LAS VEGAS (AP) — A Las Vegas man pleaded not guilty Tuesday to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction charges that his lawyer derided as a "witch hunt" by overreaching local police and state prosecutors who he said mistook target practice components for bomb-making materials.
Nicolai Howard Mork, 40, stood shackled in court and also pleaded not guilty to felony possession of explosive components and firearms charges in a case stemming from the discovery by police at his home in December of more than 300 pounds of powdered chemicals that could explode when mixed — plus a handgun with a serial number removed and a silencer.
After the hearing, defense lawyer Nicholas Wooldridge characterized the case as "a modern-day witch hunt" by local police and prosecutors. He noted that federal authorities did not bring charges against his client.
The substances that Las Vegas police found in Mork's home are commonly used to make exploding targets for shooting practice and are not illegal to possess, Wooldridge said.
"Mr. Mork is not a terrorist," Wooldridge said. "He has never held beliefs of wanting to hurt the state of Nevada or wanting to hurt the public at large. Even if he did what they say he did, I don't think it rises to the level of terrorism."
Police reported that a probe of non-injury fires and explosions in yards near neighborhoods where Mork lived led to the Dec. 29 search of his home. Officers found 251 pounds (114 kilograms) of ammonium nitrate, about 26 pounds (12 kilograms) of aluminum powder and almost 10 pounds (4.54 kilograms) of red iron oxide.
Ammonium nitrate was a component of the bomb that destroyed a section of a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killed 168 people. Aluminum powder and iron oxide can burn rapidly when mixed.
Police also seized a bin with 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of a mixture that resembled a commercially available blend used in targets that explode when shot.
Deputy Las Vegas Police Chief Chris Jones said the amounts found in Mork's home could create powerful explosions, depending on the amounts used. He said last week that the way the materials were used "was not for legal purposes."
Wooldridge said no DNA evidence links his client to the explosions, fires and unexploded devices that police investigated, and said all were small and could be put out with a garden hose.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and Jake Villani, the prosecutor handling the case, declined comment after Mork entered his plea.
An FBI spokeswoman in Las Vegas said federal authorities reviewed the elements of the case and decided local authorities were best able to prosecute in state court.
Mork, who has a master's degree in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been free for more than three months on $220,000 bail following his arrest Dec. 29 on the explosive components and firearm charges.
He was re-arrested and jailed on $8 million bail following his indictment April 5 on the more serious terror and weapon of mass destruction charges.
The terror charge carries the possibility of life in state prison without parole.
Wooldridge will seek reduced bail for his client at a hearing later this month. Mork's trial was scheduled for June 5.