In Bronx Bomb Case, Missteps Caught on Tape
[Secret Recordings Reveal Details of Terror Plot Accusations]
By MICHAEL WILSON | May 22, 2009
They were four ex-convicts — one a crack addict, another whose most recent arrest involved snatching purses — and they gathered their terror tools as they went.
They bought cellphones, the authorities said; they bought a camera in a Wal-Mart to take photographs of the synagogues in New York City that they wanted to blow up. When their attempt to buy guns in Newburgh, N.Y., fell through — their gun dealer told them she had sold out — they drove downstate, buying a $700 pistol from a Bloods gang leader in Brooklyn.
After months of planning, the authorities allege, the men had their first real scare this month, driving to Stamford, Conn., to pick up a surface-to-air missile that was waiting for them in a warehouse. One of the men in the car believed they were being followed by law enforcement, so they returned to Newburgh, drove around until they were satisfied they were in the clear, then went back to Stamford for their missile and bombs.
They brought them back to Newburgh, locked them in a storage container, and celebrated, shouting, “Allah akbar!”
These details as told by the authorities describe a homegrown terror plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down a military aircraft in Newburgh. The outlines of the plan were fleshed out on Thursday, in court hearings, documents and interviews, as were bits and pieces of the checkered life stories of the four men charged in the plot.
Remarkably, vast passages of the conspiracy the federal authorities described — the talk of killing Jews, the testing of the men’s would-be weaponry — played out on a veritable soundstage of hidden cameras and secret microphones, and involved material provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A house in Newburgh, a storage facility in Stamford, the planting of the would-be bombs in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale — everything was recorded, according to the complaint.
“It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan. “These are extremely violent men. These are men who eagerly embraced an opportunity” to “bring deaths to Jews.”
On Thursday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly appeared at the Riverdale Jewish Center, which the F.B.I. identified as one of the targets of the plot. Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly praised the work of the agencies behind the arrests and sought to tamp down any fears of a larger terrorist organization at work.
“Sadly, this is just a reminder that peace is fragile and democracy is fragile and we have to be vigilant all the time,” said Mr. Bloomberg, who along with Mr. Kelly stressed that the four men had no connection to any international terror groups. “The good news is that the N.Y.P.D. and F.B.I. prevented what could have been a terrible event in our city.”
The case is the latest in a series in New York and around the country since Sept. 11, 2001, and sounded familiar in some ways. The investigation, for instance, began with the work of a confidential informant, who portrayed himself as an agent of a Pakistani terror organization, and who became a critical member of the men’s plot.
The full nature and extent of the informant’s role in facilitating the plot is unknown. In other cases, defense lawyers have sought to portray these informants as engaging in entrapment, suggesting they had, in effect, provoked and fueled the actions of their clients.
But where past terror prosecutions have been based mostly on conversations about a planned or imagined attack, this one went further, the authorities alleged: the men went through critical acts in what they believed to be a deadly assault.
As for the defendants — James Cromitie, 44; David Williams, 28; Onta Williams, 32, and no apparent relation to David; and Laguerre Payen, 27 — most of the details that emerged on Thursday stemmed from their criminal pasts.
David Williams, who lately had grown a beard and taken to reading the Koran on slow nights at a steakhouse job, was described as particularly violent by prosecutors on Thursday. When the plan to buy guns from a woman in Newburgh fell through, it was David Williams who quickly improvised, arranging to buy a gun from a man he described as a “supreme Blood gang leader” in Brooklyn, Mr. Snyder said. After buying the gun in the company of the informant, David Williams said he would have shot the gang leader if he were alone with him, and kept his $700.
Mr. Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.
Onta Williams had been addicted to cocaine since he was a teenager, according to his lawyer, Sol Lesser, at his sentencing in 2003. Mr. Cromitie has spent 12 years in prison, most recently for selling drugs to undercover officers behind a school.
Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.
The men never served in the same prison together. Three of them regularly lunched together at Danny’s Restaurant in Newburgh, chatting over plates of rice and beans, said Danny DeLeon, the owner.
Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, the imam at the mosque where the authorities say the confidential informant first encountered the men, said none of the men were active in the mosque. An assistant imam, Hamin Rashada, said Mr. Cromitie and Mr. Payen occasionally attended services.
Mr. Cromitie was there last June, and he met a stranger.
