By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Five men charged with trying to blow up a four-lane highway south of Cleveland pleaded not guilty on Monday in a federal court crowded with their supporters.
The five, Douglas Wright, Brandon Baxter, Anthony Hayne, Connor Stevens and Joshua Stafford, were arrested last Tuesday after allegedly paying an undercover FBI agent $900 for what they believed to be bombs, but were actually fakes.
The men, ranging in age from 20 to 37, had attempted to use the fake bombs to blow up a bridge on a four-lane highway in a May Day protest, according to prosecutors.
Each is charged with one count of conspiracy, attempting to use explosive materials and the use of a weapon of mass destruction. Two of the counts have a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.
More than 50 supporters crowded the courtroom to see the "Cleveland Five," as they have been dubbed, as Judge Greg White accepted the pleas and granted a continuance on a detention hearing for all five defendants.
As Stafford was led out of the court by U.S. marshals, he repeatedly asked the judge, "Why did a federal informant approach me to do this act of terror?" His attorney has said Stafford has a history of mental illness.
The undercover operation was the latest sting conducted by the FBI and the Justice Department in an effort to head off attacks by alleged domestic and foreign militants. In this case, the FBI paid more than $5,000 to an informant during an investigation that began in October after he met the five suspects at an Occupy Cleveland rally.
According to an FBI affidavit, the informant was on probation for passing bad checks and has a record of drug and robbery convictions.
Stevens, Baxter, Stafford and Hayne have previous juvenile and adult criminal records in Ohio, court records show.
The FBI said the suspects have no ties to any terrorist organizations and that the public was never in danger because the explosives were inert.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Philip Barbara)