WICHITA, Kan. ― Three right-wing militiamen from rural Kansas were found guilty on Wednesday in a 2016 plot to slaughter Muslim refugees living in an apartment complex in Garden City.
Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen were found guilty on charges of weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright was also found guilty on a charge of lying to the FBI. The defendants will face a potential life sentence when they come back to court in late June.
The jury decided the case after slightly less than a day of deliberations. The three defendants showed little outward emotion as the verdicts were read. Afterward, defense attorneys comforted the defendants’ family members, who did not wish to speak to members of the media.
In closing arguments, attorneys for the defendants had accused the FBI of overstepping and targeting the group because of rhetoric that, while hateful, was protected by the First Amendment.
The prosecution’s case depended largely on secret recordings made by Dan Day, an FBI informant who masqueraded as a militia member, infiltrating the three men’s group for months. An undercover officer working on behalf of the FBI had also met with Stein, posing as an arms dealer who shared the group’s anti-Muslim beliefs and was willing to build them a bomb.
Jurors heard recording after recording of the men expressing a murderous hatred of Muslims, who they called “cockroaches.”
“The fucking cockroaches in this country have to go, period,” said Stein, who went by the code name “Orkin Man” in text messages with other militia members. “They are the fucking problem in this country right now. They are the threat in this country right now.”
In another recording, the men could be heard mapping out targets on Google Earth, dropping a “pin” labeled “cockroaches” over areas they knew to have a high concentration of Muslims. They eventually settled on a main target: a Garden City apartment complex that’s home to many Somali Muslim immigrants and the mosque where they worship.
The prosecution presented evidence that the men had started to collect explosive materials. Per the recordings made by Day, their plan was to detonate bombs at the apartment complex in November 2016. They wanted the explosions to occur during Muslim prayer times when more potential victims would be there, “packed in like sardines,” as Stein put it. The bomb’s shock waves, he hoped, would make “Jello out of their insides.”
Defense attorneys had attempted to characterize such comments as mere bluster. But prosecutors pre-empted this line of argument, in part, by calling another militia member to the stand.
Brody Benson, part of the Kansas Security Forces militia, held anti-Muslim beliefs himself. “Fucking Islam,” he wrote in a Facebook post in June 2016. “I’m done. Kill them all. Bring on the DOJ.”
But Benson testified that when he heard Stein talk about his plan to kill Somali immigrants in Garden City, he knew Stein was for real.
“I actually thought it was not just talk — it was more of an actual action, action,” Benson said in testimony. “I had a gut feeling that what was just banter back and forth, ranting and everything else, was turning into something more serious and concrete.”
“This isn’t a case about the thought police,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Mattivi said during closing arguments. “The defendants plotted to murder dozens of innocent men, women and children. They didn’t just talk. They’re not here because of their words.”
In his final comments to the jury, Mattivi focused on a recording of a discussion the men had about what type of shrapnel to pack their bomb with to inflict the most damage. Stein suggested blades for drywall knives. Allen said ball bearings. “Anything that will kill and maim,” Wright said.
The men were enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump, who vilified Muslims during his presidential campaign and has continued to do so while in office. During the plotting, Stein reportedly referred to then-candidate Trump as “the Man.” The men had planned their attack for after the 2016 election, so as not to hurt Trump’s chances of winning. Delaying the attack until then would avoid giving “any ammunition” to their political opponents, Stein said.
Trump had frequently spoken out against Muslim refugees in the runup to the 2016 election. Kansas’ top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister, brushed aside a question from HuffPost about what effect the now-president’s words had.
“I can’t say whether his rhetoric impacted the case or not,” McAllister, a Trump nominee, said. He later added that this case wasn’t about the rhetoric the defendants used, but about the bomb plot they agreed to participate in.
“I don’t view this as a prosecution of speech at all. This was a prosecution of speech coupled with actions,” McAllister said. “Just because you have some words involved doesn’t mean this was about speech. This was about actions, and their speech was to some extent evidence of the actions they were taking.”
The Justice Department’s national press office sent out a press release on the case featuring a quote from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling the jury verdict a “significant victory against domestic terrorism and hate crimes” and touting DOJ’s commitment to fighting both foreign and domestic terrorist threats.
“The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill people on the basis of their religion and national origin. That’s not just illegal ― it’s immoral and unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it,” Sessions said. “Law enforcement saved lives in this case.”
Madihha Ahussain of the group Muslim Advocates praised Wednesday’s verdict, but said Americans must not ignore the “greater context” in which the plan unfolded.
“We cannot dismiss the disgusting rhetoric of these militiamen as mere ‘locker room talk’ as the defendants’ counsel argued. The stakes are simply too high,” Ahussain said. “Anti-Muslim rhetoric has led to an unprecedented spike in hate violence and mosque attacks, intense radicalization of white supremacists, and a shocking disregard for the lives of American Muslims.”
“This must not become the norm for American discourse,” Ahussain continued. “We must not be divided by hate, but, rather, stand together as a united nation to defend our ideals, values, and beliefs.”