Caller draws light sentence in Palo Alto JCC case

A former security guard who placed harassing calls to the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto last summer has been found guilty of seven felony counts, but he received a light sentence: five years probation.

Kevin Riley O'Keeffe, 29, could have faced six years in prison for his three calls to the Albert L. Schultz JCC in July and August. Instead, he was given credit for time served. He will be released on or around April 14.

On March 30, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Charles Hayden found O'Keeffe guilty of three felony counts, although the San Jose resident never explicitly threatened anyone.

Hayden admitted anguishing over the ruling. But since O'Keeffe's calls followed on the heels of explosive anti-Semitic incidents in the Los Angeles, Sacramento and Chicago areas, they effectively comprised a threat, Hayden said.

"I am convinced that the people involved were afraid and had cause to be afraid," Hayden said.

The court heard tapes of the calls, in which O'Keeffe praised Hitler and others who have unleashed acts of anti-Semitic violence.

"They were pretty disturbing," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League 's Central Pacific region.

While some court-watchers noted that O'Keeffe has spent more time behind bars than many who are charged with acts of physical violence, Bernstein said the nature and timing of the calls demanded an extra layer of caution.

"It seems to me like the courts did exactly what they should do," he said. "His intent was to terrorize an entire community, and that's got to be taken seriously."

In addition, Deputy District Attorney Aaron Perskey said JCC staff had no way of knowing whether the caller was linked to hate groups — as were people who had participated in attacks like the August shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles.

Police traced the calls to a firm that had hired O'Keeffe as a security guard. They subsequently searched his home and found journal entries that extolled violence against Jews and other minorities. They also found a book on how to make bombs and a copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

O'Keeffe's lawyer, J.J. Kapp, argued that his client's calls, however offensive, were protected speech. He asked that the judge reduce the charges to a misdemeanor count for making harassing, rather than threatening, phone calls.

Thursday, Hayden denied Kapp's requested for reduction in his client's bail, set at $1 million.

Perskey praised the ruling, saying O'Keeffe had expressed considerable remorse. He also said O'Keeffe had a history of emotional problems for which he has tried unsuccessfully to obtain treatment.

Since the incidents, officials of the JCC have adopted numerous security measures. They hired a permanent security guard, installed a video camera and erected a fence around the Arastradero Road facility.

Still, three weeks ago, vandals spray-painted graffiti on the building.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto police are investigating another troubling case: an anti-Semitic e-mail sent March 27 to a middle school official.

The message, sent during spring break, was directed at Barbara Lancon, an assistant principal at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School.

"It is quite unmistakable that this is a threatening, anti-Semitic message," said Lt. Torin Fischer of the Palo Alto Police Department. "If it's not just insulting, but more like, 'You Jewish so-and-so, I'm going to get you.' We investigate that as a felony threatening call."

While he did not have the exact text of the message, he said it made mention twice of the Ku Klux Klan.

Fischer said police are investigating the Internet firm that relayed the message and have served the company with a search warrant. The police determined the identity of the sender Monday afternoon and will be seeking a second search warrant for his residence, Fischer said.

Lancon also received a second e-mail, which was vulgar and vindictive but not explicitly anti-Semitic or threatening, according to Fischer. The message qualifies as a misdemeanor harassing phone call. It is not known whether the same individual is responsible for both missives.

Lancon, a veteran school administrator, was upset but has not stopped working.

"She's been around the district a long time," Fischer said. "I want her to know she has our support all the way. We will never be too busy to investigate these kinds of crimes."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.