Reporting Irene Cornell
NEW YORK (AP/WCBS 880) - The last of four men convicted in an FBI sting operation was sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison by a judge who said she was not proud of her government for creating the plot to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes with missiles.
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U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon took another swipe at the government’s handling of the case as she gave Laguerre Payen the same mandatory minimum prison term that she handed his three co-defendants in June, James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams. She singled out Cromitie as the group’s leader.
“The essence of what occurred here was that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens, created acts of terrorism out of the fantasies and the bravado and the bigotry of one man in particular and four men generally and then made these fantasies come true,” she said.
McMahon spoke after Payen, in an unusual courtroom twist, and took his opportunity to speak at sentencing to question the judge.
“Well I just want to know from you, am I a terrorist?” he asked McMahon in a soft and hushed tone, saying the conviction doesn’t make sense to him. “Am I what they say, an extremist? Am I guilty?”
The judge said the word “terrorist” had been stretched beyond her understanding of the word over the last decade.
“But I can tell you this. You were prepared to do a terrible thing and you tried to do a terrible thing and you tried to do it for a terrible reason. Maybe it doesn’t make you a terrorist, but it makes you a criminal. It makes you guilty of a hideous crime,” she said. Later, she added: “If terrorism is a crime of ideology, then you are no terrorist, but for money.”
Then, Payen in a rambling, stammering statement filled with long pauses, said he felt railroaded.
“I’m not guilty,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do nothing. I wasn’t going to do that stuff or nothing like that. But, you know, this case like a big theater. They don’t show everything. They destroy evidence and everything. And, you know, stuff that should be on camera isn’t there.”
The men were convicted of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges.
The sting began after the FBI in 2008 assigned an informant to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York.
The men’s trial featured two weeks of testimony by the informant, Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant.
After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, Hussain told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terrorist organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.
Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs and to shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles.
They said he also recruited the other men to be lookouts with promises of money. Onta and David Williams are not related.
Agents arrested the men in 2009 after they planted the devices, fakes supplied by the FBI, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx while under heavy surveillance.
In one of several videos played at trial, the men were seen inspecting a shoulder missile launcher in a bugged warehouse in Connecticut two weeks before the planned attack. At the end of the tape, Cromitie, two of his cohorts and the informant bow their heads in prayer.
Jurors also heard tapes of Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East.
Payen is illegally in the U.S. from Haiti.
McMahon said it was likely that Payen will be deported after he completes his sentence in conditions that were likely to be harsh.
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