GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Two Georgia men were sentenced Wednesday to five years each in prison for trying to get an unregistered explosive and an illegal gun silencer in what prosecutors describe as a plot to attack government targets.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story sentenced 73-year-old Frederick Thomas and 68-year-old Dan Roberts to the maximum sentence provided for under the plea agreement they had reached with the government with credit for time served since their arrests. The two were also ordered to serve 100 hours of community service during three years of supervised release following their imprisonment. Story did not impose a fine, saying he wanted any money the men were able to earn to go toward supporting their families.
After their lawyers and a federal prosecutor made their arguments during a sentencing hearing, both men, dressed in orange jail suits and orange rubber shoes, shuffled to the podium with chained ankles to address the court.
"I'm terribly, terribly sorry for what I've done," Thomas said. "I hurt my family, I hurt my children, I hurt myself."
"I've made a very bad mistake," Roberts said. "My intent was not to cause harm to anyone."
The two pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to get the explosive and silencer. They were among four men arrested in November after an informant infiltrated their meetings at homes, during car rides and a Waffle House restaurant. Also charged in the case are Ray Adams and Samuel Crump, who are charged with conspiring and attempting to make ricin and are awaiting trial.
The government's case is pinned on dozens of hours of recordings of the men talking about their anti-government views with the informant and what kind of attacks they could carry out. Prosecutors have said the men are members of a "fringe militia group" that planned attacks on citizens, conducted surveillance on government buildings and took concrete steps toward carrying out attacks.
Defense lawyers argued the most incendiary parts of 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 army that would answer to the governor and be at the state's disposal in an emergency.
Their lawyers acknowledged that what their clients had done was serious, but claimed the men had neither the ability nor the intent to kill people or blow up buildings and called the conversations bravado and puffery. The men were gathering supplies and taking survivalist actions to prepare for a possible national emergency or catastrophic situation they believed was imminent, defense lawyers argued.
"It was a bunch of old soldiers talking trash," said Roberts' lawyer Michael Trost, later adding, "These might be grown men, elderly men, but sometimes boys like their toys. What these men were doing is playing soldier."
Defense lawyers also claimed that the FBI's confidential informant played an important role in encouraging them to keep going with their plot and to take further steps. Thomas' lawyer, Jeffrey Ertel, called the informant the "ember" that started the smoke.
Ertel also cited Thomas' advanced age and many health problems when asking for a lower sentence.
"A five-year sentence could very well be a death sentence," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Brown said the men crossed the line when they took concrete actions, surveying federal buildings in Atlanta, talking about killing government officials and purchasing weapons.
"They weren't talking trash," Brown said. "They were talking about killing prosecutors, judges, politicians, IRS officials."
Both men's daughters and some other members of Roberts' family asked the judge for leniency, pointing out their past military service for the country, lack of other criminal history and important roles in their families.
The judge said he took no pleasure in sending two veterans to jail and said it sounds like both men have otherwise led good lives, but that the charges against them are serious and the plea deal the government struck with them was generous.
People have a right to talk about whatever they want and to be unhappy with the government, "but when they start buying bombs and silencers, I'm sorry, we have crossed the line," Story said.
Brown and Ertel had no comment after sentencing. Trost said the sentence was disappointing but not unexpected.
"I just wish it could've turned out better. He's a good man," said Thomas' daughter Amy Sasser after the hearing. She had testified that her father was her hero and wasn't the man he was being made out to be.
Roberts' daughter, Robin Roberts-Drane, got emotional while testifying about her father's character and was choked up after the hearing, saying only, "I just believe in my dad."
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