Three men were sentenced Friday to at least 25 years in federal prison for attempting to blow up an apartment complex in western Kansas where Somali Muslims lived, a plot that unnerved that refugee community.
Patrick Eugene Stein and Curtis Allen of Kansas and Gavin Wright of Oklahoma chose the apartment complex in Garden City, a city of 26,000, partly because it contained a mosque, authorities said.
“Today’s sentence is a significant victory against hate crimes and domestic terrorism,” acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in a news release Friday from the Justice Department.
“The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill innocent people on the basis of their religion and national origin. That’s not just illegal — it’s morally repugnant.”
The Somalis — who settled in Garden City because of employment in the meatpacking industry — appreciate the support they’ve received in the town and do not intend to harm anyone, according to one woman who spoke after the sentences were handed down.
“Please, we need peace and love,” said Ifrah Farah, a member of the Somali community, according to CNN affiliate KWCH in Wichita. “Because we came here for better lives. We are refugees. We live here. We are not bad people. We love everybody.”
Justice Department: A confidential source saved lives
The three men were found guilty in April on one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and one count of conspiracy to violate the housing rights of their intended victims.
The jury also convicted Wright of lying to the FBI in a matter involving domestic terrorism.
During the trial, prosecutors said the men began plotting an attack after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, KCWH reported.
The men referred to Muslims as cockroaches and, in the words of prosecutors, “described in the most extreme and violent terms what they planned to do to them.”
The FBI conducted an eight-month investigation. The three defendants held several meetings to discuss their plan and took “significant steps — including making and testing explosives,” according to the US government.
“A confidential source, whom the government credited for thwarting the attack and saving the lives of innocent victims, recorded numerous conversations during which the defendants discussed and refined their plan,” the Justice Department said.
“As the plan solidified, the defendants discussed obtaining four vehicles, filling them with explosives, and parking them at the four corners of the apartment complex to create an explosion that would be sure to level the building and kill its occupants.”
Stein met with an undercover FBI agent in an effort to obtain a bomb, the department said. The agent posed as a black market arms dealer.
On Friday, Allen was sentenced to 25 years, while Wright got 26 years and Stein 30 years.
“Today’s sentencing speaks to the FBI’s commitment to protect the communities we serve and our continued obligation to disrupt plots where the intent is to commit violence and harm others,” said Darrin Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI Kansas City Division.
Defense attorney points to Trump’s rhetoric
Jim Pratt, Stein’s attorney, had asked for a more lenient sentence for his client because of Donald Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign and the public mood against Muslims.
Pratt told CNN he’d never seen anything like the lead-up to the 2016 elections.
“It wasn’t just the rhetoric of Trump, who ahead of the election called for a ban against all Muslims entering the US, but it was the rhetoric of everybody that put fear into the system and made people believe that if Trump won, on the first day he’d take office, the world was going to implode,” he said. “Or if he won, martial law was going to be declared and Hillary (Clinton) was going to be put into office.”
Such language fueled hysteria in people like Stein who had been “lost and ignored,” Pratt wrote in a sentencing memo filed in federal court in October.
The men wanted to time their attack at the Garden City apartment complex for the day after the 2016 election. But because Trump won, the men — who had been arrested a month earlier — may not have gone through with their plan, Pratt said.
“Trump’s win changed everything, and it is reasonable to speculate that it would have changed things among the defendants as well,” the filing said. “The urgency for action would be gone. The feeling of a losing battle would be gone.”