She was supposed to be a Russian bot. That seemed like the best explanation for @AmyMek. No normal person could be so prolific and prejudiced.
For five years, the mysterious Twitter account ― which has more than 200,000 followers, including Sean Hannity, Roseanne Barr and the personal account of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and has earned endorsements from Donald Trump and Michael Flynn ― has tirelessly spewed far-right propaganda and, above all, Islamophobia. Around 25 tweets a day, sometimes more, the majority of them designed to stoke hatred of Muslims.
Tweets like this:
And thousands of others. The bigotry was garden-variety Islamophobia: memes about Sharia executions and child rape, genital mutilation and Muslims torturing and butchering various life forms while dusky columns of Saracens, every one of them a potential jihadist, march into Western lands bent on pillage. What made @AmyMek special was her industriousness. She never took a break.
“She’s a major cog in the Islamophobia machine,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy and civil rights organization that @AmyMek often attacks.
Her Twitter timeline was one long screed that reflected the collective id of the Make America Great Again movement. Tea party rage, evangelical hokum and white supremacy ― it was all there. In sufficient volume, this kind of hate can now turn any no-account right-winger into a star on social media. And it worked for @AmyMek.
But who was she?
Even her Twitter bio, which features a grainy photo of a blond woman who claims to be a vegan, gun-loving psychotherapist and “fixer” fighting for the “wrongfully incarcerated,” felt janky. “[A]n ideological theme park map” is how Maureen Erwin, a political consultant who wrote about her search for @AmyMek last year, described it.
There is a real person, however, behind the bio. The headshot is real, if dated. And the Twitter handle, surprisingly, differs little from her actual name: Amy Jane Mekelburg.
Mekelburg, who declined multiple requests from HuffPost to comment, has managed to keep almost all of her personal information off the internet. The 45-year-old resident of Fishkill, New York, grew up in a Jewish family in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a fairly affluent community not far south of New York City. Her father owns a wholesale business called Mekelburg Co. that sells magnets, keychains and assorted gimcrackery. Her brother runs a popular restaurant and craft beer bar in Brooklyn that also bears the family name.
As a teenager, Mekelburg attended East Brunswick High School, where she stood out for her athletic ability and was a key member of the state championship soccer team. She graduated in 1991. East Brunswick High, according to one former classmate, was not a diverse school. “It was predominantly white with a large Jewish population,” the classmate said. He estimated that less than 1 percent of their nearly 500-person class were Muslim.
After high school, Mekelburg attended the University of Rhode Island and graduated in 1996 with a degree in communication studies. She started dating future husband Salvatore “Sal” Siino, who had also grown up in New Jersey and earned a cluster of fancy degrees, including an MBA from Harvard Business School. In 2003, Siino took a job in New York City. By then, he and Mekelburg were a couple. They moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
It was there that Mekelburg’s life took an unusual turn. In November 2005, only a few blocks from where Mekelburg and Siino lived, a young woman who worked as a stripper was stabbed to death in an apartment, her throat slashed so viciously that she was nearly decapitated. Police found a bloody fingerprint on the wall and arrested the victim’s on-and-off boyfriend, Paul Cortez, a handsome aspiring actor who worked as a personal trainer at a neighborhood gym. A jury found Cortez guilty of second-degree murder. In March 2007, he was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Mekelburg told Tina Galasso, a now-former friend, that she’d gotten to know Cortez before the murder and spent a lot of time with him. Mekelburg and Siino created a nonprofit organization dedicated to overturning Cortez’s conviction. She was the president. Siino was the moneyman. According to 2007 tax records, Siino donated more than $56,000 to hire Jeffrey Lichtman, a criminal defense attorney best known for keeping mobster John “Junior” Gotti out of prison. Lichtman was unable to win a new trial for Cortez.
But the convict still had Mekelburg, who was devoted to him. When Cortez started serving his sentence at the maximum-security Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Mekelburg told Galasso and another now-former friend that she moved into a hotel near the prison. She posted her first tweet during this time ― a picture of a McDonald’s restaurant in Auburn, New York, with a “ChildObesity” hashtag. Siino, meanwhile, moved to Los Angeles to launch a doomed internet media startup called WeMash with Quincy Jones III, son of the famous music producer.
