GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Two Georgia men pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to get an unregistered explosive and an illegal gun silencer in what prosecutors describe as a plot to attack government targets.
The suspected ringleader of the group, Frederick Thomas, and Dan Roberts entered their pleas at a hearing in federal court in Gainesville, about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Thomas, 73, and Roberts, 67, could face up to five years in prison and a 250,000 fine. They also agreed to cooperate with authorities.
They are among four men arrested in early November after at least seven months of surveillance by an undercover informant who infiltrated their meetings at homes, during car rides and a Waffle House restaurant. Ray Adams, 55, and Samuel Crump, 68, are charged with conspiring and attempting to make ricin.
The government's case is pinned on dozens of hours of recordings of the men talking about their anti-government views with an undercover informant and what kind of attacks they could carry out.
In the tapes, the four allegedly boasted of a list of government officials who needed to be "taken out"; talked about scattering ricin from a car speeding down a highway past major U.S. cities; and scouted tax offices. At one point, Thomas said, "We'd have to blow the whole building like Timothy McVeigh," a reference to the man executed for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said the men are members of a "fringe militia group" who planned attacks on innocent citizens, conducted surveillance on government buildings and took concrete steps toward carrying out the attacks.
"This case demonstrates that we must remain vigilant in protecting our country from citizens within our own borders who threaten our safety and security," she said.
Defense attorneys said the conversations were taken out of context and that the men were actually planning to unite various militia groups across Georgia to create a legitimate "governor's army" that would be at the state's disposal.
"If the government really thought these guys were terrorists would they really let them plead guilty to charges that carry a maximum of five years?" asked Michael Trost, who represents Roberts.
He added: "These grumpy old men are talking trash. There was never any intention of carrying it out."
The four played very different roles in the plot, according to court testimony. Thomas was described as the "thought leader" who helped host meetings and recruit new members. He is accused of scouting the two federal buildings with the informant and leading the effort, along with Roberts, to get an illegal silencer and buy explosives from an undercover agent.
Prosecutors said those two men brought Crump and Adams into the mix after Roberts talked of obtaining a "silent killer" – the toxin ricin, which can be lethal in small doses. Crump had memorized the recipe for making the poison from castor beans, prosecutors said, and Adams had the know-how to make it as a former government lab technician.
At a separate hearing Tuesday, attorneys for Thomas, Roberts and Crump unsuccessfully urged U.S. District Judge Richard Story to grant them bond. Adams' attorney didn't request a similar hearing.
Crump's lawyer called on witnesses who testified that he was loyal to the government and gave back to the community, and Thomas' attorney Jeff Ertel summoned a doctor who read a long list of health problems his client suffers.
"He doesn't pose a danger," Ertel said of his client. "This is about an old man talking big."
But prosecutor Jeff Brown rejected that assertion.
"It's not about old men talking," he said. "It's about old men talking about committing violent acts and taking steps to do so."
The judge's decision to keep the men behind bars devastated family members.
"There is no justice," said an emotional Margaret Roberts, the wife of Dan Roberts. "I've had great respect for the law. Until now. My husband is not what he is portrayed to be."
Follow Bluestein at http://www.twitter.com/bluestein