Federal prosecutors told jurors Thursday that three men charged with plotting to bomb an apartment complex and mosque in western Kansas were motivated by their hate of Muslim immigrants.
“They wanted to send the message that Muslims are not welcome here — not in Garden City, not in Kansas, not in America,” prosecutor Risa Berkower said.
Her opening statement in the Wichita trial laid out a case that only the work of federal agents stopped, the trio from carrying out a bombing the day after the Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election.
Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen were arrested in October 2016 and charged with conspiracy to bomb the apartment complex.
They were recorded by a paid FBI informant calling Muslims “cockroaches” and talked about the prospect of a “bloodbath” to reverse damage they believed immigrants had done to the country. In the recordings, the men discuss a plan to bomb a mosque and apartment complex in Garden City predominantly occupied by Somali Muslims.
Defense attorneys argued the recordings don’t reflect a conspiracy, just “banter” that’s constitutionally protected free speech. Each defendant has his own legal team.
Kari Schmidt, representing Wright, said that meetings of the defendants at Wright’s business were “complaint and bull sessions.” While there was violent language used in those meetings, she said, “there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
The prosecutors said the defendants were doing more than just talking, that they took action that included the construction of a detonator for a bomb.
“That detonator wasn’t just words,” Berkower said. “That detonator was action."
The defense was denied a request to include jurors from counties in western Kansas, which contains more Trump voters than Wichita and the surrounding counties where the jurors have been pulled from.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren also ruled before trial that the defense would need more evidence that the men were not inclined to commit the crime before they can argue entrapment.
Attorneys for the three men argued Thursday that the FBI went too far in setting up a case against the defendants. Richard Federico, Allen’s lawyer, said that the real victims were the defendants. He said they were targeted by the FBI.
“The FBI created and directed all of this,” Federico said.
The portrayal of Dan Day, the paid FBI informant who recorded the defendants, is key for both the prosecution and the defense. Prosecutors presented Day as a concerned citizen and a hero. The defense said he was broke and essentially a bounty hunter who exploited the defendants’ fears for a payday.
Defense attorneys for all three men argued the case in similar ways. But attorneys for Wright and Allen both tried to play down their individual roles. Wright’s attorney said that while the meetings took place at his business, he was often absent. Allen’s lawyer said that Wright and Stein had a close relationship and often left Allen out.
“It was the two of them working together a lot more than Mr. Allen,” said Federico.
Wright and Allen were also both portrayed by their attorneys as lonely men whose desire for camaraderie was exploited by the FBI.
Prosecutors moved to paint that interpretation as absurd.
“Think about what the FBI’s options were,” Berkower said, “when they learned that these three men were highly motivated to kill Muslims and were taking steps to do just that.”
The men are also charged with violating the rights of the targeted Somali Muslims guaranteed by the Fair Housing Act — to live in their homes without being attack or intimidated because of their race, religion or where they were born. The prosecution said it would use recordings from defendants to show that they were motivated by a hatred of Muslims.
Stein’s attorney, James Pratt, said the context of the statements -- the contentious 2016 election season -- matters. He described political coverage at the time as “chaos news” that further divided the country.
“Hate ruled the day,” Pratt said. “Left hating right. Right hating left."
The trial is expected to last six weeks. If the men are found guilty they could face life in prison.
Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.