Cornell student accused of threatening to kill Jewish students will remain behind bars

Nov 2, 2023, 6:30 AM

Cornell University student Patrick Dai is accused of making online threats against the school's Jew...

Cornell University student Patrick Dai is accused of making online threats against the school's Jewish community. (Mandatory Credit: Broome County Sheriff's Office)

(Mandatory Credit: Broome County Sheriff's Office)

Syracuse, New York (CNN) — The Cornell University student accused of posting online threats to kill members of the university’s Jewish community appeared in federal court Wednesday and was ordered to remain behind bars for the time being.

Patrick Dai, a 21-year-old junior at the Ivy League school, was arrested Tuesday and charged federally with “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications,” the US Attorney’s Office for New York’s Northern District announced. The charge is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Dai appeared in a Syracuse courtroom wearing an orange jail outfit and with his wrists shackled. He did not enter a plea.

He responded, “Yes, your honor,” several times after being asked questions by the judge. Dai remained straight-faced throughout the hearing, which lasted about 10 minutes. His mother sat in the second row.

The prosecution moved to detain Dai on the basis of risk of danger and risk of flight, and Dai’s defense attorney, Gabrielle DiBella, waived her client’s right to a timely detention hearing. He was remanded back into the custody of US marshals.

DiBella declined comment after the hearing. Dai is scheduled to return to court November 15.

Prosecutors say Dai published posts in an online discussion forum in which he threatened to kill and injure Cornell’s Jewish students and “shoot up” the university’s predominantly kosher dining hall, 104 West.

In one post, Dai wrote he would “bring an assault rifle to campus” and shoot Jewish people, according to the US Attorney’s Office.

The posts were written under usernames referencing Hamas, and they used anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian slogans, according to an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint.

The violent threats surfaced amid a reported spike in antisemitic incidents as the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group rages in the Middle East. Such incidents in the US increased nearly 400% in the days after Hamas attacked Israel October 7, the Anti-Defamation League has said, and antisemitism is reaching “historic levels” in the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate panel Tuesday. Pro-Palestinian vandalism reportedly has rattled Jewish communities in recent days in Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Rhode Island.

The Biden administration this week announced new measures aimed at combating antisemitic incidents on US college campuses, with the president telling reporters he’s “very” concerned about the rise of antisemitism. Beyond Cornell, the editor of Yale’s student-run newspaper apologized this week for the removal from two editorials about the attack on Israel of references to allegations of rape and beheadings committed by Hamas.

Cornell canceled all classes on Friday “in recognition of the extraordinary stress of the past few weeks,” school spokesperson Rebecca Valli told CNN.

The university president, Martha Pollack, also shared a message with the school community on Friday about standing against antisemitism and hate.

Pollack said the school would respond “rapidly and forcefully” to any threats of incitement to violence and outlined some steps the school plans to take going forward.

“We will not tolerate antisemitism at Cornell; indeed we will not tolerate hatred of any form, including racism or Islamophobia,” Pollack said in the message.

What we know about the suspect

Dai allegedly posted at least one threat from the Ithaca, New York, area – home to Cornell’s campus -– and admitted to posting the threatening messages in an interview with the FBI, according to the affidavit.

The FBI submitted an emergency disclosure request to the website where Dai allegedly posted the threats “to obtain and identify subscriber information” associated with the poster, according to the affidavit.

The website where the posts appeared told the FBI that at least two posts were associated with two different IP addresses in New York. CNN confirmed that the first IP address was located in the Pittsford, New York, area. The FBI in its affidavit said it was “resolved to a person and residence affiliated with Dai.”

Dai is from Pittsford and attended Pittsford Mendon High School, a school spokesperson said.

The FBI did not disclose the second IP address, but in the affidavit said it was traced to Ithaca.

Dai admitted to posting the threatening messages in an interview with the FBI at the Cornell Police Department on Tuesday after receiving Miranda warnings, the complaint says.

In an interview with the New York Post, Dai’s parents said that he has severe depression dating to 2021 and had no history of violence.

The father, who asked his name not be used, told the Post in a text exchange Dai stopped communicating with his parents days before his arrest and around the time the antisemitic threats were made on an online message board.

He said his wife drove to Ithaca to see their son, but he had already been arrested.

How Cornell responded to the threats

After the threats were posted Sunday, Cornell University police ramped up patrols and increased security for Jewish students and organizations, the agency said. New York State Police has increased its security presence on campus, Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

At Cornell, Jewish students make up about 22% of the student body, with about 3,000 undergraduate and 500 graduate Jewish students, according to the school’s Hillel organization. As awareness of the threatening online posts spread Sunday evening, Cornell Hillel warned students and staff to avoid 104 West “out of an abundance of caution.”

The threats stoked fear and anxiety throughout Cornell’s Jewish community, which had already been feeling uneasy after several of the campus sidewalks were vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti last week, according to the university’s student-run newspaper, The Cornell Review.

“Jewish students on campus right now are unbelievably terrified for their lives,” Molly Goldstein, co-president of the Cornell Center for Jewish Living, told CNN. “I never would have expected this to happen on my university campus.”

Cornell said some classes may have remote learning options amid concern for people’s safety.

The university will continue to maintain heightened security on campus, according to a statement from Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations.

“Cornell University is grateful to the FBI for working so swiftly to identify and apprehend the suspect in this case, a Cornell student, who remains in custody,” Malina said in a statement. “We remain shocked by and condemn these horrific, antisemitic threats and believe they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack in an earlier statement said the school “will not tolerate antisemitism.”

“During my time as president, I have repeatedly denounced bigotry and hatred, both on and off our campus,” Pollack said. “The virulence and destructiveness of antisemitism is real and deeply impacting our Jewish students, faculty and staff, as well as the entire Cornell community. This incident highlights the need to combat the forces that are dividing us and driving us toward hate. This cannot be what defines us at Cornell.”

New York officials are taking reported acts of hate against Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim residents very seriously, Hochul told CNN on Tuesday.

“Whether it’s a Jewish student or a Palestinian, Muslim – people are under enormous distress right now and the emotional toll that these hate crimes are taking is cruel and it has to stop,” the governor told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“People feel so vulnerable going to their synagogues or their mosques of their classes,” she said. “This is not who New Yorkers are.”

In a news conference Wednesday, Hochul said she wants to “make an example” out of Dai and is looking at whether he will face both state and federal charges.

“We’re going to run these cases all the way to the ground to make sure that people know you cannot get away with this here in the state of New York,” she said.

CNN’s Jessica Xing, Elizabeth Wolfe, Paul P. Murphy, Maria Campinoti, Dakin Andone, Chris Boyette, Andy Rose, Caroll Alvarado, Artemis Moshtaghian, Zenebou Sylla and Michelle Watson contributed to this report.

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Cornell student accused of threatening to kill Jewish students will remain behind bars