Four suspected members of a Georgia militia charged with plotting attacks with toxins and explosives against government officials pleaded not guilty at a hearing Wednesday, as prosecutors said for the first time that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was one of the officials they talked of targeting.
The new details were revealed at a bond hearing at a federal courthouse in north Georgia. In court, prosecutors said 73-year-old Frederick Thomas, described as the plot's ringleader, had listed Holder and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney as part of a list of potential assassination targets. Authorities also said Thomas had stockpiled 52 guns and 30,000 rounds of ammunition at his home in the Georgia mountains.
Defense attorneys for the men, who are aged between 55 and 73, indicated they were too elderly and infirm to carry out the attacks. Thomas' attorney Jeff Ertel suggested he would argue that his client was making idle chatter and never intended to follow through, and Thomas' wife Charlotte testified her husband would never do any harm.
"He loves his country," she said of her husband of 51 years, a U.S. Navy veteran. "He's the most patriotic man I've ever met."
But prosecutors dismissed claims that the men are too old to have executed the alleged plot. Assistant U.S. attorney Robert McBurney said the men took concrete steps toward carrying out the plot, including casing federal buildings in Atlanta, trying to buy explosives, attempting to make the toxin ricin and amassing the weapons cache.
"Age is not a barrier to the crimes these defendants are charged with," said McBurney. The men, he told the judge, "can pull a trigger just as easily as you or I can."
Thomas and 67-year-old Dan Roberts of conspiring to obtain an explosive and possessing an unregistered silencer. Authorities also charged 55-year-old Ray Adams and 68-year-old Samuel Crump with conspiring and attempting to make ricin, a biological toxin that can be lethal in small doses. If convicted, they could face more than a decade in prison.
U.S. Magistrate Susan Cole didn't issue an immediate decision on whether to grant bond to the four men, instead ordering that a hearing on the issue be continued on Tuesday.
The four allegedly boasted of a "bucket list" of government officials who needed to be "taken out"; talked about scattering ricin from a plane or a car speeding down a highway past major U.S. cities; and scouted IRS and ATF offices, with one man saying, "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.
Federal investigators said they had them under surveillance for at least seven months, using an undercover informant to infiltrate their meetings at a Waffle House, homes and other places, before finally arresting them last week. The arrests came just days after authorities say they discovered evidence they were trying to extract ricin from castor beans.
Wednesday's hearing focused on Thomas, a great-grandfather who suffers from a host of illnesses, including back pain, heart disease and emphysema. Thomas craned his neck throughout the court appearance to hear the proceedings, and was seen puffing from an inhaler several times.
The hearing made for an odd courtroom spectacle. The four graying men shuffled in with orange jumpsuits and chains, and cupped their ears several times to hear the judge over the last two hearings. About 30 of their friends and family packed the federal courthouse to show their support.
His attorney, Ertel, didn't outline his defense strategy. But he made a point to question the credibility of the confidential informant, who he said was charged with child molestation in South Carolina before cooperating with prosecutors. He said the informant, whose name was not released, also gave his client the $1,000 he needed to purchase the explosive from an undercover agent.
"If this is a terrorist organization, it's the worst funded terrorist organization in the world," said Ertel. "If not for a pushy snitch, they may not have come up with the money."
McBurney, though, said prosecutors had ample evidence that the men were linking the violent speech with dangerous action. And he also disputed assertions from defense lawyers that Thomas was a collector who used his extensive weapons stockpile for hunting.
"You don't hunt with a bomb," he said. "You don't put a silencer on a gun to shoot a deer."
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