In November 2015, Cortez was transferred downstate to the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York. Mekelburg followed him. At the beginning of 2016, she moved to Fishkill, about a 15-minute drive from Green Haven. She and Siino by then owned a $1.2 million apartment in Greenwich Village, but she wanted to be close to Cortez. She called him her “best friend.”
Mekelburg told her new neighbors that she was a psychotherapist in the prison system, working to help inmates transition back to civilian life and overturn wrongful convictions. She said she had a private practice in Manhattan but had moved to Fishkill because her “clients” had been transferred to prisons throughout the Hudson Valley. She said Green Haven Correctional Facility paid her rent, but in reality, Siino took care of that.
Officials at the New York State Office of Mental Health, which oversees all mental health treatment in the prison system, and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision told HuffPost that Mekelburg has never worked for them. She isn’t licensed as a psychotherapist or a social worker ― although she tricked Galasso and her then-boyfriend into doing counseling sessions with her, according to Galasso. HuffPost could find no evidence of Mekelburg ever holding a full-time job anywhere.
But she’s tweeted full time since 2013.
“I haven’t seen any other account that is dedicated to hate 24-7 like this,” Maureen Erwin said.
From the start, Mekelburg turned to racist far-right conspiracy and propaganda sites such as InfoWars and Gateway Pundit as sources. She bashed welfare and Obamacare and fast food workers striking for higher pay. She mocked liberals for supporting Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death by George Zimmerman. She fearmongered about immigrant rape gangs and government gun grabs, often attaching hashtags such as #tcot (which stands for Top Conservatives On Twitter) and #PJNET (Patriot Journalist Network) that would soon be widely used by Kremlin-controlled troll accounts. Her main target was the “tyrant” Barack Obama, whom she branded an “illegal alien” and a “jihadist.” She tweeted that “Obama’s evil is limitless.”
Mekelburg dropped some clues about herself on Twitter. She and Siino interacted in tweets during early 2013 but soon stopped replying to each other. And in July 2014, she posted a request for help in locating her cousin, who had gone missing in Pennsylvania. In local news stories about the missing woman, Mekelburg was quoted under her real name. Anyone paying attention to @AmyMek would have made the connection to “Amy Mekelburg.”
In 2014, she also started using neo-Nazi terms like “cultural Marxism” and borrowing propaganda from white supremacists like Kenn Gividen, who runs a racist website and at one point was the presidential candidate for the white nationalist American Freedom Party. She encouraged her readers to follow Jared Wyand, a white supremacist and anti-Semite who openly praises Adolf Hitler and denies the Holocaust happened.
Hate tends to run together, which is how an Islamophobic Jew can find common ground with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Mekelburg removed a reference to her Jewish heritage in her Twitter bio. She’d later praise British fascist Jayda Fransen and ethnonationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has used anti-Semitism for political gain by casting the Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire George Soros as an evil, globalist puppet master. Mekelburg did the same on Twitter, often using clips from the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today to attack Soros:
Mekelburg also swooned over racist figures such as former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolous and YouTuber Stefan Molyneux and hyped white nationalist groups such as Soldiers of Odin, Proud Boys and Generation Identity. She vilified quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee, called Black Lives Matter a terrorist group and made light of police violence against black men. She tweeted white supremacist lies about black rape statistics:
Islam brought out her worst. She labeled the Prophet Muhammad a “pedophile” and a “mentally sick conman.” She called Islam a “pervert cult” and mocked Muslims for “lifting their asses” to Allah. She wanted mosques banned in the United States and called herself a modern-day “crusader.” Over and over again, she tweeted about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating America and the imminent threat of Sharia law.
When Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015 and sounded Islamophobic notes, Mekelburg immediately jumped on the MAGA train. Trump reciprocated by promoting her Twitter account. By the time she’d arrived in Fishkill in early 2016, Mekelburg had a sizable social media following.
She tweeted obsessively, sometimes not even looking up from her phone or her laptop when people spoke to her, according to residents of her apartment complex. The rest of her time she seemed to spend eating vegan food at local restaurants, exercising at Planet Fitness and visiting Cortez in prison.
She was nasty to Muslims she met in person and sometimes shot them dirty looks or insults. Galasso and the other former friend recall Mekelburg’s reaction when they encountered a Turkish woman in the Planet Fitness bathroom.
“Amy was like, ‘Oh, it fucking smells in here. These people are disgusting,’” the second ex-friend said. “She could see the woman was in there. The bathroom didn’t smell.”
