National News

Kansas Trio Convicted in Plot to Bomb Somali Immigrants

Posted April 18, 2018 9:23 p.m. EDT
Updated April 18, 2018 9:29 p.m. EDT

WICHITA, Kan. — Federal jurors convicted three men Wednesday of plotting to blow up an apartment complex where Somali refugees live and pray in Garden City, Kansas. The domestic terrorism verdict came at a time when threats against religious and racial minorities are rising nationally, and the case drew interest from the highest levels of the Justice Department.

“The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill people on the basis of their religion and national origin,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “That’s not just illegal — it’s immoral and unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it.”

The men, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Stein, all of whom are white, appeared stoic as the verdicts were read at the federal courthouse in Wichita. Defense lawyers had tried to convince jurors that their clients were manipulated by the FBI, and had been unfairly targeted for exercising their rights to own guns and speak freely.

“He was a member of a militia. He loved his guns. This was a lifestyle,” Melody Brannon, a lawyer for Allen, told the mostly white jury. “The government tried to criminalize that lifestyle.”

The trial, which played out over about a month, focused on a period before the 2016 presidential election when a paid FBI informant infiltrated a militia group that included the three men and secretly recorded hours of their conversations.

Politics were front and center throughout the trial, with defense lawyers portraying the FBI as a bullying-government force that used its informant to steer their clients from hateful speech to violent plotting. The courtroom critiques of the FBI came after a series of condemnations of the bureau by President Donald Trump, who overwhelmingly carried Kansas in 2016.

Prosecutors, who built much of their case around the informant’s secret recordings, said that the men planned to carry out the bombing on Nov. 9, 2016, a day after voters selected a president.

“They wanted to send a message to the people living there that they’re not welcome in Garden City, they’re not welcome in southwest Kansas, they’re not welcome in the United States,” Tony Mattivi, a federal prosecutor, said during closing arguments.

The men, who called themselves “the Crusaders,” were arrested about four weeks before Election Day and charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against rights, which the Justice Department considers a hate crime. Wright was also charged with lying to the FBI. The three men were found guilty on all counts and face up to life in prison when they are sentenced in June.

The trial came amid a national escalation in threats against religious and racial minorities, especially Muslims, according to the FBI and organizations that monitor hate crimes.

“It is now approaching the level of hate violence against the same communities that we saw in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks,” said Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT: South Asian Americans Leading Together, a national advocacy organization.

Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali resident of Garden City, said she found out about the verdicts when the police chief sent her a text message. Ahmed said she relayed the news to elders in the Somali community.

“I had faith that they were going to do what was right,” Ahmed said of the jurors. “Now we can all actually move on from it and bury it and know that justice is served.”

Prosecutors portrayed the Kansas defendants as aspiring domestic terrorists who planned to bomb the Somali apartments only after considering other attacks — on elected officials, churches that helped refugees and landlords who rented to immigrants.

Defense lawyers suggested that their clients had merely engaged in idle talk inspired partly by the 2016 election.

The case forced jurors to decide when hateful rhetoric escalated from legal speech to evidence of a violent plot. Expletive-filled recordings of the men played before the jury contained repugnant, bigoted language, the defense lawyers said, but not a federal crime.

“It is not morally right to hold such hate, but it is not legally wrong,” said James Pratt, a lawyer for Stein, who acknowledged that his client referred to Muslims as “cockroaches.”

Stephen R. McAllister, the top federal prosecutor in Kansas, rejected the suggestions of a First Amendment infringement. “I don’t view this as a prosecution of speech at all,” McAllister said.

Still, defense lawyers emphasized that the men lacked the ability or commitment to carry out such an attack. Pratt said his client was “all hat, no cattle,” meaning he was a big talker and little more.

“Unfortunately for Patrick,” Pratt said, “the government was willing to provide the cattle.”

Garden City is a racially diverse place about 200 miles west of Wichita with around 27,000 residents. Many Somalis and other immigrants have moved to the area to work at a nearby meatpacking plant.

The apartment complex that prosecutors say was targeted is a center of Somali life in Garden City. Many refugee families live in units of the complex; others come to pray in a makeshift mosque inside one unit.

Moussa Elbayoumy, who chairs the board of the Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the verdict affirmed his faith in the system.

“The instance was troubling, was concerning. People were afraid,” Elbayoumy said. “But after that, they put this behind them and moved on with their lives.”