JUNEAU, Alaska -- A children's book illustrator from Alaska known for drawing mother-baby animal pairs like sea otters and wolves was dropped by his publisher this week after authorities allege he posted transphobic notes threatening children.
Mitchell Thomas Watley, 47, will have a preliminary hearing April 11 in Juneau on a single count of terroristic threatening for allegedly placing notes in businesses that included an assault rifle superimposed over the transgender flag. The text on the notes read: “Feeling Cute Might Shoot Some Children.”
The notes were found during a period of heightened rhetoric and laws targeting transgender people across the country and came just days after a shooting at a Christian school in Nashville that left six dead. Social media accounts and other sources indicate that the shooter identified as a man; police said the shooter “was assigned female at birth” but used male pronouns on a social media profile.
After the Nashville shooting, a false and baseless online narrative emerged that claimed there's been a rise in transgender or nonbinary mass shooters in recent years. Some pundits and political influencers on social media went further, falsely suggesting that movements for trans rights are radicalizing activists into terrorists.
Court documents show that Watley referenced the Nashville shooting suspect after his arrest. Watley, who lives in the small coastal city of Juneau 575 miles (923 kilometers) southeast of Anchorage had his $10,000 bail paid by his wife, according to online records.
“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 criminal complaint said.
Online records didn’t list an attorney for Watley. A man who didn’t identify himself answered the door at the couple’s home and said there would be no comment.
In Juneau, booksellers removed the books Watley illustrated for his wife, Sarah Asper-Smith. Their publisher, Sasquatch Books, owned by Penguin Random House, said Wednesday it has ended its publishing relationship with Watley and will discontinue selling their books.
Watley is best known as the illustrator for three children’s books written by his wife, including “I Would Tuck You In” and “You Are Home With Me.” The books for children ages 1 to 5 feature mother animals snuggling their young and trying to make them feel safe with loving, affirmative statements like “wherever you may be, you will always have a home with me.”
Juneau merchants began removing Asper-Smith’s books from their shelves this week, but only the ones with illustrations by her husband. She does not face charges.
Pat Race with Alaska Robotics Gallery, a downtown Juneau store, said the shop has hosted gallery shows and book releases for Watley and carried his artwork for years.
“Whatever the motivation, we feel Mitch’s actions were not consistent with our values or the values of our community," he said in a statement on social media. “In that light, we’ve decided to pull all of Mitch’s books and artwork from our shelves.”
Christy NaMee Eriksen, who owns Kindred Post, a store in downtown Juneau, has also removed the books.
Eriksen said in a social media post the actions that Watley is accused of are “terrifying and transphobic."
“We have little patience for acts of disrespect, and we have no tolerance for hatred against marginalized groups," Eriksen said. “Members of the trans community are our community.”
Tori Weaver, a co-owner of Rainy Retreat Books in downtown Juneau, said the retailer pulled Watley’s books, which she said were “incredibly” popular, particularly during the busy summer tourism months.
“We don’t want to alienate any of our customers,” she said.
The first of several notes was found in a grocery store Friday, which was International Day of Transgender Visibility. That discovery prompted Juneau schools to increase security, and some parents kept their children home. Another was found at the Alaska State Office Building. The last notes were found Sunday at a Costco, and police used the store's surveillance video to track the man who left the notes to his vehicle. Vehicle registration records led them to Watley, who was arrested Sunday, authorities said.
The incident also came as lawmakers across the country consider bills limiting the rights of transgender people, including in Alaska where a bill from Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has garnered significant attention.
It would require parental permission before a student can use a different name or pronoun in school records; that sex ed classes require parental notice and permission and that schools must provide for locker rooms or restrooms based on “biological sex” or access to single-occupant facilities.
The bill remains in its first committee in the House. Senate leaders in a bipartisan majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans have already indicated the bill isn’t expected to advance on their side.
“The anti-trans rhetoric around the country has had an effect on hate crimes or attempted hate crimes like this one,” said Caitlin Shortell, an Anchorage civil rights attorney and board member of Identity Inc., which offers community services and focused health care to the LGBTQ+ community.
She said transgender people rarely commit mass shootings and are more likely to be victims of violence.
“And we’ve seen nationwide, and in Alaska, initiatives to discriminate against trans people in the name of protecting children, and I link this to attempted crimes like the one that we averted in Juneau,” Shortell said.
An LGBTQ leader in Juneau said this situation is a direct consequence of a national environment that is being directed by political and media leaders to target and dehumanize trans people.
“The expected result is death,” said Emily Mesch, chair of SEAGLA, the Southeast Alaska LGBTQ Alliance.
“They’re expecting that violence will come upon the trans community and some of us will die, and in exchange, some of them will get a couple thousand more votes,” Mesch said. “And that’s the deal with the devil that’s being made, the environment and the dialogue that is happening on the national level.”
Thiessen reported from Anchorage. AP Writer Claire Rush contributed from Portland, Oregon.