WICHITA, Kan. — Three militia members plotted for months to blow up an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants in western Kansas, saying that they wanted to “exterminate cockroaches,” a federal prosecutor said Thursday at the start of their trial.
Gavin Wright, Patrick Stein and Curtis Allen are charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to detonate truck bombs in the meatpacking town of Garden City, 220 miles (350 kilometers) west of Wichita. Stein also faces weapons-related charges and Wright has an additional charge of lying to the FBI.
“Defendants 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.
The three men were indicted in October 2016 after a militia member, Dan Day, became alarmed and contacted the FBI. He agreed to wear a wire and recorded profanity-laced conversations among the men that led to their arrest.
The government plans to present evidence that the men manufactured homemade explosives and tested them. It also plans to present testimony showing the men tried to recruit other members of the Kansas Security Force to join them, and warned them not to tip off law enforcement about the plan. Some militia members will testify they didn’t like Muslims but refused to join the plan to kill people.
Attorneys for the defense said the FBI set up the men with a paid informant and all the talk about violence wasn’t serious. They said that the men had a right to free speech and association under the Constitution. The FBI acknowledges it paid Day more than $32,000 for expenses including a used vehicle after his broke down.
“This case will challenge your understanding and your thoughts of the Constitution,” attorney Richard Federico told the jury, acknowledging some of what they will hear during the trial will offend them.
“And that’s OK — hatred is not a crime in this country,” he said.
Another defense attorney, Jim Pratt, said the alleged crimes occurred during a heated presidential election campaign that had split the country, and that the media fed this with nonstop reporting. He said conservative media outlets reported that President Barack Obama was letting refugees who had not been vetted into the country, and liberal media outlets reported that then-Republican nominee Donald Trump was going to kick immigrants out of the country.
“Hate ruled the day and the ratings,” Pratt said.
He said the militia members were simply talking about these politically-charged issues at the time.
“The FBI, rather than try to calm these fears, fomented them and inflamed them through (informant) Dan Day,” Pratt said.
But prosecutor Berkower said it wasn’t just talk.
“The evidence will show that these weren’t just words,” Berkower said. “These hours of planning were not just talk. It was action.”