GAINESVILLE — A federal judge on Wednesday denied bond to the four Georgia militia men accused of plotting terror attacks against government employees, siding with prosecutors who feared the elderly men might lash out against federal officials because they have nothing to lose.
U.S. Magistrate Susan Cole's ruling echoed concerns from federal prosecutors who warned that releasing the men risked a deadly standoff with federal agents who are forced to bring them to court.
"I can only imagine the arrests of these defendants have only heightened their ill will against the government," Cole said after a third day of federal hearings. "I'm concerned there would be government officials and employees in harm's way."
Defense attorneys, who intend to appeal the judge's decision, said the men never intended to live up to the boastful chatter and that the charges accusing them of plotting to use guns, explosives and the biological toxin ricin against federal employees are overblown.
Frederick Thomas, 73, and Dan Roberts, 67, are accused of conspiring to obtain an explosive and possessing an unregistered silencer. Ray Adams, 55, and Samuel Crump, 68, are charged with conspiring and attempting to make ricin.
The four men were arrested in early November after at least seven months of surveillance by an undercover informant who infiltrated their meetings at a Waffle House, homes and car rides. The dozens of hours of recordings the informant made are the linchpin to the government's case against the four.
In the tapes, the four allegedly boasted of a list of government officials who needed to be "taken out;" talked about scattering ricin from a car speeding down a highway past major U.S. cities; and scouted tax offices. One man said, "We'd have to blow the whole building like Timothy McVeigh," a reference to the man executed for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
Defense attorneys said the conversations were taken out of context and that the men were actually planning to unite various militia groups across Georgia to create a legitimate "governor's army" that would be at the state's disposal.
"It's all a hypothetical," said Jeff Ertel, who represents Thomas, the suspected leader of the plot. "This is not a plan to take action now. This is a plan to take action if we are legitimized and if the government calls us into action."
But assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBurney said the men took a series of concrete steps toward carrying out a violent plot.
He said the men cased two federal buildings in Atlanta, talked of targeting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, obtained an illegal silencer, amassed small arsenals of weapons, tried to purchase a briefcase-sized explosive from an undercover agent and attempted to make ricin from castor beans.
"We've moved beyond hypotheticals," he said.
McBurney warned that releasing the men risks giving them exactly what they want: A galvanizing standoff with federal agents whom they could portray as "jackbooted thugs taking action against elderly patriots."
The four played very different roles in the plot, according to court testimony. Thomas was described as the "thought leader" who helped host meetings and recruit new members. He is accused of scouting the two federal buildings with the informant and leading the effort, along with Roberts, to get an illegal silencer and buy explosives from an undercover agent.
Prosecutors said the men brought Crump and Adams into the mix after Roberts talked of obtaining a "silent killer" — the toxin ricin, which can be lethal in small doses. Crump had memorized the recipe for the poison, prosecutors said, and Adams had the know-how to make it as a former government lab technician.
Defense attorneys, though, heaped scorn on the informant, who recorded the conversations while on bond on South Carolina charges that he sexually abused two girls and had child pornography. They called him an "instigator" and a "scoundrel" and questioned why he's free while their clients are facing stiff penalties.
And they claimed prosecutors were making too much of idle chatter from elderly men complaining at gatherings in local restaurants and at each other's homes.
"The government doesn't have a strong case. Surely there was talk about ricin, but it was ridiculous," said Dan Summer, who represents Crump. "It was like an old man in the stages of senility talking out of the side of his mouth."
Witnesses called over three days of hearings said the men were loyal to the government and often gave back to the community. Roberts, for instance, had an animal shelter at his home with 20 dogs and 30 cats. And Melissa Adams said her father spent many holidays playing Santa Claus for children.
"He may be intimidating at times, but on the inside he's just a teddy bear," she said of her dad, a big man with a busy beard. "He has his disgruntles just like the rest of the country, with the economy, but that's all they were — small disgruntles."