Judge Kirsten Swanson imposes strict conditions, including staying away from schools and other places children frequent, for Mitchell Thomas Watley to be released from jail after his arrest Sunday for allegedly placing transphobic notes in at least three public locations since Friday that referred to shooting children. Watley, who participated by phone from Lemon Creek Correctional Center, had his first hearing in the case Monday afternoon at the Juneau Courthouse. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Judge Kirsten Swanson imposes strict conditions, including staying away from schools and other places children frequent, for Mitchell Thomas Watley to be released from jail after his arrest Sunday for allegedly placing transphobic notes in at least three public locations since Friday that referred to shooting children. Watley, who participated by phone from Lemon Creek Correctional Center, had his first hearing in the case Monday afternoon at the Juneau Courthouse. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Man arrested for allegedly posting notes that reference shooting children

Suspect said he spread leaflets out of fear of Tennessee shooter, according to police.

A Juneau man known for his illustrations in children’s books was arrested Sunday for allegedly posting transphobic notes referring to shooting children in at least three public locations since Friday, telling police he did it because he feared a transgender person suspected of a mass shooting at a Tennessee school a week ago, according to police and court officials.

Mitchell Thomas Watley, 47, was jailed and charged with one count of felony terroristic threatening for allegedly posting the notes at various locations in Foodland IGA early Friday morning, on a bulletin board at the State Office Building later that day, and at locations inside Costco on Sunday, according to a news release issued Sunday by the Juneau Police Department. The notes stating “Feeling Cute Might Shoot Some Children” also featured what police described as an image of an assault rifle against the background of a transgender flag, according to the official complaint filed at the Juneau Courthouse.

“In states across our country mass shootings and school shootings are on the rise,” Assistant District Attorney Rexene Finley said during Watley’s initial court hearing Monday afternoon. “These are very serious allegations. He put these in places where people go shopping with their children…Mr. Watley has targeted our most vulnerable populations.”

The shooting in Nashville last Monday that killed six people has resulted in anti-transgender rhetoric and other actions nationwide. Authorities involved with that case have not stated the suspect’s transgender identity was a motive in the shooting.

Friday was the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which prompted many schools across the U.S. to increase security and some to cancel classes for the day. Security was increased at Juneau’s schools after police were told about the notes at Foodland just before 7 a.m. and at the State Office Building at about noon, according to the court complaint.

“Once these reports came into JPD, it caused heightened security measures to be taken by the Juneau School District; as well as local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including having officers respond to each school for extra security,” the complaint notes. “These measures continued through the weekend.”

Police received a subsequent alert on Sunday about identical notes being found the grocery and the alcohol sections of Costco, Finley said.

“As they were watching the video they were able to watch the individual in the video and track him out to a motor vehicle,” she said.

Police used registration information from the Division of Motor Vehicles to identify and subsequently arrest Watley, who admitted to placing the notes, Finley said.

“Officers spoke to Mitchell, who said (in essence) that he was in fear of the recent transgender school shooter and took it upon himself to print out and distribute these leaflets,” the official complaint states.

Watley, a Texas native who moved to Juneau many years ago and has no known criminal record other than a minor vehicle registration violation, was booked into Lemon Creek Correctional Center. His social media and other online activity appears to largely be focused on his various works as an artist, which in addition to illustrating a trio of children’s books written by his wife featured during last year’s Gallery Walk includes a futuristic 3D diorama exhibit titled “Mitch Did This³” featured at the Alaska Alaska State Museum for ten months in 2020-21.

“As I’ve said before, it’s hard to know when to stop with an idea,” Watley wrote in a description of one of the exhibit models.

Finley requested that, in addition to bail of $10,000, Watley be ordered to stay away from “schools, parks and places where children (gather)”; turn in any weapons in his possession; undergo a mental health exam; and be subject to a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and electronic monitoring; and undergo a mental health exam.

“The people in the community, regardless of their personal beliefs, have the right to live free of violence and free of fear,” she said.

Watley, who by standard practice did not enter a plea since he is charged with a felony, spoke little during the hearing beyond responding “I do, your honor” when asked by Judge Kirsten Swanson if he understood the charges against him.

His attorney for the hearing, Nicholas Polasky, told Swanson it is not yet known if he will continue representing Watley at future hearings, and thus declined to respond to Finley’s version of events or the conditions she sought for Watley to be released from jail.

“I’m not in a position to state — I don’t have a comment on it right now,” Polasky said.

Swanson subsequently imposed the conditions of release sought by Finley — expounding “most importantly school grounds” when specifying locations Watley is prohibited — and said an expedited bail review is possible once he retains an attorney for future hearings. The judge also stated that since Watley is a longtime local resident who is employed he does not appear to be a flight risk.

“I’m not looking at (ensuring his) appearance,” Swanson said. “I’m looking at protection of the public.”

Finley, in response, noted the incident resulted in public notices being published by the police as well as media coverage.

“There were some parents who removed their children from school” on Friday after the notes posted that day were made public by police, she said.

“The people in the community, regardless of their personal beliefs, have the right to live free of violence and free of fear,” she said.

Watley is charged with a Class C felony, which can result in up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. His next scheduled court date is a preliminary hearing on April 11.

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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