One of five men accused of plotting to blow up a state Route 82 bridge over Cuyahoga Valley National Park pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and two additional counts in connection with explosives.
In an appearance in U.S. District Court in Akron, Anthony Michael Hayne, 35, of Cleveland, will face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. He could receive a maximum term of life in prison for the most serious offense, according to federal sentencing guidelines.
Hayne, standing at the courtroom podium with attorney Michael J. O’Shea of Rocky River, also pleaded guilty to attempted use of weapons of mass destruction in connection with a structure affecting interstate commerce and malicious use of an explosive device to destroy an interstate commerce structure.
As part of Hayne’s plea deal, Judge David D. Dowd Jr. carefully led him through all terms of the agreement, which includes cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office by “testifying in any and all court proceedings, if necessary,” Dowd said.
The other four defendants, who were present in court after Hayne’s plea deal was signed and reviewed, face a Sept. 17 trial date in Dowd’s court.
A team of law enforcement officers from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested the five men on the night of April 30, alleging the suspects futilely tried to detonate what turned out to be fake bombs provided by an FBI undercover informant.
The targeted bridge, a massive structure more than 1,100 feet long, stands on national park grounds between Summit and Cuyahoga counties.
No damage occurred to the bridge, and there were no injuries to the officers or suspects.
In a news release following Hayne’s plea deal, U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Dettelbach, chief federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Ohio, said his agency was pleased by Hayne’s admission of guilt and his willingness to admit responsibility “for his intent to use explosives to express his ideological views.”
The five alleged plotters, Dettelbach said, “are self-proclaimed anarchists who formed into a small group and considered evolving plots over several months.”
Dettelbach said the initial plot involved the use of smoke grenades to distract law enforcement officers from the conspirators’ actual plan to topple financial institution signs atop high-rise buildings in downtown Cleveland.
As the plot developed, Dettelbach said, the defendants obtained C-4 explosives, commonly known as “plastic explosives,” which were enclosed in two improvised explosive devices to be planted and remotely detonated.
Federal prosecutors said in May that the arrests of the five men were made outside a restaurant some 25 miles north of the Route 82 bridge as they were using cell-phone codes, several times, in futile attempts to activate the fake bombs.
The men were “closely monitored by law enforcement” at the time, and the bombs they thought they were using posed no threat to the public, Dettelbach emphasized.
Hayne, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans, routinely answered questions from Dowd about whether he understood the terms of the plea deal, but he made no comments on his role, the alleged roles of the other defendants or any other details about the case.
He said only that he was homeless in the weeks leading up to his arrest.
Dowd said a sentencing date would be set after he receives a draft of a presentence investigation by the U.S. Probation Department.
Whatever sentence Dowd imposes, he informed Hayne he must get at least five years in prison under the federal sentencing guidelines for his three guilty pleas.
Objections from defense
Once Hayne’s plea was official, lawyers for the other men began lashing out in open court at the government’s allegations.
John Pyle, a defense attorney from Cleveland who is representing defendant Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of Lakewood, called the FBI’s informant a “provocateur” with a lengthy criminal record.
“We haven’t been told about all of his convictions,” Pyle said to Dowd, pointing out that it is believed the FBI informant has a record of at least 15 convictions.
Pyle and the other lawyers all said under questioning by Dowd that their trial defenses will center around the young men being caught up in an elaborate and shady “entrapment” scheme by the FBI informant.
Terry Gilbert, who represents defendant Connor C. Stephens, 20, of Berea, told Dowd flatly: “We know that the informant employed these people, actually paid them money.”
Gilbert went on to say the defense also knows “that marijuana and alcohol were provided to these people” by the informant.
“Did the government know about this stuff?” Gilbert asked Dowd.
“The whole crux of this case is built around infiltration of a confidential informant into the Occupy Cleveland [movement], leading to this conspiracy theory,” Gilbert said.
He and Pyle insisted the defense has not seen internal FBI emails and records of FBI monitoring guidelines for informants, which they said could shed light on whether there were any controls over the informant’s activities.
The informant’s activities went on for six months, Pyle said.
He and Gilbert said they have not seen such records because government prosecutors have not turned them over to the defense.
Gilbert called it “a slap in the face” of the defendants’ rights to due process.
The other alleged plotters are Douglas L. Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, and Joshua S. Stafford, 23, of Cleveland.
Outside court Wednesday, about 20 supporters of the five men held signs with such sentiments as “Stop FBI Entrapment” and “Justice Don’t Be Blind.” The Associated Press reported that the mother of one of the defendants says the suspects were manipulated by the FBI informant.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.