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Woman charged with fake bomb threat targeting Boston Children’s Hospital

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/16/2022 Jonathan Edwards
Boston Children's Hospital has faced threats in recent weeks, the FBI said. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) © Charles Krupa/AP Boston Children's Hospital has faced threats in recent weeks, the FBI said. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Boston Children’s Hospital had been under attack for weeks over its gender-affirming treatments for children and teens when one of its operators answered a call around 7:45 p.m. on Aug. 30.

The person on the other end issued a dire warning, according to the FBI: “There is a bomb on the way to the hospital,” they said. “You better evacuate everybody, you sickos.”

Authorities locked down the hospital and the area around it. A Boston Police Department bomb squad scoured the facility, found nothing and gave the all-clear.

A little more than two weeks after the threat, FBI agents have caught the woman they say made it. Catherine Leavy, 37, was arrested Thursday morning at her home in Westfield, Mass., and charged in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts with willfully making a false bomb threat. She is being detained pending a Friday afternoon hearing about whether she should remain in custody.

Federal court records do not list an attorney for Leavy. During an interview with FBI agents on Thursday, she initially denied making the threat but later confessed to doing so, adding that she never meant to actually plant a bomb at the hospital, an FBI agent wrote in a sworn affidavit for her arrest.

If convicted, Leavy faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Rachael Rollins, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, called Leavy’s alleged conduct “disturbing, to say the least.”

“Bomb hoaxes cause fear, panic and a diversion of resources that have real impact on our communities,” Rollins said Thursday at a news conference. “The people that work at Children’s Hospital and the parents that bring their loved ones [there] are under enough stress.”

Boston Children’s Hospital says it faces threats after right-wing tweets

The Aug. 30 bomb threat was one the most extreme parts of a weeks-long harassment campaign waged against Boston Children’s, which says it’s one of the country’s largest pediatric hospitals. Boston Children’s told The Washington Post last month that it started getting threats after the right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok on Aug. 11 tweeted a video produced by the hospital about gender-affirming hysterectomies.

The right-wing Libs of TikTok account, which frequently amplifies anti-LGBTQ messaging to its nearly 1.4 million followers, didn’t immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment early Friday. But on Thursday afternoon, it reacted to Leavy’s arrest, calling it “great news.”

“Threats of violence should always be taken seriously,” the account tweeted. “We’re grateful the FBI tracked this person down.”

In an Aug. 16 post, Libs of TikTok accused Boston Children’s of supporting “castrating kids,” saying doctors there had performed surgeries on “young girls.” The hospital told The Post it doesn’t perform gender-affirming hysterectomies on patients younger than 18. The Post reported that an archived version of the hospital’s website suggested that vaginoplasties, the surgical construction of a vagina, were available to 17-year-olds. Boston Children’s said that, while 17-year-old patients can get surgical consultations, they must be adults at the time they undergo “genital surgeries.” The hospital said it had updated its website to reflect that policy.

“The commentary and the online attention that followed was based on the incorrect statement that Boston Children’s performs genital surgeries on minors in connection with transgender care,” the hospital said.

Twitter account Libs of TikTok blamed for harassment of children’s hospitals

That attention was fierce, according to the FBI. In court documents, agents said that staff members at the hospital’s Gender Multispecialty Service were then baselessly “accused of engaging in child abuse involving pedophilia, grooming, and mutilation of children.” Harassers flooded the hospital with phone calls and emails, some threatening to kill staff members or cause “mass casualty attacks,” according to federal agents.

Those harassers included Leavy, according to the FBI, which quickly connected her to the Aug. 30 hoax threat, the affidavit states. The hospital gave agents a recording of the call and its phone records, which included the caller’s number. Law enforcement used that number to go to T-Mobile and get subscriber information, finding that the number was registered to Leavy, according to the FBI. The T-Mobile records also revealed her phone had called the hospital at the time of the threat, the affidavit adds.

On Thursday, FBI agents interviewed Leavy at her Westfield home. At first, authorities said she denied making the bomb threat and said she didn’t know where her cellphone was. She “expressed disapproval” for the hospital several times during the interview, agents wrote.

When pressed, Leavy admitted she had made the Aug. 30 call but said she never meant to actually bomb the hospital, the affidavit states. Agents found Leavy’s phone in her bedroom and arrested her.

Joseph Bonavolonta, the lead agent for the FBI’s Boston office, said Leavy’s call was one of dozens of hoax threats the hospital has received in recent months, threats he denounced as something “reprehensible” that “needs to stop now.” The real victims of those hoaxes, he said, are the hospital’s patients — children with rare diseases frightened they may get blown up and emergency patients who are diverted to another facility because of the lockdowns.

Bonavolonta and Rollins, the prosecutor, said agents are still investigating those hoaxes and could arrest more people “who cross the line of free speech and choose to inflict fear and intimidation.”

“It seems that this is happening all too often, that hoaxes are used to promote personal, hateful beliefs and ideologies,” Rollins added. “We will not stand by and allow this to continue.”

Derek Hawkins and Meena Venkataramanan contributed to this report.

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