-- Local police are investigating threats against Alinghi, the leading challenger in America's Cup trials, which received two unsigned letters last month targeting families and children of former New Zealand sailors employed by the Swiss team.

"It's very serious," Auckland police spokesman Jeoff Barraclough said. "It's not just a nasty letter. It's a threat to harm. That's a criminal act here and if we find the people responsible they will be prosecuted and jailed."

The letters, received the week before Christmas, were from an unknown group identifying itself as "patriot activists." It claimed to have tracked movements of crewmen's children and other family members, syndicate chief Michel Bonnefous said.

"We have had crank letters in the past," said Bonnefous, "but these are different."

Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth led Team New Zealand's Cup victory in San Diego in 1995 and its successful Cup defense here in 2000 before defecting to billionaire Ernesto Betrarelli's Alinghi camp. They have been criticized by two local groups, Loyal and Blackheart, the latter a semi-secret outfit that briefly ran a high-visibility advertising campaign against Coutts, labeling him a traitor. Public utterances from Blackheart have softened lately.

Barraclough said this is the first police complaint of harassment from any Cup team. He said the threats specifically targeted ex-Kiwi members of the Swiss team.

"Threats like this are a rarity in New Zealand," he said. "This is a sporting country, and a majority of Kiwis would be disgusted by it."

Alinghi will resume racing Jan. 11 in best-of-nine challenger final against Oracle/BMW of San Francisco. The winner will race Team New Zealand for the Cup on Feb. 15.

Alinghi, skippered by Russell Coutts, above, has received letters targeting families of former New Zealand sailors now on Swiss team.