NEW YORK – Three men caught in an elaborate FBI sting plotting to blow up New York City synagogues and shoot down military planes were sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison.
James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams were found guilty last year of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges.
During sentencing, Judge Colleen McMahon said the government "created acts of terrorism out of (Cromitie's) ... fantasies of bragadicio and bigotry and then made those fantasies come true." But she said she "cannot condemn" the defendants enough and blamed their motives on their hatred for Jews.
"All the evil in this world is due to bigotry and mindless hatred that is rooted in human beings ridiculous and unjustified suspicion of anyone we can categorize as the other on the grounds of race or ethnicity or religion or nationality," McMahon said.
Their lawyers had argued that they deserved leniency because they were under the spell of a paid FBI informant posing as an Islamic extremist and promising a big payday, and that they never posed an actual threat.
Before sentencing, Cromitie said, "I've never been a terrorist and I never will be a terrorist. ... I'm very sorry for letting myself get caught up in a sting like this one made up by the government."
But prosecutors argued that by law it didn't matter that the men never had access to real weapons and were under close watch the whole time. They called the defendants "ticking time bombs" who agreed to do "horrible things" and needed to be put behind bars for life.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin had argued for a life sentence, saying: "This would have been a colossal terrorist attack and the fact that it was all fantasy really doesn't matter because in their minds, they thought it was real."
The men's trial in federal court in Manhattan had featured 13 days of testimony by undercover informant Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant the FBI assigned in 2008 to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about an hour north of New York.
After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, Hussain told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terrorist organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.
Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs and shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles.
They said he also recruited the other men to be lookouts with promises of money. Onta and David Williams are not related.
Agents arrested the men in 2009 after they planted the devices — fakes supplied by the FBI — in the Riverdale section of the Bronx while under heavy surveillance.
In one of several videos played at trial, the men were seen inspecting a shoulder missile launcher in a bugged warehouse in Connecticut two weeks before the planned attack. At the end of the tape, Cromitie, two of his cohorts and the informant bow their heads in prayer.
Jurors also heard tapes of Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East.
"I'm ready to do this damn thing," Cromitie said on one tape. "Anything for the cause."
Defense attorneys argued the FBI overreached by targeting desperate, down-and-out dupes who were in it only for the petty cash and meals the informant gave them.
Cromitie, they said, constantly wavered and even purposely disappeared for six weeks before finally agreeing to go forward with the plan.
But prosecutors said that in the end, Cromitie "showed up again with renewed vigor" to carry out the plot.
Lawyers for the men had sought to get their convictions thrown out because of entrapment, arguing the government had "created the criminal, then manufactured the crime."
U.S. District Judge McMahon, in her ruling, said, "There is some truth to that description of what transpired here."
But the motion was denied.
The sentencing of a fourth man convicted in the case, Laguerre Payen, has been put off pending the results of a psychiatric evaluation.
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report from New York.
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