If a person who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent used a piece of equipment at the gym before Mekelburg did, she’d “either clean it excessively, complain it was gross or refuse to use the machine,” Galasso said. “She was cruel in every form.”
In May 2016, Mekelburg achieved Twitter stardom when The New York Times featured @AmyMek in a column about Trump’s female supporters. The column quoted “Ms. Mek” making excuses for Trump’s misogyny. The writer, Emma Roller, had interviewed Mekelburg over Twitter, but failed to ascertain her identity or address her bigotry. Mekelburg told Roller that she was too busy for a phone interview, according to emails between Roller and Maureen Erwin. Later, Mekelburg gloated to her neighbors about her media appearance, pointing to the story on her computer. (She’d doxed herself again.)
Her follower count surged. She was getting thousands of retweets. As the election approached, Mekelburg used her Twitter celebrity to attack Hillary Clinton. She accused Clinton of conspiring with the Justice Department and having Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich murdered in a political cover-up. Perhaps incidentally, she helped boost Kremlin efforts to get a fake Benghazi quote trending in order to damage the Democratic candidate. In the hallway of her apartment complex, Mekelburg hung a Clinton bobblehead doll in a noose.
After Trump’s win, Mekelburg celebrated on Twitter, but not for long. She had more hate and lies to amplify. She tweeted that anti-fascists were responsible for train derailments and that the DNC and the media caused the death of protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Not once did she criticize Trump’s racist and fascist supporters. Instead, she scapegoated Muslims for mass shootings carried out by white supremacists and far-right gun nuts such as Stephen Paddock, who massacred 58 people in Las Vegas last year. Mekelburg used Islamic State propaganda to support her own:
Mekelburg had also been trying to make inroads into what Ibrahim Hooper calls “the cottage-industry of Islam haters,” which is run by bigots such as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel and Frank Gaffney — several of whom have close ties to the Republican establishment and the Trump administration. Their efforts can be remunerative, thanks to generous funding from conservative and libertarian foundations such as the Donors Capital Fund.
Mekelburg’s best connection to this world was through Anni Cyrus, who produces The Glazov Gang, an Islamophobic talk show that can be found on YouTube. Host Jamie Glazov is the editor of one of Horowitz’s anti-Muslim publications. Mekelburg asked for Cyrus’ help in launching her own anti-Muslim organization. Cyrus, who did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment, greeted Mekelburg’s overture with enthusiasm.
“It’s such a privilege to hear from you as I follow your amazing work daily,” Cyrus emailed. “Thank you so much for considering me for this project. It will be an honor to be able to work with you on this.”
Mekelburg named her organization Resistance Against Islamic Radicals (RAIR). She created a website, set up a Facebook page and a Twitter handle, and recruited Cortez to design artwork from behind bars, according to Galasso. RAIR’s mission would be “to stop the Jihadi infiltration in our American communities.” Mekelburg didn’t mention herself anywhere on the organization’s website. Under an “accomplices” section, however, she posted the names, photos and contact information for people and groups she believed were collaborating with jihadi terrorists. That could mean anyone with a connection to Islam.
“If the local garbage man was seen going into a mosque, you could submit that information to the site and she would post it,” said Galasso.
Soliciting denunciations from members of the public had a Gestapo-Stasi stink to it, and RAIR’s roster of “accomplices” included city council members, rabbis, police chiefs, mosques, newspapers and other businesses. It looked like a target list. (During the reporting of this story, the contact information for the “accomplices” was removed from the RAIR website.)
Janet Lyness, the county attorney in Johnson County, Iowa, made the list because she donated to the campaign of Mazahir Salih, a Muslim woman who became the first Sudanese-American elected to public office in the United States when she won a city council seat in Iowa City last year.
Lyness, who is the chief law enforcement officer for Johnson County, didn’t realize Mekelburg had targeted her until she was contacted by HuffPost.
“It concerned me seeing this, accusing me and all these other people of being jihadists,” Lyness said. “While it’s ridiculous, and everything she’s saying is false and ludicrous, I do wonder who might be reading this and might follow up and want to contact or threaten anyone on this list.”
Mekelburg had plenty of warning signs that her hate-slinging might have consequences. “My dads bugging out,” she texted last year, around the time she was working on RAIR. “He calls me every day bugging out. … His business is in a Muslim hotbed and my brothers restaurant has the same name. World Trade Center muslim terrorists mosque is down the street.”
