Melinda Henneberger

In Garden City Muslim bombing case, it’s the FBI on trial

From left, Gavin Wright, Curtis Allen and Patrick Eugene Stein
From left, Gavin Wright, Curtis Allen and Patrick Eugene Stein File photos

Oh, there was a conspiracy all right, the attorney told the jury, and it was carried out by one small group of people who had targeted another group of people. But the plotters, defense attorney Richard Federico said, are with the FBI. And the victims in this scenario are the three Muslim haters who went on trial here this week.

Federico’s client, Curtis Allen, and two other men, Patrick Stein and Gavin Wright, are accused of trying to start an all-out race war with their plan to detonate a series of bombs at the Garden City, Kansas apartment building where Somali refugees they called “cockroaches” lived and worshiped.

They “wanted to send the message Muslims are not welcomed here — not in Garden City, not in Kansas, not in America,” prosecutor Risa Berkower said in her opening statement Thursday.

But the three, all of whom have pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, are really just patriots with potty mouths and a gullible streak who were led into trouble by an FBI informant, their attorneys told the all-white jury. And they’re really only in court as a result of the “thought crimes” they were sucked into by agents with an agenda and an informant who desperately needed the money the feds paid him.

Not so long ago, the FBI would have gotten the presumption of innocence among law-and-order lovers. But with distrust of the “deep state” prevalent and the FBI under regular attack on President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, maybe it’s not so hard to see why the defense explicitly wanted the jury pool extended into even redder Western Kansas to pull in more Trump voters.

Though conservative fear of government overreach is nothing new, for years after 9/11 it was progressives who tended to think the FBI was going too far in infiltrating mosques where they tried to entrap American Muslims.

With domestic terrorism involving white nationalists on the rise, it shouldn’t be a surprise that law enforcement is keeping a close watch on far-right groups like the militia to which the three defendants belonged.

The defense will try to counter hours and hours of wiretapped conversations about “exterminating” Muslims by accusing the FBI of trying to entrap men who said terrible things, like that not even Muslim babies should be spared, but were all “bluster” and “locker room talk.”

It was informant Dan Day, the defense says, who told the three defendants crazy stuff about ISIS recruiting out of the local library, Somali refugees driving $40,000 cars, and other tales based on nothing.

Implicitly, the defendants are also pleading not guilty by reason of the insanity of our political dialogue.

“If you all think back to the summer of ‘16,” said Wright’s attorney, Kari Schmidt, “that was a very difficult time.”

Jim Pratt, the attorney for Stein, said his client, who was arrested when he delivered 300 pounds of fertilizer to undercover FBI agents to make explosives, also believed that Walmarts linked by underground tunnels were being turned into FEMA camps and that whatever the result of the ‘16 election, Obama was not going to move out of the White House, but would instead declare martial law.

“The media fed this division by reporting on it non-stop,” he said, by for instance pushing the story that Obama was coming to get our guns. “Rarely did you hear anything good about … a politician. Hate ruled the day. It was into this mix that we land.”

The defense also pointed out that none of the many other local militia members on their nightly “muster call” ever reported anything amiss to the police.

And if the FBI took their plans to blow up a whole community so seriously, why didn’t they have them under constant surveillance?

It’s the government that’s as much under surveillance now as these men who spent hours talking about wiping our country clean. And especially in just the political moment the defense describes, not guilty verdicts would not be out of nowhere.