CLEVELAND – Three men who pleaded guilty in a plot to bomb a highway bridge should be sentenced as terrorists, making them subject to harsher prison terms, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge David Dowd's ruling upheld a government request to impose stricter sentences based on a "terrorist enhancement" for the trio. The ruling that the three were trying to intimidate the government expands their possible sentences from five or six years to 15 to 30 years or more.
The judge will sentence Connor Stevens, 20, of Berea; Brandon Baxter, 20, of Lakewood; and Douglas Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, on Tuesday in Akron.
The men were among five arrested in an FBI sting operation targeting a highway bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron. The FBI has said the public was never in danger and the device was a dud provided by an informant.
The suspects were described by the government as self-proclaimed anarchists who acted out of anger against corporate America and the government.
Stevens, Baxter and Wright pleaded guilty to conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, knowingly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to damage property with explosives. There was no plea deal.
A fourth man who pleaded guilty first and agreed to testify against the others in return for leniency will be sentenced Wednesday. The fifth defendant is undergoing a psychiatric exam.
Wright faces the toughest sentence, up to 33 years, because he "was clearly the leader in the activities of the five defendants," the judge said. Stevens was a "minor participant" and his sentence guideline was calculated at 15 to 19 years. Baxter could get 22 to 27 years.
The judge alternately calculated possible prison terms for the trio if the "terrorist enhancement" is successfully challenged. In that case, each man would face five or six years in prison, Dowd said.
Terry Gilbert, the attorney representing Stevens, said Thursday the judge's guideline calculations were a starting point for Tuesday's hearing. He said the defense would ask for leniency based on issues including the age of the men, their family backgrounds and an informant's role.
The attorney for Baxter declined to comment on the judge's ruling. A message seeking comment was left for Wright's attorney.
The defense has called the investigation a case of entrapment, with the informant guiding the way, and said the plot was more an act of vandalism than anti-government terrorism. They asked for sentences in the range of the mandatory minimum of five years.
The government said the plot "was meant to convey a message to the civilian population, the corporate world, the financial system, and all levels of government."