OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A California man with delusions of joining the Taliban was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for trying to blow up a bank with a car bomb he thought would go off but was actually made up of inert materials supplied by the FBI.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Gonzalez Rogers said Thursday she was satisfied that the sentence — spelled out in a plea deal between Matthew Aaron Llaneza and federal prosecutors — struck a balance between acknowledging the 29-year-old San Jose resident's mental condition and punishing him for actions that "by their nature are terrorist."
Llaneza was arrested last February near a Bank of America building in Oakland after he tried to detonate an SUV loaded with chemicals he secured with the help of an FBI agent posing as a Taliban go-between.
Both the vehicle and the inert chemicals loaded inside were supplied by FBI agents after Llaneza allegedly made contact with an undercover agent who pretended to have connections with the Taliban and helped him build a phony car bomb. He was arrested near the four-story bank building in Oakland after he pressed a cellphone trigger to try to detonate the explosives, which he believed were real.
The FBI alleges Llaneza hoped the explosion would be blamed on anti-government militias and prompt a government crackdown that would touch off civil unrest in the United States. He also allegedly bragged that he had experience in guerrilla warfare and expressed a desire to join the Taliban in Afghanistan after carrying out the terrorist plot.
The judge acknowledged that Llaneza sought to minimize deaths and injuries from his failed plot by carrying it out in the middle of the night and may have been motivated as much by a desire for human connection than hated for his country. Within that context, "Fifteen years is sufficient, but not more than necessary," Rogers said.
"This case, like many others we all read about, seems to indicate there are individuals who have been rejected time and time again who are looking to belong and to be accepted," Rogers said. "This was a most unfortunate way of doing about it."
Along with the prison term, Rogers sentenced Llaneza to spend the rest of his life on probation, meaning law enforcement officers will be free to search him at any time.
Llaneza pleaded guilty in October to one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, a conviction that would ordinarily carry a sentence of 30 years to life. Looking slight, pale and wide-eyed during his court appearance Thursday, Llaneza apologized to the judge, said he was taking psychiatric medication and would "seek rehabilitation while incarcerated."
Llaneza's parents, Steven Llaneza and Dora Tune, had submitted a letter to the judge attesting to his "his genuinely good core character" and lifetime of struggles.
"The conduct he pleaded guilty to is very out of character for him, and we never ever would have thought he would come up with an idea like he has been accused of," they said.
Steven Llaneza attended Thursday's hearing but did not address the court. He declined to speak with reporters afterward.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a pre-sentencing memo that it took into account Llaneza's history of mental illness — he has been diagnosed at various times as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — and the fact that he tried to minimize casualties by trying to blow up the building in the early morning when it would be mostly unoccupied.
"Defendants' conduct here was very serious. He knowingly and willfully participated in a plan to blow up a bank building. He created the plan and selected the target. He helped build what he believed to be a large bomb to accomplish the plan. He drove the bomb to the bank building, placed it in a location designed to maximize its destructive force, then attempted to detonate it twice," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Caputo wrote in the memo.
"Had the bomb been real, it would have destroyed at least a portion of the building and easily could have killed or seriously injured innocent bystanders."
Llaneza's defense lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Jerome Matthews, said in a memo of his own that he would not argue with a 15-year sentence during Thursday's hearing even though "it is an open question whether Matthew Llaneza would have participated in a plot to detonate a car bomb had he not been introduced to and guided by an undercover FBI agent."
"Matthew was not a radicalized jihadist but rather a delusional, severely mentally disturbed young man; he had no technical skills to speak of," Matthews wrote. "He had no training or background that would have helped him to accomplish an actual bombing; he was preternaturally suggestible and desirous of being accepted; and, not least, he had no desire to inflict mass casualties."