A 26-year-old Georgia man was sentenced Tuesday to 42 months in federal prison for making bomb threats to several Palm Beach County schools, Palm Beach International Airport and a suburban West Palm Beach business.
Preston Alexander McWaters pleaded guilty in July to four counts of transmitting threats through interstate communication and two counts of conveying false information regarding explosive devices. Dressed in a dark jumpsuit and shackled around his wrists, waist and ankles, McWaters appeared Tuesday morning in federal court in Broward County.
The sentence added 15 months to an original plea agreement that would have sent McWaters to prison for 27 months. But that deal was voided after it was discovered that McWaters had sent two more threatening messages — one to the U.S. Probation Service in Miami and another to his former attorney — while he was in custody.
Prosecutors asked for a 47-month prison term, while McWaters’ attorney requested that her client get 37 months in a federal penitentiary. Judge James I. Cohn split the difference.
McWaters, of Athens, Ga., was arrested in March, accused of sending threats through emails and social media while pretending to be the boyfriend of a woman who had rejected his advances. McWaters and the woman were previously co-workers at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Georgia, but she later moved to the Jupiter area with her boyfriend.
During Tuesday’s hearing, McWaters said he was forced to send the threats after he received a letter warning that his family and friends would be killed if he didn’t. The letter informed McWaters “when and how to threaten” the intended targets.
McWaters did not identify who sent the letter, but said he agreed to transmit the threats “out of fear and loyalty” to his loved ones.
“Even if done for a good reason, a crime was committed,” McWaters said while reading from a prepared script. “I don’t expect to get off easy nor do I want to.”
The bizarre comments appeared to surprise both prosecutors and his own counsel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels called the statement a “curveball” that “made absolutely no sense” while Ana Jhones, McWaters’ attorney, said she had “no idea” the defendant planned to blame someone else for his actions.
“His judgment is not always the best,” Jhones said.
That opinion might explain why McWaters sent two threatening letters while he sat in a jail cell and after he agreed to a plea deal that likely would have seen him walk out of prison after 27 months.
Prosecutors said they chose not to pursue another indictment of McWaters for the newest threats despite “concrete evidence” that he sent the letters.
Even without the indictment, the two threats earned McWaters an extra 15 months of incarceration.
Michael Brannon, a forensic psychologist testifying in behalf of the defendant, said that McWaters had suffered from mental health and behavioral issues since he was 5 years old and “lives in a world where one is more immature than his chronological age.” Those issues caused McWaters to act without pause or concern for consequences.
But prosecutors said that McWaters was very aware of his actions and did his best to cover his tracks so that he wouldn’t get caught, including buying cellphones that can’t be traced.
Fels said McWaters nearly got away with the “perfect crime” and likely wouldn’t have been caught if his image hadn’t been captured by a surveillance camera at a Wal-Mart in Georgia where he purchased one of the cellphones used to send the threats.
According to court documents, McWaters began making threats Dec. 30, 2015, when he posted a message on PBIA’s website reading: “The bombs that I have place(d) at palm beach international airport are going to blow at 9:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve. The clock is ticking. … Happy new year (expletive)!”
McWaters also made bomb threats to John I. Leonard, Jupiter and Palm Beach Central high schools as well as Beacon Cove Intermediate School in Jupiter, and said he was going to “blow up” JFK Medical Center-North, then known as West Palm Hospital, according to the documents.
Aside from the prison sentence, McWaters will serve three years of probation once he is released, the judge ruled. He also must pay a $600 fine.