81-year-old's letter attracts Secret Service

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Some might say Dan Tilli’s letters to the editor threaten conservative values. But the U.S. Secret Service briefly worried that the 81-year-old man’s words threatened President Bush.

Tilli’s letter published in Monday’s edition of The Express-Times of Easton earned him a visit from a pair of Secret Service agents.

The letter referenced the execution of Saddam Hussein and ended with the line, “I still believe they hanged the wrong man.”

The government apparently saw that as a potential threat toward the president.

“I didn’t say who — I could’ve meant bin Laden,” Tilli said Friday, adding that the statement wasn’t a threat.

The agents, who confirmed the visit, grilled Tilli at his Bethlehem apartment for nearly an hour Thursday morning before deeming him safe. They asked Tilli questions such as: Do you have siblings? Have you considered committing suicide? (He said no.) Have you visited Washington, D.C.?

“I don’t even know how to get there,” Tilli said. “Atlantic City is the only place I go.”

Tilli said the agents appeared more relaxed when he dug out a scrapbook containing more than 200 letters he’s written over the years, almost all on political topics. Tilli has been writing to The Express-Times for more than two decades.

“He [the agent] said they are good letters; they are interesting. He said keep writing but just don’t make no threats,” Tilli said.

Tilli allowed the agents to briefly search his apartment for weapons and to take three photos of him.

Express-Times editorial page editor James S. Flagg said he received a call Wednesday from a Secret Service agent, asking for Tilli’s address and phone number, which is unlisted. But it is the paper’s policy not to disclose a letter writer’s address or phone number, even to the Secret Service, Flagg said.

Somehow, the agents located Tilli and almost immediately decided he was not a threat, said Bob Slama, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Philadelphia office.

“The Secret Service has a great respect for an individual’s freedom of speech and we would be remiss if we didn’t do our duty and investigate when something comes to our attention,” Slama said. “We don’t have any way of knowing this individual unless we follow up and ask questions.”

He added that the Secret Service rarely comments on investigations but he didn’t mind giving details for this case, which is now closed.

“We have no further interest in Dan,” he said.

Tilli had been through this before.

Two FBI agents from Allentown showed up at his home last year under similar circumstances, he said. They were apparently worried about a letter he wrote advocating a civil war to unseat Bush.

“It was a little surprising on this one because I didn’t think the letter was that bad,” Tilli said.

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