He had no way of knowing that the stranger’s path to the mosque began in 2002, when he was arrested on federal charges of identity theft. He was sentenced to five years’ probation, and became a confidential informant for the F.B.I. He began showing up at the mosque in Newburgh around 2007, Mr. Muhammad said.
The stranger’s behavior aroused the imam’s suspicions. He invited other worshipers to meals, and spoke of violence and jihad, so the imam said he steered clear of him.
“There was just something fishy about him,” Mr. Muhammad said. Members “believed he was a government agent.”
Mr. Muhammad said members of his congregation told him the man he believed was the informant offered at least one of them a substantial amount of money to join his “team.”
The informant met Mr. Cromitie, and it quickly appeared that Mr. Cromitie was of a like mind with the apparent radical before him, according to the complaint. Mr. Cromitie said his parents had lived in Afghanistan before he was born and that he was angry at the killing of Muslims there.
The next month, on July 3, the two men met and discussed the terror organization Jaish-e-Mohammed, based in Pakistan, with which the informant claimed to be involved. Mr. Cromitie told him he wanted to join and “do jihad,” according to the complaint.
All of this came as a shock to Mr. Cromitie’s mother after his arrest on Wednesday. Adele Cromitie, 65, said her son was raised a Christian, and that neither she nor his father, who left the family when Mr. Cromitie was a young child, had lived in Afghanistan. She said Mr. Cromitie visited her, at her apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, for the first time in nearly 15 years about three years ago, after getting out of prison, and announced he had converted to Islam.
“When he told me that, I said, ‘Get out of here,’ ” Ms. Cromitie recalled.
About six months ago, Mr. DeLeon, the restaurant owner, noticed that a new man was showing up for lunch. He was about 50 and appeared to be South Asian, and he usually paid for the group. Mr. DeLeon thought he was the boss.
Beginning in October, the informant began meeting Mr. Cromitie at a home in Newburgh that was wired with hidden cameras and microphones, the criminal complaint said. David Williams, Onta Williams and Mr. Payen attended these meetings, and the group discussed Mr. Cromitie’s desire to strike a synagogue in the Bronx and military aircraft at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, according to the complaint.
In December, the plan began to take shape in the Newburgh house. On Dec. 5, Mr. Cromitie asked the informant whether he could acquire “rockets” and “devices” for attacks, and the informant said he could provide C-4 plastic explosives to fashion improvised bombs. On Dec. 17, Mr. Cromitie said he wanted to case the air base later that week, and that he would remove his traditional Muslim attire — a white jalabiya and cap — so as not to draw suspicion. David Williams suggested they refer to the synagogues as “joints.”
On April 10, Mr. Cromitie, David Williams and the informant drove to a Wal-Mart in Newburgh and bought a camera, and then went to the Bronx, where Mr. Cromitie took pictures of synagogues. He said blowing up the Riverdale Jewish Center would be “a piece of cake.”
Several days later, the three men met again and discussed picking up a Stinger heat-seeking missile in Connecticut and synchronizing the aircraft strike and the bombings.
On the night of April 28, after figuring out where they could get a gun, the men reinforced their commitment to the plan to one another, according to the authorities. They each said they were willing to perform jihad, and Onta Williams spoke, saying the military is “killing Muslim brothers and sisters in Muslim countries, so if we kill them here with I.E.D.’s and Stingers, it is equal,” according to the complaint.
On May 6, the five men drove to Stamford to pick up the explosives and the Stinger, according to the complaint. The location was carefully chosen in advance, but not by any of the men in the vehicle.
The Stamford police were approached by the F.B.I. several months ago, officials said, and asked for help in finding a warehouse where a meeting with the suspected terror cell could take place. A warehouse on the Waterside section of town was chosen and wired for video and audio for the meeting.
The men, after the brief scare about being followed, eventually made it to Stamford. There, they inspected the explosive devices. Each weighed 37 pounds and was inside a canvas bag. None of them, nor the Stinger missile at the warehouse, was operational, having been disabled by the F.B.I.
The four men tested one of the detonators for the bombs, which was to be set off with a cellphone, the compliant said. They drove the weapons to Newburgh, locked them in a storage container and celebrated.
The five men met at the storage unit to inspect the weapons on May 8. Twelve days later, they drove to the Bronx with the bombs.