Mekelburg’s Islamophobia also put Siino in an awkward position. In February 2017, after his startup went out of business following a trademark dispute, Siino found a new job with the WWE, the Connecticut-based pro wrestling entertainment company co-founded by Linda McMahon, who now works in the Trump administration. Siino, who did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment, became a senior vice president responsible for global content distribution and business development. Mekelburg told Galasso that the WWE knew about @AmyMek and had asked Siino to keep his connection to his wife quiet.
When asked by HuffPost about the veracity of this claim, the WWE at first offered a cryptic answer. “This is the first time we’re hearing about Amy Mekelburg,” said a corporate spokesperson last Thursday, requesting not to be identified by name.
The company had reason to worry about Mekelburg’s Islamophobia. In the early part of 2018, the WWE and Saudi Arabia finalized a controversial 10-year deal to bring pro wrestling there. Siino was negotiating TV deals in the United Arab Emirates, according to the WWE. Back in Fishkill, his wife was casting Muslims as subhuman filth.
Twitter’s policy against hateful conduct prohibits “behavior that incites fear about a protected group” and “repeated and/or non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone.” One digital sleuth who tracks @AmyMek told HuffPost that he has reported the account to Twitter more than 50 times to no avail. Although the company has “withheld” Mekelburg’s account in Germany and France, Twitter has done little to cramp her style in the U.S.
Mekelburg appeared to operate without fear of fallout anywhere. As this story neared publication, she kept tweeting hate, even when her husband’s job was in jeopardy. Last Friday, after HuffPost asked the WWE a second time if anyone there had known about @AmyMek before hiring Siino, the company responded definitively.
“No,” said the WWE spokesperson. “Now that it has come to our attention, Sal Siino is no longer an employee.”
Siino showed up at the Fishkill apartment complex over Memorial Day weekend, dry-cleaned shirts hanging in the back of his Audi A5. On Tuesday, he was still there. And Mekelburg was still tweeting. She raved about “jihadi rape gangs” and threw her support behind Tommy Robinson, a far-right, anti-Muslim, violent British criminal who was arrested last week for contempt of court after livestreaming about “Muslim paedophiles” outside a gang rape trial in Leeds, England. She defended Roseanne Barr after Barr tweeted racist and Islamophobic comments and anti-Semitic lies.
Clearly, Mekelburg wasn’t going to stop.
On Wednesday, she emailed this HuffPost reporter ― not to answer questions or address or clarify any of the information I’d gathered about her. She wanted to muscle me. “My attorney, Martin Garbus (cc’ed on this email), will contact you tomorrow morning,” she wrote.
Martin Garbus is a high-profile attorney who has represented Daniel Ellsberg, Nelson Mandela and Don Imus, among many others. Two of his current clients, Paul and Chris Gaubatz, are major Islamophobes. When Garbus did not call me at the designated time Thursday morning, I called him.
“I don’t represent that woman,” he told me and then hung up the phone.
But that wasn’t the end for Mekelburg. She posted a long thread on Twitter blaming me for the WWE’s decision to fire Siino over her bigotry. Within minutes, her followers began calling me with threats.
“You better be careful because people are out there targeting you now,” one said.
“You’re going to get it now,” said another.
White nationalists, misogynists and neo-Nazis all amplified Mekelburg’s comments about me. So did prominent far-right propagandists such as Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich, both of whom had been instrumental in driving the near-deadly “PizzaGate” disinformation campaign.
Unfortunately, hate that festers online against any group of people doesn’t always stay online. Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in 2011 after radicalizing himself with the same anti-Muslim propaganda that Mekelburg spreads. In the U.S., assaults and hate crimes against Muslims have risen alarmingly since MAGA xenophobes mustered on social media.
And hate isn’t always so explosive. It often manifests as a quiet cruelty. Last year, according to Mekelburg’s other former friend, the Twitter troll stopped at a Sunoco in Fishkill to buy bananas at the gas station’s convenience store. Inside, she found an older man ― a Muslim immigrant ― working behind the counter. Mekelburg paid for her bananas but refused to speak to the man. She wouldn’t look at him. She just threw a few bills on the counter. When the man tried to place some change in her hand, she made it clear to him that he was not to touch her.
Then she went home to tweet.