A city councilman fed up with crime told a teenager with a record that goes back two years to "go to jail or the cemetery," prompting the young man's mother to complain that the letter was threatening.

Was the letter from Councilman Michael Polensek a threat or a warning from a public official to a thug to get out of the neighborhood?

"I think of it as a death threat to my son. It's real simple," Tonya Lewis, mother of Arsenio T. Winston, 18, said Thursday. She said her son wasn't available for an interview but might be reached at another time.

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Polensek, Cleveland's longest-serving council member with 28 years, wasn't backing down.

"I'm not wrong on this issue," he said Thursday. He said the letter wasn't intended as a threat.

Polensek, who has had four vans stolen, mailed the letter last week after learning that Winston had been arrested in the blue-collar Collinwood neighborhood on July 3 on drug-trafficking charges.

"You are a `thug' and you know what," the letter said. "There are only two places you will end up at the rate you are going — that is, prison or the nearest funeral home."

The letter said Winston "must be dumber than mud" to get arrested, called him "you crack dealing piece of trash" and said "only a moron" would get involved in an alleged assault on a police officer.

The letter was signed: "Go to jail or the cemetery soon — Michael D. Polensek." Polensek said the signoff was meant to highlight the likely outcome of Winston's lifestyle.

Winston, who was charged with aggravated assault in 2005 and spent three months in juvenile detention, was arrested last year in the alleged assault on an officer but the case was dismissed. He is out on bond on the drug trafficking charge.

Polensek and Winston have a history. Polensek told Winston and his companions last year about complaints of broken glass and drug-dealing in a playground and asked them to clean up after themselves.

Winston, then 17, refused to shake hands, told Polensek to kiss his rear end and said he was heading for an NFL quarterback's job, Polensek said.

"I am so glad that you are now 18 years of age, because now you are an adult and can no longer hide behind the juvenile court system, Mr. Quarterback, loser," Polensek said in the letter.

Polensek made sure the letter got maximum exposure, sending copies to the mayor's staff, police commanders and to The Plain Dealer.

Polensek said he often writes blunt letters to troublemakers in his neighborhood and makes no apologies for the one to Winston.

Winston's mother said she wouldn't defend his lifestyle. "I don't approve of anything, any illegal activity," she said.