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Four convicted in New York synagogue bomb plot

A jury Monday found four men guilty of plotting to blow up Jewish targets in New York City and shoot military planes out of the sky, brushing aside defense claims that they were victims of entrapment by a paid FBI informant who befriended them at their mosque.

The four — alleged ringleader James Cromitie, David Williams IV, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen — were arrested in a nighttime raid in May 2009 after leaving cars they believed were laden with explosives outside a synagogue and a Jewish center in the Bronx.

Prosecutors called it a “chilling plot” and an example of the danger of home-grown terrorists. Defenders of the four, all Muslims from the working-class city of Newburgh, north of New York City, said they would not have been involved in a plot were it not for pressure put on them by the Pakistani-born informant.

“It’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Susanne Brody, the lawyer for Onta Williams. She and other defense lawyers said they planned to appeal.

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Alicia McWilliams-McCollum, David Williams’ aunt, accused the FBI of “wickedness” in coming to Newburgh and targeting the four. “We have been used and nobody cares,” she said after the verdict. “This case should never have happened.”

Prosecutors heralded the convictions as another blow to home-grown terrorists and said it didn’t matter that their car bombs were loaded with FBI-provided duds incapable of exploding or that the Stinger missiles they bought were useless.

“Home-grown terrorism is a serious threat,” said U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara. “The defendants in this case agreed to plant bombs and use missiles they thought were very real weapons of terrorism. We are safer today as a result of these convictions.”

The verdict followed eight days of deliberations and several weeks of testimony, most of it by the informant, Shahed Hussain, who gained the men’s confidence by pretending to be a member of a Pakistani-based terrorist group and then secretly recorded their conversations.

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Hours of those recordings were played to jurors, and prosecutors said they showed Cromitie’s hatred of Americans and Jews in particular, a hatred purportedly fueled by the war in Afghanistan. In one meeting, recorded Dec. 5, 2008, a laughing Cromitie tells Hussain he has fantasized about blowing up “something huge,” like a football stadium. “I always think big,” he says. Hussain remains quiet except for an occasional “hmmm” as Cromitie rambles on and jokes that he should get a Purple Heart for launching a major attack.

But in a meeting on April 7, 2009, Cromitie initially appears resistant to Hussain’s appeals to bring the plot to fruition quickly.

“I’m just thinking … I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he says as Hussain warns him that his handlers in Pakistan are becoming impatient. After Hussain and Cromitie agree that women and children should be spared, though, Cromitie’s demeanor changes and he agrees that it’s OK for U.S. soldiers and men to be targets.

“I don’t care if it’s a whole synagogue of men, I will take them down,” he says. “I’m not worried about nothing. What I’m worried about is my safety.”

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The defense said the recordings showed that Cromitie was easily swayed by Hussain and that all four defendants were egged on by promises of money and other rewards.

Each of the four faced eight counts, including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and attempting to kill officers and employees of the U.S. government. Cromitie and David Williams were convicted on all eight counts. Payen and Onta Williams were convicted of seven and acquitted of the last charge, of attempting to kill U.S. officers and employees.

tina.susman@latimes.com


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