on a list. Her hosts grew worried for their own safety, she said, so she packed up and got in her car the next morning. She stayed in three different locations over the next six weeks, she said.

By March, she returned home. She altered her appearance. But her life had been upended, she said.

Some friends no longer spoke with her, out of fear, she said. Her 12-year-old clothing and accessories business, LaRuby’s Unique Treasures, has lost most of its customers, she said. Freeman traveled around to sell her goods at events, often at churches or sororities, Moss said. Regular clients didn’t know how to contact her after she changed her phone number at the recommendation of the FBI, and shuttered her social media accounts.

She now feels safer, she said. Eleven cameras and three motion sensors have been installed around her home. But the experience – life on the run, her daughter’s fears, her grandson’s school struggles – has taken a toll on her family. 

“All because of this?” she said, referring to Trump’s false claims of mysterious suitcases stuffed with ballots. “That’s not right.”

(Reporting by Linda So and Jason Szep; editing by Brian Thevenot)

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