By Kim Palmer and Makini Brice
CLEVELAND/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Ohio man arrested on suspicion of planning to detonate a bomb at Cleveland's Fourth of July celebrations and then stand by and watch "it go off" was granted a public defender on Monday during his initial court appearance.
FBI agents on Sunday arrested Demetrius Pitts, 48, after he met with an undercover agent and said he planned to plant a bomb at an event celebrating the U.S. Independence Day holiday in the Ohio city.
Pitts, a U.S. citizen and Philadelphia native who had expressed allegiance to the al Qaeda militant group, intended to target other locations in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the agency said.
An undercover FBI agent helped Pitts pick the location for his planned attack. The site is near multiple U.S. government buildings and a scheduled fireworks show along the city's Lake Erie waterfront.
"I'm gonna be downtown when the – when the thing go off. I’m gonna be somewhere cuz I wanna see it go off," Pitts told an undercover agent who he believed was affiliated with al Qaeda, according to court documents.
Most American cities and towns mark the holiday with fireworks and parades, and typically ramp up security around such events.
In 2015, U.S. law enforcement officials said they had arrested more than 10 people inspired by the Islamic State militant group ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, saying the arrests had disrupted planned attacks.
Pitts also suggested giving the children of military personnel remote control cars packed with explosives during the event, in the hope they would unwittingly detonate the bombs, the FBI said.
Pitts, most recently of the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, has criminal and traffic convictions in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, dating back to 1989 through 2006. He served time in prison for a 1993 robbery in the area.
In his latest run-in with law enforcement, he was charged with attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
He appeared in court wearing glasses, a gray T-shirt, khaki shorts and black sneakers with the laces removed. He told the judge he was unemployed and was assigned to the public defender's office.
Pitts also discussed possibly traveling to San Francisco for reconnaissance for al Qaeda, the FBI said.
Relatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
"This defendant, by his own words and by his own deeds, wanted to attack our nation and its ideals," said Justin Herdman, the U.S. attorney for northern Ohio.
According to one of two of his Facebook pages, Pitts attended culinary school in Philadelphia, lived in Chicago and went to high school in Lincoln City, Oregon.
The FBI reviewed the Ohio suspect's Facebook account, which appeared to have been taken down on Monday, after receiving a tip and determined that Pitts was "threatening violence against the United States," the FBI said.
In January 2017, under the name Abdur Raheem Rafeeq, Pitts commented on pictures believed to be of a training camp for militants.
But officials said he had been radicalized in the United States.
"We need to known how to shoot guns... We should always be prepared to fight in the name of Allah Akbar," the post read, according to the FBI.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Diana Kruzman in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)