National News

Key Issue in Kansas Trial: A Racist Terror Plot, or Just Idle Talk?

Posted April 16, 2018 11:26 a.m. EDT

WICHITA, Kan. — The militia members talked about attacks on President Barack Obama and members of Congress, a federal agent recounted in court. They discussed burning down churches whose members helped refugees settle in western Kansas. They mulled killing landlords who rented to Muslims.

In the end, prosecutors say, the three men decided to bomb a complex of low-slung apartments on West Mary Street in Garden City, Kansas, a place where Somali immigrants sleep and pray between shifts at a nearby meatpacking plant on the state’s sparsely populated southwestern plains.

“If you have anything to do with the sellout of this country,” warned a handwritten manifesto that prosecutors say the men composed, “your homes, your businesses, your families are at risk.” Singled out for criticism: government officials, the news media, and property owners who lease to refugees or unauthorized immigrants.

In a trial unfolding over the last month in a courthouse in Wichita, federal prosecutors have described how they say the men — Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Stein, all of whom are white and who called their group “the Crusaders” — concocted a bombing plot aimed at causing mass murder. It was prevented, the prosecutors say, because agents arrested the men a few weeks before the bombing was to take place in 2016.

The men, who could face life in prison if convicted of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, have pleaded not guilty. They are also charged with conspiracy against rights, by planning to interfere with the apartment residents’ housing rights because of their race, national origin and religion. The Justice Department considers that charge a hate crime. Closing arguments in the trial and the start of jury deliberations are expected Tuesday.

Defense lawyers say that federal officials, who relied on a paid informant who infiltrated the group, have overstepped by trying to criminalize offensive but legal speech. The lawyers argued that the men’s conversations, many of them secretly recorded by the informant and played for the jurors, amounted to idle talk. No one was physically injured in Garden City.

The trial comes at a time when threats against religious and racial minorities, particularly Muslims, and incidents of hate-related violence have escalated nationally, according to the FBI and organizations that monitor hate crimes. Mosques have been firebombed; women and men in head coverings have been assaulted; and businesses and homes have been vandalized. In some cases, people have been killed.

“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. In the 12 months following the presidential election in November 2016, there were 213 reported incidents of hate violence targeted at Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, South Asian and Middle Eastern people, a 64 percent increase from the previous 12 months, according to a study compiled by SAALT.

Kansas in particular has seen a series of hate-motivated crimes in recent years. In 2014, a white supremacist killed three people outside Jewish centers in Overland Park. And last year, a man fatally shot one Indian immigrant and wounded another at a restaurant in Olathe after shouting, “Get out of my country.”

From the beginning, the Garden City case has been intertwined with politics. The men were arrested less than four weeks before the 2016 election, and prosecutors say they had planned to carry out the bombing on Nov. 9, the day after voters selected a new president.

Kansans voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and defense lawyers sought to pick a jury from counties where high percentages of people voted for him. The lawyers said the case was “uniquely political” and that they wanted a pool with more rural, conservative jurors.

The defendants chose not to testify during the trial, but sat quietly in sport coats, ties and leg shackles as prosecutors showed the mostly white jury the rambling handwritten manifesto. The document contained alarming messages, but also listed grievances that sounded common, and well within the conservative mainstream: Border security was too weak, it said. Jobs had moved overseas. The Obama administration had overreached.

At one point, Melody Brannon, a lawyer for Allen, even alluded to Trump’s campaign slogan, suggesting that the manifesto called for “coming together as a nation, making America great again.”

“All of those statements reflect the political talk in 2016,” Brannon, Kansas’ federal public defender, said of the manifesto. “There is nothing in that document that is outside the political talk going on.”

But prosecutors portrayed the militia group’s views as anything but ordinary. The men, they said, were alarmed by growing populations of Muslim immigrants in places like Garden City and were willing to use violence to force them out.

“He’s talked about killing Muslims, even babies,” Special Agent Amy Kuhn, who led the domestic terrorism investigation for the FBI, said of Stein, one of the men on trial. Garden City, population 26,700, is an increasingly diverse place where Hispanics comprise nearly half the population and a growing number of residents come from places like Somalia, Myanmar, Mexico and Sudan. It is also a Republican stronghold: Trump carried Garden City’s county by a 31-point margin, and he won more than 80 percent of the vote in some adjacent counties.

As the 2016 presidential race ramped up, Kuhn said, the vitriol in the militia group increased. At various points, the men considered attacks on Obama, members of Congress and fellow Kansans who had helped Somalis and Muslims.

Eventually, the men, who each lived about an hour’s drive from Garden City, focused on the Mary Street apartments. They started gathering supplies, making homemade explosives and holding planning meetings, which the FBI’s informant recorded, sometimes with country music playing in the background, the agent said.

“The risk was that the defendants would carry out their plan and a bunch of people on Mary Street would not be alive,” Kuhn said.

The apartment complex the men chose as a target was the hub of Garden City’s small Somali community, and the site of its makeshift mosque. Ifrah Ahmed, 28, a Somali refugee living in Garden City, said residents were shocked and terrified after the arrests were announced.

“Everybody was thinking, ‘Now we have to move again. Now we have to start all over again,'” Ahmed said in an interview.

No such exodus occurred. Ahmed said other Garden City residents expressed their support after the militia plot was made public. The city’s population of Somalis has actually grown since then, she said, to 350 or more.

“It became a very unifying thing, from people across the political spectrum and the religious spectrum, that we weren’t going to tolerate this,” said the Rev. Denise Pass, a Presbyterian pastor in Garden City who helped organize a candlelight vigil at the Mary Street apartments after the arrests. “And we weren’t going to be frightened, either.”