Army veteran in bogus-bomb case gets 5 years

AP News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2011 9:42 PM
Army veteran in bogus-bomb case gets 5 years

An explosives-trained Army veteran who wore a fake bomb during a standoff that followed a phone call to a mosque in which he threatened to "start an apocalypse" was sentenced Friday to five years in prison by a federal judge who called the matter an escalation of the man's aggression.

U.S. District Judge David Herdon wasn't swayed by Roman Conaway's apology during a rambling, 18-minute appeal for leniency, handing the former Walmart worker a prison term longer than the four years and two months prosecutors sought. Conaway's attorney pressed for a sentence of 2 1/2 years.

"There are people with anger-management problems, and there's Mr. Conaway," Herndon said in imposing the punishment, citing the man's history of aggressive behavior, starting with a 1981 conviction of making harassing phone calls and including a pledge during a 2000 child-welfare dispute that he'd "take some people out and get off by pleading insanity."

Conaway, 52, had insisted to Herndon he knew what he did was wrong but that he never meant to harm anyone with the bogus bomb or the threats preceeding it, casting himself as a cash-strapped guy who at times was swallowed up by bills and a gambling addiction he developed trying to pay them.

"I'm asking for the court to have mercy, to think of all the stress I've been under," Conaway implored. "I just want to get back my family and get my life started."

Conaway bowed his head into his shackled hands and closed his eyes moments later when Herndon imposed the punishment. Conaway's wife, who federal authorities say Conaway used as a human shield from snipers dispatched to the standoff, wept next to her son in the courtroom's gallery.

Conaway pleaded guilty in April to federal charges of making false threats to detonate an explosive device and of influencing a federal agent by threat, admitting in court documents to the standoff on Sept. 21, 2010, at his Fairview Heights home east of St. Louis.

Steven Weinhoeft, the federal prosecutor, argued Friday that Conaway _ a self-professed anti-government type who hadn't paid federal taxes for a decade _ was craving publicity after a judge at his daughter's request barred Conaway's contact with his grandchildren.

FBI agent Jonathan Kelly testified that Conaway went on to call a congressman, the White House, the State Department and Illinois' attorney general. His legal troubles mushroomed when he dialed up a St. Louis-area mosque and pledged to "start an apocalypse" and ignite a war between Christians and Muslims. Investigators traced the caller's telephone number to Conaway's home.

"Here's Roman Conaway wanting to be somebody," Weinhoeft said. "This defendant decided to take it to the next level."

Federal agents who went to Conaway's home were warned by his son that he had Army experience with explosives. Conaway threatened to kill himself and blow up the neighborhood with a bulky, meshy belt of what he said were explosives strapped to him, adding that storage containers on his property were laden with explosives.

The neighborhood was evacuated.

Throughout the seven-hour standoff, Kelly said, "I believed he had a bomb."

But investigators say the belt turned out to be carrying harmless material similar to children's molding clay with wires attached to a curling iron Conaway claimed was a triggering device. The storage drums held water.

The siege drew as many as 150 to 200 responders from 17 federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service, Red Cross, emergency-management officials, a state bomb squad and many dozens of police officers, FBI agent Richard Box testified. The tab of that response reached at least $39,000, which Herndon ordered Conaway to repay.

Conaway's public defender, Phillip Kavanaugh III, called the threats and the standoff "an all-inclusive tantrum" by his client and the manifestation of Conaway's bipolar disorder, abuse of prescription medication and chronic lack of sleep.

"He went over the top," Kavanaugh said. "If Roman Conaway had the proper medical care to start with, this never would have happened."