CLEVELAND (AP) — After unknowingly working with an FBI informant for months, five men have been charged with plotting to bomb an Ohio bridge linking two wealthy Cleveland suburbs.
Federal authorities Tuesday described the men as anarchists who are angry with corporate America and the government. They say the alleged plotters researched explosives and obtained what they thought was C-4 explosives. The material, in fact, was harmless and the public was never at risk because the men got it from the informant, officials said.
Their arrests Monday night marked the latest case in which FBI agents planned fake terrorism plots alongside targeted suspects, an indication it continues to be a top strategy for the government in preventing terrorism.
"They talked about making a statement against corporate America and the government as some of the motivations for their actions," U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said in announcing the arrests with the head of the FBI in Cleveland, Stephen Anthony.
Court documents detail several conversations the FBI secretly recorded in which its informant discussed the bomb plans with some of the suspects.
In one, Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of Lakewood, allegedly said "Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the ... corporate big wigs a lot of money" because it would cause structural damage and prevent people from going to work.
He and another suspect, Douglas L. Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, favored targeting a bridge because it would limit "the number of casualties and the potential for killing possible supporters," court documents said.
The five men were charged with conspiracy and trying to bomb property used in interstate commerce. They appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court, where Magistrate Judge Greg White ordered them jailed without bond pending a hearing Monday.
In addition to Baxter and Wright, the suspects were identified as Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Anthony Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland, and Connor Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea. The charges carry possible penalties of more than 20 years in prison.
Similar arrests in the last few years — including in Massachusetts, Oregon, New York and Texas — offer a glimpse into sting operations by undercover FBI agents trying to catch possible terrorists in the act.
Defense attorneys in those cases have accused federal authorities of conducting overblown operations that entrapped their clients. Authorities have defended the practice, saying it's prevented countless terrorist attacks.
Christopher Banks, an associate professor at Kent State University who has written on terrorism, defended the tactic as one of many the federal government uses in fighting terrorism. He said each case involving a possible terrorist threat is different, but after 9/11, caution weighs more on the side of government than the individual citizen.
"In this age that we live in, and with the heightened sense that the government should be doing something to prevent these kinds of acts, in that sense it can only protect public safety," he said. "So it's a fine line."
At Tuesday's hearing, the men, with wrist manacles chained to the waist, sat in the jury box with their attorneys and acknowledged receiving copies of the complaint against them and an understanding of their rights.
At the end of the hearing, Stevens' father, James, shouted, "Love you, Connor." The father left court without commenting.
The target of the plot was a bridge that carries a state highway over part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and a picturesque scenic rail line and canal towpath in the Brecksville area, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland.
The men had been associated with the anti-corporate Occupy Cleveland movement but don't share its non-violent views, organizer Debbie Kline said.
"They were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland," Kline said in an email canceling the group's May Day protest Tuesday at a GE Lighting plant in view of the arrests of the "autonomous group" of five.
The alleged plotters were frustrated that other anti-corporate protesters opposed violence, according to Dettelbach, citing the criminal complaint filed in the case.
"It talks about the anger and frustration that these five individuals felt that other people would not support their violent aims," Dettelbach said.
Federal authorities said their investigation was aided by a paid confidential source who had previous robbery and other convictions and was on probation for passing bad checks. The informant began making contact with the men in October and had recorded conversations with them over the past three months, according to an affidavit.
The men considered different plots over time, including distracting law enforcement with smoke grenades while trying to bring down financial institution signs in downtown Cleveland.
The men also discussed other potential targets, including a law enforcement center, oil wells, a cargo ship or the opening of a new downtown casino, according to the affidavit. The document also alleges that one suspect talked about being part of group planning to cause trouble during an upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
The group finally settled on blowing up the busy bridge, federal authorities alleged.
Franko reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Barbara Rodriguez in Columbus and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.