Police surrounded the three men — now known as the NATO 3 — outside a Bridgeport drugstore last week and peppered them with questions as officers searched their car.
The two sides traded barbs about the Occupy movement and the 1968 Democratic National Convention when Chicago police infamously subdued protesters with force. After making jokes about bashing skulls with billy clubs, the officers promised to find the trio during the upcoming NATO summit.
"We'll come look for you, each and every one of you," an officer can be heard saying on a video posted on YouTube.
Turns out it was more than just an idle threat. It was already a fact.
Newly filed court documents show the men had been under surveillance for more than a week, suspected of planning a multi-staged attack against high-profile targets including President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house and several police stations. Chicago police had begun investigating the men as early as May 1, using information purportedly supplied by two informants whom the suspects believed were fellow Occupy backers named Moe and Nadia.
Prosecutors late Friday charged Brian Church, 20, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Jared Chase, 27, of Keene, N.H.; and Brent Betterly, 24, of Oakland Park, Fla., with conspiracy to commit terrorism, providing material support for terrorism and possession of an explosive or incendiary device. Six other people with them in a late-night raid Wednesday were released without charges, authorities said.
The charges mark the first time anyone has been prosecuted in Illinois under the state's anti-terrorism laws, which were enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps more problematic for police trying to control crowds amid the summit, the trio's arrest has provided oft-splintered factions of the Occupy movement with a shared rallying point this weekend.
Several hundred protesters took to the streets downtown Saturday evening, marching from the city's financial district to Daley Center Plaza, where they conducted a 10-minute sit-down in sympathy for the men, dubbed the NATO 3 by their supporters.
The men's attorney, Michael Deutsch, accused authorities of entrapment and suggested police targeted the men because of their anti-establishment views. The edited YouTube video of last week's police stop has also prompted complaints about unfair treatment, though Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said the patrol officers in the video were unaware of the ongoing undercover investigation.
"What we believe is that this is a way to stir up prejudice against people exercising their First Amendment rights," Deutsch told a throng of reporters after the three suspects were ordered held on $1.5 million bail each.
Cook County prosecutors alleged the three are self-proclaimed anarchists and members of "Black Bloc," a band of protesters who typically mask their faces to avoid identification. Church's mother told the Tribune that her son, who has a pilot's license and is studying to be a paramedic, arrived in Chicago, planning to take part in the NATO protests, at the end of April.
The police investigation began just days later on May 1, Deutsch said, when two people named Moe and Nadia — who were hanging out at a three-flat in Bridgeport with the men — notified police of an alleged plot. In documents filed in court by prosecutors Saturday, authorities hinted they had audio recordings in which the defendants talked about injuring police with Molotov cocktails, crude bombs usually made by filling glass bottles with gasoline.
According to the charges, the men planned to first attack four Chicago police stations and destroy several squad cars with "destructive devices" in order to divert the department's attention and resources. With authorities presumably distracted by those strikes, the group intended to hit Obama's national campaign headquarters in the Prudential Building, Emanuel's home in Ravenswood and downtown financial institutions, prosecutors alleged. The group had already done reconnaissance work on the Chicago Public Safety Headquarters in Bronzeville in preparation for an attack, law-enforcement officials said.
Authorities singled out Church as the ringleader in court documents, saying that he wanted to enlist 16 people — divided into four groups — to conduct the attacks.
Wearing an Army-green flak jacket, Church stood silently with his hands behind his back during a brief appearance Saturday in the Criminal Courts Building. Chase, who lived with Church in South Florida at one point, also showed no reaction as prosecutors detailed the charges against him.
Betterly, with shaggy blond dreadlocks, shook his head and occasionally looked at the ceiling during the proceeding. He wore a brown leather jacket and a gray T-shirt paying tribute to the Misfits, a punk horror band.
The three were members of the Occupy Miami movement, relatives and acquaintances said. They piled into an aging Honda and traveled with other Occupy members to Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; and South Florida before arriving here last month, according to family members and their own social media postings.
"Frankly, they were kind of bored over here," said Chris Escobar, who lived with two of the men in a rundown apartment building they called "Fort Peace," in Miami's Overtown section.
In Chicago, they stayed at the aging three-flat in Bridgeport, a working-class neighborhood on the South Side.
When police raided the apartment Wednesday night, they recovered four completed Molotov cocktails and weapons including a mortar gun, swords, a hunting bow, throwing stars and knives with brass-knuckle handles, according to prosecutors. The men also had protective gear such as shields, assault vests and gas masks to help hide their identity during the planned attacks, authorities said.
