Anatoly Smolkin. Credit: BPD

A former attorney with a history of stalking and mental illness, according to court records, was arrested over the weekend after police say he interrupted services at a Berkeley synagogue with threats of violence against Jewish people.

Police arrested Anatoly Smolkin, 37, just before 1 p.m. Saturday near Chabad House, a Jewish community center at 1710 University Ave. (near McGee Avenue). Smolkin, who has no permanent address on file, had tried to walk inside Chabad after going into the synagogue, said Officer Byron White, Berkeley police spokesperson, in response to an inquiry from Berkeleyside.

Earlier in life, Smolkin had graduated from UC Berkeley and then gone to law school at Northwestern University in Chicago, according to numerous media reports related to legal troubles that began nearly 10 years ago, in 2012, after Smolkin was fired from a tech start-up in San Francisco. Smolkin had been licensed as an attorney in 2010, according to the California State Bar website, but was disbarred in 2017 due to a criminal conviction.

The recent incident began at noon Saturday, White said, when Smolkin walked into Congregation Netivot Shalom, a synagogue at 1316 University Ave. (near Acton Street), and interrupted Shabbat services. According to police, Smolkin shouted that Jews were “going to burn in hell” and that they were “going to pay for what you did to me.”

A woman whose relatives attended that service — which was also streamed online — alerted Berkeleyside to what happened: “Had he been armed it could have been an absolute tragedy. We do not feel safe attending in person after this.”

Responding officers found Smolkin a half-mile up University Avenue, yelling outside Chabad after he had been refused entry, White said, and took him into custody. Smolkin was arrested on suspicion of using offensive words on school property — Chabad has classroom space — as well as a hate crime: willfully threatening a person based on their perceived characteristics, in connection with the alleged comments at the synagogue.

As of Tuesday, Smolkin was no longer in custody, according to Alameda County Superior Court records online, and charges had not been filed. That does not mean the review by authorities is necessarily over, however: When individuals are out of custody, officials have more time to consider evidence to decide whether to file charges.

As of this week, there have been 25 hate incidents reported in Berkeley in 2021, already more than twice as many as were reported throughout all of 2020. Six of the incidents this year were anti-Jewish, which is the largest category after anti-Asian, with eight reports.

Last fall, the Berkeley City Council asked police and other city staffers to put a renewed focus on the subject, citing “an increase in the number of hate incidents and crimes” in the nation following Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a disturbing uptick in crimes targeting Asian Americans, the Alameda County district attorney’s office also created a hotline to collect hate crime reports.

In Berkeley this year, there have been a number of hate crime arrests that never resulted in charges, in addition to hate crime charges that took weeks, if not longer, to be filed. Police have made about a dozen arrests in connection with this year’s reports, according to information provided to Berkeleyside by BPD after publication.

A history of stalking and threats — but no violence

Smolkin made headlines last year when he successfully appealed a 2018 conviction, and seven-year prison sentence, related to what the appeals court called a “delusional” letter he had sent to a lawyer in the Solano County District Attorney’s Office. Smolkin had sent the two-page handwritten letter after the DA’s office successfully prosecuted him for a parole violation.

In the letter, Smolkin described himself as a psyops officer for Russia and wrote, “Let me be crystal clear—I have no training in riflery or authorization to carry out an execution: what I am saying is that if I have to report to parole on 7 MAR 2017, before 31 Dec 2017 your entire office will be arrested by Russian military police, tried in a rubber stamp trial for kidnapping, and sentenced to death by firing squad.”

Smolkin also threatened to blow up a parole office building, according to other court papers.

In its decision, the San Francisco-based First Appellate District Court of Appeal found that Smolkin’s letter, albeit threatening speech, did not ultimately constitute “true threats” because it was “utterly nonsensical,” among other factors.

The appeals court also cited “psychiatric reports” describing Smolkin’s “persistent delusion that he is a Russian military operative fighting the American government.”

The 2020 court ruling deemed the 2018 conviction unconstitutional and said there was no evidence to suggest Smolkin had ever been violent. The appeals court reversed the conviction and Smolkin was released from custody.

Smolkin was originally sentenced to prison in 2013 after he was found guilty of stalking 11 people in San Francisco and making criminal threats against nine people, according to court papers. News reports identified the victims as Smolkin’s former employers and their family members, among others.

According to a Bay City News article about the San Francisco case in 2012, Smolkin had been “fired from San Francisco-based TinyCo, a company that makes mobile phone game apps, and began stalking employees there, as well as at another former employer.”

“Smolkin requested to represent himself in the case, saying the charges were ‘all trumped up,'” Bay City News reported.

After that conviction, Smolkin was sentenced to seven years in prison but was released on parole to Solano County in March 2016, according to court papers. Later that year, he was arrested again due to alleged parole violations.

Smolkin lost law license due to “moral turpitude”

Along the way, Smolkin was also stripped of the authority to practice law in California, according to the State Bar website. In 2013, after his criminal conviction, the State Bar listed Smolkin as “Not eligible to practice law in CA.” That designation was in place until 2017 when Smolkin was disbarred.

Court papers related to the disbarment process reference Smolkin’s conviction in San Francisco “for 47 counts of stalking, violating restraining orders, and making criminal threats.”

“Between November 2011 and January 2012, respondent engaged in a campaign of threats, harassment and intimidation by sending emails to victims, targeting his wife, his 11-year-old daughter, and others with sexual violence and death threats,” according to one filing. “The jury found respondent guilty of 30 felonies and 17 misdemeanors, involving 17 victims.”

The State Bar determined that the criminal conviction “involved moral turpitude” and was therefore “cause for discipline.”

The court recommended disbarment and noted that Smolkin had failed to participate in the disciplinary hearing.

After Smolkin’s release from prison in 2016, the State Bar had to track him down to pursue those disciplinary matters, according to court papers. When officials found him, Smolkin asked to be left alone, according to court documents.

“I have no use whatsoever for a legal license, and have better things to do with my time than waste it with the case referenced in the subject line of this email,” he wrote in a May 12, 2016, email quoted in court papers. “Do what you must with regards to the case, but please do not send me any further communications.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...