Riverdale Press : Rapid arrest culminates year of patient planning

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Rapid arrest culminates year of patient planning

By N. Clark Judd | May 28, 2009

Four men are in jail in Westchester County following what prosecutors say was a May 20 attempt to bomb two Riverdale synagogues.

An army of state and city police, as well as federal law enforcement agents, descended upon a sport-utility vehicle parked on Independence Avenue at around 9 p.m. that night and arrested James Cromitie, David Williams, 28, Onta Williams, 32, and Laguerre Payen, 27, who are charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles.

The arrest was violent and quick and its organizers managed to keep it a secret, even to police at the 50th Precinct. Capt. John D’Adamo, the Precinct commander, told The Press that he was the only one at the Kingsbridge stationhouse who was informed of the operation. It had been developing for many months, but the captain did not learn of it until the day before, according to a law enforcement source.

Although no one at either synagogue was warned of the threat, an undercover officer was in the Riverdale Temple “on a pretext” the source said.

When it went down, the arrest went according to plan. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said it could not have taken longer than 25 minutes.

Lindsay Sherman, who was in her Independence Avenue apartment nearby, heard what sounded like gunshots — likely the shattering glass — and shouting. Daniel Langer, sitting on his terrace, saw flashing lights as law enforcement sprang into action, pushing a dark-skinned man — apparently one of the suspects — into a police car.

Marilyn Sopher, who lives about a third of a mile from Riverdale Temple, reported hearing more aircraft over her home than she had ever heard before.

Riverdale Yacht Club members who had gathered for a cocktail party at 6 p.m. noticed a police boat patrolling near the Hudson shore. They were told that the commissioner was coming to the club for dinner and that the boat was in position to protect him. In fact, the boat was not supposed to be so obviously placed, and within minutes nothing could be seen but the ripples of its wake.

Prosecutors say the four men procured what they thought were improvised explosive devices containing C-4 plastic explosive, which they planted in two cars, one outside of Riverdale Jewish Center and another outside of Riverdale Temple. They planned to travel to Newburgh, N.Y., where they live, and then fire a Stinger surface-to-air missile — which was incapable of being fired and was provided by an FBI informant — at military aircraft at Stewart International Airport, prosecutors say. The airport is also used by the New York Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force, which flies C-5, C-17 and C-130 cargo planes from there to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the criminal complaint against the defendants.

But they didn’t get that far, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said May 21 at a press conference. As soon as all four men returned to their SUV, police ambushed them, shattering the vehicle’s windows and pulling out the alleged would-be bombers. The men were then whisked from the scene.

Approached at the federal courthouse in White Plains, N.Y. May 21, where the four men appeared briefly before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa M. Smith, all the defendants’ attorneys declined to comment.

All but Mr. Payen arrived in Ms. Smith’s courtroom that morning, hands shackled to their waists. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder began describing what the men are accused of doing, Mr. Cromitie and Mr. Williams appeared to frown and shake their heads as if frustrated.

Mr. Cromitie requested medical treatment for injuries on his back and arms that he apparently sustained from the shattered windows during the arrest. Mr. Payen had what appeared to be stitches under a bandage on his forehead when he appeared in court later that afternoon.

Mr. Cromitie admitted in court to having smoked marijuana the day of his arrest.

Mr. Payen, who told the judge in a separate appearance that afternoon that he cannot read or write in English, appeared to barely understand what was going on. Mr. Payen’s attorney told the judge that the alleged co-conspirator was schizophrenic or bipolar, or both, and taking medications for both conditions.

His attorney, Marilyn Reader, did not return a follow-up call requesting comment on his physical condition that day.

These brief moments in the public eye, prosecutors say, come after nearly a year under close watch by investigators. According to the criminal complaint against them, an FBI cooperating witness met Mr. Cromitie in June 2008 at a Newburgh mosque. In the ensuing months, Mr. Cromitie became increasingly specific in his desire to do harm to the United States, prosecutors charge.

Since last October, Mr. Cromitie and his alleged co-conspirators repeatedly met the federal informant at the Newburgh house investigators had wired with video and audio equipment, according to the criminal complaint.

Other news outlets have begun to explore the FBI informer’s extensive role in the plot. The New York Times reported May 23 that members of the Newburgh mosque in question believe the informer was a man they called Maqsood, of Pakistani descent, who hung out after services and offered cellphones, jobs and computers to young congregants.

The mosque’s imam and some of its members figured “Maqsood” was a government informant, The Times reported, and shied away from him.

Unless the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York secures a grand jury indictment before June 5, the alleged conspirators’ next court appearance will be that day before Ms. Smith.