National News

Judge Rejects Bail for Bomb-Making Suspect

Posted February 21, 2018 11:48 p.m. EST
Updated February 21, 2018 11:54 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — A federal judge on Wednesday rejected bail and home detention for a former charter schoolteacher who was arrested with his twin brother last week for stockpiling explosive materials and enlisting high school students in what authorities called a bomb-making project.

Magistrate Judge James L. Cott cited “very strong evidence” suggesting the teacher, Christian Toro, 27, was in the process of making a bomb or bombs by illegally amassing explosive materials. That evidence included new details about text messages that referred to the October 2017 massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Hanft, quoting an exchange of texts that investigators uncovered, said Christian’s brother, Tyler, noted that the assailant in the Las Vegas massacre had a police scanner.

“We need to invest in one,” Tyler wrote.

“Copy,” Christian replied. “I see a couple on Amazon.”

With several family members looking on, Christian Toro was returned to jail in shackles after a nearly hourlong bail hearing.

The Justice Department has not yet indicted the brothers or suggested a reason, or a target, for their alleged bomb-building efforts — a point raised by Toro’s defense lawyer, Amy Gallicchio, in pleading for him to be freed on $100,000 bond. “There’s no sinister plans, no plot, no motive,” Gallicchio, a federal public defender, said.

There was also no actual bomb, she noted. “He has no history of violence,” she said.

But the federal government, in its original complaint and at Wednesday’s hearing, parceled out details clearly intended to suggest the brothers had some form of large-scale violence in mind. Investigators found diary writings referring to an “Operation Flash” and a purple index card that read, “Under the full moon the small ones will know terror.”

The criminal complaint filed in conjunction with the brothers’ arrest last Thursday accused Toro of paying two students from Harlem Prep High School, where he was teaching at the time, $50 an hour to come to his apartment in the Bronx and take apart fireworks to collect their explosive powder.

Cott said Toro “is not someone I am comfortable releasing to the community at this time.”

The complaint, which Hanft revisited and fleshed out at Wednesday’s bail hearing, said the brothers were arrested with more than 32 pounds of explosive ingredients, from iron oxide to powdered sugar, which can be used as explosive fuel. The materials were stored in a closet of the apartment they shared with their mother, Carmen Melendez.

“This is a defendant who had a cache of weapons in his apartment,” Hanft said, describing a “grocery list” of explosive ingredients, including incendiary powder kept in glass jars in quantities that could, if detonated, cause “an explosion sufficient to blow off a limb or body part.”

Hanft said investigators also seized several boxes of fireworks, bullets, a magnesium strip that can serve as a fuse when lit, metal ball bearings and a container of “improvised napalm,” consisting of gasoline and Styrofoam, found sitting on the apartment fire escape.

“It’s not science project material,” Hanft said, adding that it was consistent with the instructions in a bomb-making manual that was found on Toro’s school-issued laptop computer after he had quit his job in January and returned the device to Harlem Prep.

Toro is also facing an unrelated charge of third-degree rape in connection with a sexual relationship he is accused of having with a student at the school, his lawyer acknowledged Wednesday. It was not immediately clear what impact his arrest in the bomb-making case could have on any bond he or his family might have secured in the sexual assault case.

Hanft contended that Toro also lied to investigators when they asked him about the bomb-making manual found on the laptop, which he said he had only meant to read, not download, while doing research into the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Toro told investigators he had not made a bomb — a statement Cott said was “misleading at best.”

Gallicchio argued that merely possessing bomb-grade materials was not the same thing as making or possessing the bomb itself.

Cott rejected the distinction, saying it “strains credulity” to deny the government “logical inferences” in making its case for arrest and against bail.

Gallicchio maintained that her client did not pose a flight risk, and belonged to a large and loving family willing and able to put up his bail. Gallicchio said Toro’s family knows him as “a peaceful, law-abiding person” who is “kind and loving,” and family-oriented himself.

Tyler Toro also remains jailed, and has not yet submitted an application for a bail hearing, according to Nicholas Biase, a Justice Department spokesman. Their family members, including Melendez, all declined to comment after the hearing.