Three men convicted of plotting to blow up New York synagogues and to fire heat-seeking missiles at U.S. military planes were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in Manhattan handed down punishments today against James Cromitie, 45, Onta Williams, 35, and David Williams, 30, who were found guilty in October of crimes including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. A fourth defendant, Laguerre Payen, had his sentencing postponed pending a psychiatric evaluation.
The judge said Cromitie and his co-defendants were “willing to kill and maim and destroy for money” and that any affiliation they had with a cause or a need to send a political message was “minor” compared with their desire for money.
“You were not political or religious martyrs,” McMahon said. “You were thugs for hire, pure and simple. I am nonetheless convinced a sentence of 25 years, a quarter of a century behind bars, is sufficient to punish you for both what happened and for what didn’t happen.”
The men were accused of planning to bomb the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue in the Bronx section of New York, and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue, in May 2009. They also sought heat-seeking missiles to fire at aircraft at the Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, the U.S. said.
Prosecutors sought life sentences for the three men, saying they were career criminals and willing participants in a plot organized by a government informant, Shahed Hussain, who was posing as a member of the Pakistani terrorist organization Laiksh-e-Mohammad.
“This would have been a colossal terrorist attack and the fact that it was fake doesn’t matter,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said before sentencing today. “Because in their minds it was real.”
The defense argued that the men were the victims of entrapment, lured into the plan by a paid government informant who gave them money for rent, food and car fare, and who promised them $250,000 in cash, a BMW, vacations in Puerto Rico and a barbershop.
“A 25-year sentence for Mr. Cromitie is greater than necessary,” Kerry Lawrence, Cromitie’s lawyer, said before sentencing. “The government located a disaffected individual with a long history of minor crimes. What Mr. Cromitie said on those tapes is really not who he is as a person.”
Susanne Brody, a lawyer for Onta Williams, asked McMahon to sentence the men to penalties below the statutory minimum required by the conviction on the charges involving anti-aircraft missiles, argued that the FBI proposed the use of the weapons in order to ensure that they were sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.
McMahon acknowledged that the government may have introduced the missiles into the plot in order to ensure a higher sentence, while rejecting Brody’s request. Defense attorneys said they planned to appeal the case.
“The essence of what occurred here is that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own,” McMahon said. “It created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true.”
Cromitie, a Brooklyn native with two prior felony convictions and 16 misdemeanor convictions for drug and trespassing violations, apologized to his friends and family in the courtroom and “everyone in the United States” before he was sentenced. David Williams apologized to his family and supporters, while Onta Williams, who turned 35 today, apologized “to the people of Riverdale.”
“I am not a violent person,” Cromitie said. “I’ve never been a terrorist and I never will be. Everyone in this courtroom knows that. I got myself into this stupid mess. I know I said a lot of stupid stuff.”
The judge told Cromitie that she agreed with the FBI’s assessment of him as someone who “was unlikely to commit any act of terrorism except as someone else’s tool.”
“I suspect that real terrorists would not have bothered themselves with a person who was so utterly inept,” McMahon said. “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”
McMahon also rejected defense requests to recommend places for the three men to be incarcerated near the New York City metropolitan region that isn’t a maximum-security facility where terrorists are kept, such as the so-called “supermax” prisons.
“Any recommendation I make would be ignored in any event,” McMahon said.
The case is U.S. v. Cromitie, 09-cr-00558, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).