CHICAGO — A botanist and lichen specialist who was upset that Chicago police shot and killed a wild cougar in 2008 pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges of mailing threatening letters to then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, police officers and others.
Richard D. Hyerczyk, 54, of Chicago, admitted in a plea deal that one letter to police officers started, "Dear Cougar Killers. ... Prepare to DIE like the Cougars you killed." Other letters said officers' children would be "tortured and killed."
Standing in a federal courtroom in a dark suit, his hands folded in front of him, the lanky Hyerczyk responded in a soft voice, "Yes, your honor," when asked if the description in a 16-page plea agreement of what he did was accurate.
Hyerczyk is a botany graduate from Chicago's St. Xavier University and a founder of the Chicago Lichenological Society, according to the website of the Chicago Botanical Garden, where he worked as an occasional instructor.
"Other interests include his home garden, where he tends grapes and potatoes," a biography on the website said.
The event that set him off happened on April 15, 2008, when police responded to calls about the large cat running through a residential neighborhood. They shot the 125-pound male cougar six times, and police later defended the shooting by saying the animal could have killed someone.
Cougars were thought to have been extinct in Illinois. Biologists later confirmed the cougar made its way to Illinois through Wisconsin, possibly originating in South Dakota.
One letter Hyerczyk sent threatened to "burn down" a property then-Mayor Daley owned in Michigan.
In all, Hyerczyk sent over 90 threatening letters over nine years, including to university departments, the plea agreement said. Some were sent before the cougar was killed, but prosecutors provided few details.
Despite the span of the ominous letters, assistant U.S. attorney Christopher Veatch said after the hearing that Hyerczyk wasn't deemed a threat. He was released on $4,500, and left the courthouse Thursday evening without speaking to reporters.
"As we stand here today ... we do not view him as a risk to the community," Veatch said.
A search warrant was executed at Hyerczyk's home a year ago, but authorities released information about the case for the first time Thursday. For the one count of mailing a threatening communications, he faces up to five years in prison. His sentencing is set for April 11.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press