TAMPA — Jason Jerome Springer hated a federal judge so much that he talked about flying an "explosive-packed drone" into her office, court papers say. He tried to learn her home address and told an inmate at the Pinellas County Jail that he considered it his mission to kill her.
The 39-year-old Valrico man is an ISIS sympathizer, federal authorities say, one who has previously written on Facebook that "death is the best teacher."
A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Springer on a charge of threatening to assault or murder U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, 80.
"I take this seriously," the judge told the Tampa Bay Times. "I take this very seriously."
Springer was awaiting trial on a gun violation when he told at least four inmates that he wanted to kill the judge on his case and would do so if released, according to court documents.
It is unclear how he first came to the FBI's attention, but testimony suggests the agency looked at his Facebook page as part of another, broader investigation, the nature of which is not yet public. A Facebook post led to the gun charge.
His wife, Tugba Tokatlioglu, said the claim of ISIS sympathy is lie, a pretext for federal investigators to probe the family's connections to other Muslims.
"I can't get them to see he's not one of those people," she told the Times. She speculated that authorities are targeting him because he is Muslim.
Springer's mother, Nevia Springer of Elizabethtown, Ky., said he grew up Baptist but converted to Islam a few years ago despite her attempts to remind him about Jesus. He became outspoken about his new faith.
She said she can't picture him threatening a judge. "My son is not a terrorist," she said.
Both Springer and his wife have military ties. His father is retired from the U.S. Army. The family lived for years in Germany, where Springer was born.
Tokatlioglu, a radiology technician in east Hillsborough County, served in the Air Force, she said.
She and Springer are U.S. citizens. She called him "peaceful" and "humble." The couple was headed to Alabama to show his father their infant son in November when Springer was stopped along Interstate 75 and arrested on the gun charge.
FBI agents had viewed a video on his Facebook page that showed another person firing an AR-15 assault rifle, according to a criminal complaint.
Agents identified the location in the video as the Shooter's World gun range in Tampa. Surveillance video from the range showed Springer visiting Nov. 11 with his wife and another man. Springer's wife rented a Glock, Ruger and Taurus and bought 100 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, authorities learned.
With a felony marijuana conviction in Springer's past, he wasn't allowed to handle a gun. But he did not disclose his record at the gun range, court records show. He fired 12 rounds, trying all three weapons, an FBI agent would later tell a judge.
That led to Springer's arrest.
At a bail hearing in November, a prosecutor noted Facebook posts indicating Springer may have sympathies for the ISIS terrorist group.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel George showed a magistrate judge a poster shared on Springer's page of a man holding an assault-style rifle.
Its printed caption read: "Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures." A prosecutor pointed to a symbol on the photo that is also part of the ISIS flag.
Elsewhere on Facebook, agents noticed Springer had written "death is the best teacher" and "the most important thing in life is to be prepared to die."
He had commented on another person's post about the Iraqi army, writing "ISIS are freedom fighters at best."
Hearing all that, the judge at the gun hearing denied him bail. He was taken to the Pinellas County jail, which often houses federal defendants.
Then, in February, a fellow inmate told agents that Springer wanted the judge dead. He had someone outside the jail trying to learn where Kovachevich lived.
At least three other inmates who had been housed with Springer backed up the story.
One said killing the judge was a mission for Springer, that he prayed every day she would die, and that he wanted to fly a drone into her office at the federal courthouse in Tampa.
That led the U.S. Attorney's Office to seek restrictions on Springer's visits, calls and email access to people outside the jail. In March, he was moved to the Hernando County Jail.
Kovachevich, on the federal bench since 1982, recused herself from his firearms case, so as to avoid an appearance of partiality.
"Such threats come with the territory of being a federal judge," she wrote. "But this case is unique."
Springer has since agreed to plead guilty in the gun case, with sentencing in July before U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew. His initial appearance on the threat charge is May 1.
His court-appointed attorney, Daniel Hernandez, declined to comment.
Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.