EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — An explosives-trained Army veteran accused of strapping a fake bomb to his body during a threat-filled day that ended with a seven-hour standoff in suburban St. Louis has been deemed mentally fit for trial, though there may be no need for such proceedings.
Roman Otto Conaway's public defender told U.S. District Judge David Herndon, during a hearing Friday about his client's competency, that in-court discussion moments earlier about how long the trial scheduled to begin Feb. 22 might take could be moot.
"I'll be honest with you. I don't think this case is gonna go to trial," Phillip Kavanaugh III told Herndon during the five-minute hearing in which the two sides agreed that Conaway is mentally fit to stand trial. He is charged with making a false threat to detonate an explosive device and influencing a federal agent by threat.
Afterward, Kavanaugh told The Associated Press that he and Conaway were "on the same page" about trying to negotiate a plea deal, precluding the need for a trial.
Federal agents have alleged the standoff at Conaway's home in Fairview Heights, Ill., followed his telephoned threats Sept. 21 to a St. Louis-area mosque in which he pledged to "start an apocalypse" and ignite a war between Christians and Muslims. On his Facebook page, authorities said, Conaway said he would publicly burn a copy of the Quran and invited area television stations to document it.
Prosecutors initially charged Conaway, 50, with threatening President Barack Obama but dropped that count without explanation in an October indictment he now faces. In court papers, federal investigators say Conaway admitted calling the mosque but denied threatening Obama.
Federal agents notified by the mosque about the threats traced the number to Conaway's home, from where he emerged wearing his fake explosives belt. Warning that he had Army experience with explosives, authorities say, Conaway threatened to commit suicide and blow up the neighborhood as well as the agents negotiating with him. The neighborhood was evacuated.
Investigators say Conaway insisted that a bulky, mesh belt that he wore, along with three storage containers on his property, were laden with explosives. The belt turned out to be carrying harmless material similar to children's molding clay with wires attached to a curling iron that Conaway claimed was a triggering device. Only water was found in the storage drums.
Conaway later told investigators that he considered himself "anti-government" and, just hours before he called the mosque, was barred by a judge from having contact with his grandchildren, authorities said.
On Wednesday, a federal magistrate judge sided with a prosecutor in ordering that Conaway remain jailed until his trial, rejecting Kavanaugh's arguments that Conaway – clouded mentally by "a chemical cocktail" of prescription drugs when arrested – had turned lucid, drug-free and safe while jailed.
Steven Weinhoeft, the case's federal prosecutor, has argued that court-ordered psychiatric testing determined Conaway has an "adjustment disorder" that makes him troubled when faced with stress. That affliction may be even more pronounced now that he faces the stress of felony charges, Weinhoeft insisted.
Conaway, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, did not speak during Friday's hearing. He faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted of the count involving the threatened federal agent. The felony involving the bogus bomb is punishable by up to five years behind bars and $250,000 in fines.