Church also wanted to buy several assault rifles and indicated that if an officer pointed a gun at him, he planned to be "pointing one back," prosecutors said.
According to one source familiar with the investigation, the three men planned to shoot an arrow through the mayor's window after distracting police assigned near his home with Molotov cocktails. The intent was to embarrass Emanuel, not harm him or his family, the source said.
The mayor's security detail had been aware of the plan for more than a week, the source said.
Court documents indicate authorities most likely have recordings of the men discussing their plans, but the records do not indicate how the audio was obtained. Law-enforcement sources told the Tribune that two informants inside the Bridgeport apartment helped police in that regard.
In the conversations, the men discussed attacking other jurisdictions, planned escape routes and held late-night training sessions for engaging in combat with police, prosecutors said. They also talked about avoiding law-enforcement detection, according to the charges.
"The city doesn't know what it's in for," an undisclosed defendant is quoted in court records as saying.
On the day of the police raid, the three men and others had detailed conversations about making "numerous" Molotov cocktails by filling empty beer bottles with gasoline and using torn bandannas for wicks, according to the charges. Prosecutors said Chase purchased the gas at a nearby BP station and then returned to the flat, where the defendants donned gloves and began making the crude bombs.
Prosecutors said Chase and Church constructed the incendiary devices, while Betterly gave instructions on how to properly assemble and use them.
As they poured gasoline into the beer bottles, Church discussed the upcoming NATO summit and the role the Molotov cocktails would play, according to the charges. At one point, Church asked if the others had ever seen a "cop on fire" and discussed throwing one of the bombs into the Deering District police station in Bridgeport, prosecutors said.
After they talked about loading the bottles into a nearby car, police raided the apartment and arrested nine people, prosecutors said. Six were later released without charges.
"We had to act," McCarthy said. "We did not want to take this case down as quickly as we did, but we had to because of the imminent threat."
But the National Lawyers Guild, which is representing the men, scoffed at accusations of bomb-making and insisted the NATO protesters simply possessed beer-making equipment.
"Charging these people, who are here to peacefully protest against NATO, for terrorism when in reality the police have been terrorizing activists in Chicago is absolutely outrageous," said Sarah Gelsomino, a lawyer with the guild.
Church's mother, who spoke on the condition that her name not be published, called the charges ridiculous and insisted her son would not engage in bomb-making. She questioned whether the arrest was connected to the YouTube video, which she warned him about posting.
"So now suddenly after he's being harassed by the police and posting it for everyone to see, now he's being charged with terror-related stuff?" she said. "That seems kind of fishy to me."
None of the three have been convicted of felonies, prosecutors said, though two have had scrapes with law enforcement. Prosecutors said Chase has had run-ins with police in California, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Florida but has not been charged with any violent crimes.
Chase surprised his family by quitting his job as a cook at a Boston restaurant last year to join Occupy, his uncle said. He lived in a tent for a time after joining the movement.
"He can be confrontational," said his uncle, Michael Chase of Westmoreland, N.H. "If he's pressed, he tends to lash out. I really can't envision him doing this on his own, coming up with an idea to do something that radical."
Betterly has had several problems with law enforcement in recent years, including an arrest last fall for allegedly breaking into a high school for an impromptu swim party. He was arrested again earlier this year for allegedly making slurred threats to a Miami police officer.
Andrew Coffey, his Florida-based attorney, described the high school break-in as "a stupid, drunken evening" and said his client had a difficult childhood after losing both parents at a young age. Betterly turned himself in after the men were recognized on a school surveillance video and the case is on the verge of settlement, Coffey said.
"To go from petty vandalism to something serious seems to be a hell of a leap,'' Coffey said. "He has no real criminal history, and what he's being accused of down here is minor compared to these new allegations.''
Betterly quit Occupy Fort Lauderdale in February after he disagreed with the group's decision to follow an order requiring them to dismantle a tent town erected outside the City Hall. He wanted to keep the tents up and face arrest, organizers said.
"But he was a good guy," Occupy member Christine Weinbrecht. "He was a nonviolent person."
All three men face up to 40 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.
Tribune reporters Stacy St. Clair, Todd Lighty, Hal Dardick, Annie Sweeney, Liam Ford, Becky Schlikerman, Joe Mahr, Steve Mills, Peter Nickeas and William Lee, as well as Sun-Sentinel reporters Brittany Wallman and Mike Clary, contributed.
rhaggerty@tribuneCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times