Pitt student pleads guilty to three counts after racist, threatening messages

By Jon Moss, Editor-in-Chief

Pitt student Ethan Kozak pled guilty to three criminal counts Thursday in a case related to a series of racist and threatening messages he sent in summer 2019. The counts included two of harassment and one of terroristic threats, with an original ethnic intimidation charge downgraded to a harassment charge in a negotiated plea deal.

As part of the deal, Kozak has been put on probation for 18 months, must perform 60 hours of community service and have no contact with the victims. The maximum penalty for the terroristic threats count, a first-degree misdemeanor, is up to five years of incarceration with a maximum of $10,000 in fines, and each of the harassment counts, both third-degree misdemeanors, is up to a year of incarceration and a maximum of $2,500 in fines.

Kozak, a senior political science major, admitted last June to sending violent and derogatory messages to D.J. Matthews, a 21-year-old Black Pittsburgh resident who does not attend Pitt. The messages, which Matthews posted screenshots of on Twitter on June 26, 2019, led to the counts of ethnic intimidation and terroristic threats.

According to the criminal complaint filed by Mt. Lebanon police officer Ty Kegarise last July, the accusation of harassment is related to a series of threatening messages Kozak sent to Collin Welling, a student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Matthews said he was happy about the case’s outcome, and feels the situation has been resolved.

“I didn’t really want to ruin his life,” Matthews said. “Even though all that stuff was said to me, I still don’t wish hate upon Ethan.”

Matthews added that he hopes people learn from his situation that words have consequences, and is important to make the public aware of these issues.

“The situation we’re seeing now with the Black lives movement and the Jacob Blake situation… the more this gets exposed, the more people have to deal with it in their face,” Matthews said. “Things will change whenever it’s brought to people’s faces.”

Terrence Ging, Kozak’s lawyer, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said this kind of behavior stands in “stark contrast” to Pitt’s values and mission.

“Pitt is determined to fight racism, hatred and injustices in our effort to support an inclusive, safe and welcoming environment for each and every member of our community,” Zwick said.

The messages Kozak sent to Matthews circulated widely on social media and led to outrage on campus during summer 2019. A group of 27 student leaders sent a letter to top Pitt administrators on July 5, 2019, calling for Kozak’s expulsion.

The letter also asserted the Student Code of Conduct does not properly address students who “incite violence” against other students on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or certain other classifications, as none of the conduct’s 40 violations specifically mention them. To remedy this, the student letter called for the University to develop a “strict policy” for these types of situations.

Provost Ann Cudd and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner said in a response issued the following day, July 6, they were thankful for students writing to them and appreciated the calls to “continue creating a respectful, peaceful, diverse and safe learning environment.”

Then Student Government Board President Zechariah Brown and the three students who drafted the letter — then Pitt seniors Jordan Fields, Edenis Augustin and Jenea Lyles — met with Cudd and Bonner on Sept. 30 to discuss ways to strengthen the Student Code of Conduct.