NEW YORK – For weeks, a jury listened to tapes of James Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East and talking to an informant — paid by the FBI and wearing a wire — about how to get revenge by blowing up New York City synagogues and shooting down military planes.
Videotape showed the men inspecting and practicing with fake weapons — part of a plot federal prosecutors said was all Cromitie's idea. The defense dismissed the sting as a "movie written, produced and directed" by the FBI and never a real threat to New Yorkers.
Jurors deliberated for eight days at the trial in federal court in Manhattan before rejecting an entrapment defense and siding with the government by finding Cromitie and three co-defendants guilty of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges.
Cromitie and David Williams were convicted of all eight counts, while Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen were convicted of seven of eight counts. Sentencing was set for March 24; the defendants could face up to life in prison.
Afterward, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement called homegrown terrorism a "serious threat" and added: "We are safer today as a result of these convictions." He said the defendants agreed to plant bombs and use missiles "they thought were very real weapons of terrorism."
Defense lawyers said they will appeal.
"This is a miscarriage of justice — just like the whole trial and case," said one of the attorneys, Susanne Brody. Another, Samuel Braverman, said his client was stunned by the verdict.
The trial featured 13 days of testimony by undercover informant Shahed Hussain, a 53-year-old Pakistani immigrant that the FBI assigned in 2008 to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about an hour north of New York. After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, he told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terror organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.
Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, the 44-year-old Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs. They say he also recruited the other men — Onta Williams, 34, David Williams, 29, and Payen, 28 — to help him shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles. Onta and David Williams are not related.
Agents arrested the men in 2009 after they planted the devices — fakes supplied by the FBI — in the Riverdale section of the Bronx while under heavy surveillance.
In one of several videos played at trial, the men were seen inspecting a shoulder missile launcher in a bugged warehouse in Connecticut two weeks before the planned attack. At the end of the tape, Cromitie, two of his cohorts and the informant bow their heads in prayer.
"I'm ready to do this damn thing," Cromitie said in another tape. "Anything for the cause."
The defense sought to portray Hussain as a master manipulator who entrapped a crew of aimless nobodies. It also argued he would do anything to win the government's favor and escape serious punishment in a separate fraud case.
Hussain "is a liar, straight up," Cromitie's lawyer, Vincent Briccetti, told jurors in closing arguments. "He's not just any old liar — he lied to you."
Added Briccetti: "Without the help of the FBI, Cromitie wasn't going to do anything."
Prosecutors said the tapes proved the defendants didn't need prompting to launch an attack.
"The FBI did exactly what it's supposed to do — it caught four dangerous men before they could do any real harm," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin said during closing arguments. "Ordinary people wouldn't even dream of what these defendants did."