A former car salesman spent nearly 14 months in US prison after finding himself swept up in an amateur internet investigation into jihadists, according to a report from The New York Times.
Toby Lopez began researching the Islamic State on the internet after one of his friends from high school was killed in Afghanistan. Lopez, now 42, lived with his mother in the small town of Wyoming, Delaware, and his mission to track down members of the Islamic State on social media quickly became a large part of his life.
What started as tweeting insults at supposed ISIS-supporters eventually turned to hours spent speaking over Skype with a man who claimed to be Omar al-Shishani, an ISIS military commander, according to The Times. The man wanted Lopez to raise ransom money to pay for the release of Yazidi hostages.
As his obsession grew, Lopez had to leave his job, “agreeing with his boss that his online life had become a distraction,” The Times reported. At Thanksgiving, he shared jihadist social media posts with his family. But the situation worsened when he contacted the FBI.
Neither the FBI nor reporters for the Times, whom Lopez contacted in early 2015, seemed to believe that Lopez had been speaking with the real al-Shishani. But Lopez couldn’t be convinced. He frantically and repeatedly emailed a sceptical FBI counterterrorism agent, believing that he could potentially free Kayla Mueller, then an American hostage of ISIS.
When news came that Mueller had been killed in an airstrike, Lopez appeared to become increasingly unhinged in his emails. According to a criminal complaint posted by the New York Observer, on February 11, he emailed the agent:
Just remember whatever ends up happening to you … You deserved it you lying piece of s— !!. Have a nice day …:)
Citing the email, authorities filed the criminal complaint charging Lopez with “interstate communication of a threat to injure the person of another” within a matter of hours.
Lopez was arrested on the same day. He would be held in a number of federal facilities over the months that followed.
Only after his third psychological evaluation was Lopez found to be competent and he was soon released on bail. Last week, his charges were dropped.
Lopez is now considering suing the officials who had him imprisoned.