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‘Email Bombing’ Targets APD Chief, Detective; Threat Suspect Identified

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two weeks after KXAN’s initial investigative report, an unsealed search warrant reveals new details surrounding recent threatening communications sent to Travis County judicial candidates ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. The search warrant outlines more targets — including Austin’s police chief — and identifies a suspect: Michael David Johnson.

KXAN reached out to Johnson’s defense attorney and requested a comment on the allegations detailed in the search warrant but has yet to receive a response.

KXAN first reported on a police investigation after someone claiming to be County Court at Law #4 judge candidate Jana Ortega sent an email to our newsroom stating Ortega decided to end her race, followed by multiple self-degrading statements and a link to support Ortega’s opponent, current CC4 Judge Dimple Malhotra’s re-election campaign.

When contacted by KXAN, Ortega said the email was sent by an imposter and she had received hundreds of anonymous communications from someone threatening her and using racial slurs against her family.

Facebook post on Judge Dimple Malhotra’s re-election campaign page related to someone impersonating and harassing her. (Courtesy Judge Dimple Malhotra)

KXAN found Ortega was one of at least eight people in Travis County’s legal community targeted with similar communications over in the past few years, including Malhotra. In early February, the judge published a Facebook post on her re-election campaign page revealing the Austin Police Department is investigating an individual she said has been impersonating and harassing her and others since 2020.

After cross-referencing court records, documents and communications provided by victims, KXAN uncovered the identity of one person police believe is behind the recent threats sent to Ortega.

KXAN had previously reached out to APD and learned it had identified a primary suspect and recently executed a search warrant.

APD then told KXAN records of the search warrant had been sealed and it was unable to provide additional details in the ongoing investigation. 

At that time, KXAN did not name the individual, instead waiting to verify his identity in the search warrant. It was unsealed last week.

APD’s investigation and search warrant

In December 2021, APD Detective James Eichenholz became the lead investigator on the case, following a police report filed by Ortega regarding the “death threats” she has been receiving, according to the search warrant.

The information Ortega provided APD led Eichenholz to one person with a history of police reports filed against him since 2018 — Johnson, 41, of Buda. He is the same person KXAN initially connected to threats sent to Ortega and others.

Eichenholz wrote in the search warrant Johnson had been listed as the suspect in several “Austin Police Department reports that range from identity theft, harassment, violation of protective order, breach of computer security, online impersonation, and harassment of a public servant.”

KXAN traces harassment of judge, candidates, attorneys to one man

The search warrant revealed several additional victims beyond the eight targets KXAN initially found. With that information, KXAN has identified at least 17 people who have received similar threatening or harassing communications, including more Travis County attorneys, Johnson’s former friend and employers of those targeted.

Among the newly identified targets were APD Chief Joseph Chacon and an APD detective previously assigned to a case associated with Johnson.

According to the search warrant, Eichenholz learned both Chacon and the detective suddenly began receiving hundreds of emails to their City of Austin accounts on Dec. 17, 2021.

The detective said she “suspected Michael Johnson was behind the attack because ’email bombing’ is part of his Modus Operandi (M.O).”

Eichenholz said he had been the one to go onto Johnson’s website one day before the chief and detective started receiving emails. Eichenholz said he believed Johnson was monitoring the IP addresses of those who were visiting his website and noticed increased activity from an IP address belonging to the “City of Austin,” which led to the “email bombing,” according to the search warrant.

Nearly a month after Eichenholz was assigned lead investigator on the case, a district court judge found sufficient probable cause to issue a search warrant at Johnson’s residence.

Excerpt from search warrant where Detective Eichenholz summarizes his findings. APD redacted some elements because they contain identifying information about victims, while KXAN redacted information about the company used to spoof emails.

Eichenholz concludes in the search warrant that Johnson’s motive for targeting Ortega was “to defame, sabotage, and bring scrutiny to Judge Dimple Malhotra in an attempt to keep her from being reelected as the Judge for County Court at Law 4.”

“Michael holds a grudge against Judge Dimple Malhotra due to the fact she presided over a case against Michael, which resulted in Michael being placed on GPS ankle monitoring system,” the warrant continued.

According to Travis County court records, Eichenholz executed the search warrant at Johnson’s home on Jan. 18 resulting in the seizure of the following property:

FirearmModemsPapersLaptop(s)External hard drivesUSB(s)TabletiPhone (x2)Samsung cell phone

Eichenholz told KXAN he could not comment on the ongoing investigation. New charges have not been filed against Johnson.

Pending criminal cases and new possible charges

KXAN previously reported Johnson currently has multiple pending criminal charges in Malhotra’s CC4 court — three active cases from 2019 and 2020 for misdemeanor offenses of violation of bond/protective order and two harassment charges. 

Johnson has been out on bond since 2019 with the condition that he wears a GPS ankle monitor, has no contact with the victims in his cases and does not possess a firearm, according to court records.

According to the search warrant, Johnson could face third-degree felony charges of terroristic threat based on the evidence found in Eichenholz’s investigation. If charged and convicted, Johnson could be sentenced to between two and 10 years in prison and fined up to $10,000, according to the Texas Penal Code.

Johnson was scheduled for a pre-trial hearing in Malhotra’s court on Feb. 24, according to Travis County court records. Malhotra told KXAN it would be improper for her to have any involvement in these cases and confirmed that she would not be on the bench during any related hearings.

The judicial aide specialist in CC4 told KXAN the Feb. 24 hearing was reset and Johnson’s cases have been assigned to a different judge.

Ortega said she has not received additional threats since the search warrant was executed. The primary election is Tuesday.

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