By ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Months before the 2016 general election, members of a Kansas militia group that prosecutors say came to be known as the "the Crusaders" met in an office to pick the targets of bombings that they hoped would inspire a wave of attacks on Muslims throughout the U.S.
In a business in the southwestern city of Liberal that sold mobile homes, the four men took precautions to avoid getting caught, putting their cellphones in a separate room and locking the door to prevent anyone from walking in on them. Three of them didn't know that the fourth was wearing a wire as part of a federal investigation that would thwart their alleged plot.
Authorities say that on the day after Election Day, they hoped to detonate four car bombs outside of a mosque and an apartment complex that was home to Somali refugees who had settled in the meatpacking town of Garden City, which is about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Liberal along the Oklahoma border.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial of Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright, and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Stein, who prosecutors say was the militia's leader, also faces an additional weapons-related charge, and Wright faces a charge of lying to the FBI. They have pleaded not guilty. If convicted of the weapon of mass destruction charge, each could be sentenced to up to life in prison.
Prosecutors have said that a militia member tipped off federal authorities after becoming alarmed by the escalating talk of violence and later agreed to wear a wire as a paid informant. The government's case features months of profanity-laced recordings in which militia members discussed plans and referred to the Somalis as "cockroaches."
According to prosecutors, Stein was recorded discussing the type of fuel and fertilizer bomb that Timothy McVeigh used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. Stein was arrested when he delivered 300 pounds (135 kilograms) of fertilizer to undercover FBI agents to make explosives.
Prosecutors also allege that Wright and Allen made an explosive in the kitchen of Wright's business and used it to successfully test a blasting cap, with the goal of using the cap to cause a much larger explosion at the apartment complex.
Agents also found aerial photographs in one vehicle depicting what appear to be apartment complexes marked with large x's, as well as an aerial photo of a church and a Burmese mosque, authorities say. The group also discussed killing the apartment complex's white owner to send a message to other landlords about renting to immigrants.
Defense attorneys either declined to discuss the case or didn't respond to calls seeking comment. But they may have given a glimpse at a possible trial strategy when they sought to expand the prospective jury pool to include people from more rural western counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
In that motion, they argued the case is "uniquely political" because much of the expected evidence is in reaction to the election. They contended the case will require jurors to weigh evidence regarding whether the alleged conduct amounts to criminal behavior or whether it is constitutionally protected speech.
Prosecutors — anticipating the defense will attempt to argue the men were entrapped by the informant and an undercover agent — recently asked the judge to bar the defense from presenting such arguments to jurors before first justifying it to the court. U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren has not ruled on that request.
The arrests shocked Garden City's immigrant community, which includes many Muslims and people who work at a local Tyson Foods cattle slaughterhouse. Prosecutors are expected to call some of them to testify about the effect that the alleged plot had on them.
Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali interpreter at the plant, said her community wants the defendants to face justice, noting that if their alleged plot had succeeded, it would have been devastating. She also said the arrests had a galvanizing effect.
"We have become stronger as a community. And it showed us that we can overcome everything," she said.
Matt Allen, Garden City's city manager, echoed that sentiment.
"I think there are some scars left from that threat — a feeling of vulnerability — that is community-wide," Allen said. "But in many ways it has strengthened the resolve of the community to be the best we can be to people, regardless of their backgrounds or even their beliefs."