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Homeland Security: Maine man targeted Portsmouth police, others with threats via phony emails

Union Leader Correspondent

April 04. 2018 9:46PM

Austin Santoro 

PORTSMOUTH — A Maine college student is facing federal charges alleging he engaged in an email spoofing scheme — sending threatening and sexually explicit messages that appeared to be from Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner and others.

Austin Santoro, 22, of York faces five counts of transmitting threatening interstate communications, four counts of identity theft, and two counts of maliciously conveying false information concerning use of an explosive.

Santoro was arrested March 29 after a federal investigation and released on $10,000 bond Tuesday following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Maine.

Hilary Billings, Santoro’s attorney from the federal defender’s office, said Santoro is a former Boston University student who was most recently taking online courses at York County Community College — a school that he allegedly targeted in the email spoofing.

According to an affidavit by Homeland Security Special Agent Derek Dunn, who is assigned to the Manchester office, the investigation began after a threatening email signed with Merner’s name was received by three female police employees on Jan. 30. The email told them to lock their doors and threatened rape at gunpoint.

The affidavit said Merner immediately made clear that he didn’t send it; an investigation found it was associated with a website in the Czech Republic that offers “free online fake mailer with attachments.”

“Once at the webpage, anyone can send an email to any email address the sender chooses, making the email appear to come from whatever email address the sender provides,” the affidavit said.

Portsmouth police learned on Feb. 18 that a second threatening email that also appeared to have been sent from Merner’s email account was received by three other Portsmouth police officers. According to the affidavit, the email said, “Hey guys. Bim bam boom! There’s a bomb in the building! Come find it before it goes off! Thanks, Robert Merner.”

Authorities discovered that the email was linked to the same website in the Czech Republic.

The affidavit said it appears 36 additional emails were sent between Dec. 21, 2017 and Jan. 30 to police departments in York and Kittery Maine, email addresses associated with Boston University, York County Community College, the town of York, and the York public school system.

Some of those emails contained sexually explicit messages with images of male genitalia and made threats of sexual violence. Other messages referred to the Ku Klux Klan and “white power,” contained racial slurs, and said: “SHOOT HEROIN.”

Other emails to employees of York County Community College made additional threats of rape, claimed to have faculty photos, and offered to pay for a sex act.

The affidavit said Santoro was arrested by Kittery police last July and charged with driving under the influence. The affidavit said all of the emails sent to Kittery police email addresses purportedly came from the officer who arrested Santoro.

The investigation eventually led to a phone number allegedly assigned to Santoro and searches of his home at 122 Cider Hill Road in York.

Homeland Security agents met up with Santoro on March 17 when he flew to Portland, Maine, and they executed a search warrant to seize electronics in his possession, which included a cellphone and a laptop computer.

Merner said he’s not aware of any connection Santoro had to the Portsmouth Police Department.

“I had no interaction with this individual,” he said.

Billings, Santoro’s lawyer, said the Kittery DWI case was eventually dismissed and that his client has “absolutely no prior criminal history at all.”

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