It was April 10, and the young men who later pleaded guilty to an imagined plot to blow up the state Route 82 bridge were discussing other potential targets with an FBI undercover agent.
Douglas L. Wright, of Indianapolis, was carrying on about striking a cargo ship passing under a bridge in the Cleveland Flats.
When Wright pointed out how difficult such an attack would be, using a submerged bomb attached to the ship’s hull, he began talking to his friend from Lakewood, co-conspirator Brian Baxter, about the consequences.
“If we get caught for this,” Baxter said, “we’re going to Guantanamo Bay.”
Wright intoned: “We’re going away forever!”
The recorded, transcribed FBI conversations came to light Monday in a lengthy pre-sentencing hearing in Akron before U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr.
Three conspirators — Wright, Baxter and 20-year-old Connor Stephens of Berea — will be sentenced Nov. 19.
Government lawyers previously told the judge they will ask for sentences of 30 years to life for all three. The sentencing range is five years, a mandatory minimum term, to life.
Defense lawyers have said they will ask for much less time, somewhere in the range of 51 to 63 months under federal sentencing rules. They contend the young men, all in their 20s, were pushed, prodded and financed to carry out the plot by the informant — a so-called CHS in FBI terminology.
In fact, in an earlier hearing Cleveland attorney Terry Gilbert said the plot was “completely orchestrated by the FBI.” On Monday, he said the penalties prosecutors requested were “draconian.”
“These are just a bunch of kids who were easily manipulated, vulnerable,” Gilbert told Dowd.
The other defendants await their fate.
Joshua S. Stafford, 23, of Cleveland, remains in federal custody undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. He is the lone defendant still facing trial.
Anthony Michael Hayne, 35, of Cleveland, who pleaded guilty to use of weapons of mass destruction in connection with interstate commerce — as did Wright, Baxter and Stephens — apparently will testify against his fellow conspirators as the hearings continue in Dowd’s court.
Hayne is facing 14 to 19 years in exchange for his plea and willingness to testify for the government.
The bombing attempt, using what turned out to be fake, military-grade plastic explosives the informant paid for and provided, was only that. And no one was hurt.
But it became clear Monday that the conspirators talked openly to the informant about many potential targets in order to strike back at what was termed “The One Percent” — the USA’s richest men and corporate entities.
Among them, according to the once-secret FBI recordings, were corporate signs above downtown Cleveland banks, the Horsehoe Casino, hospitals, cargo ships, Federal Reserve banks, the Detroit-Superior Bridge and what was termed the highly secretive anti-terrorist agency, the “Fusion Center,” on the upper floors of the downtown Cleveland justice building.
At one point in the FBI recordings, Wright talked about a desire to “blow a big chunk out of the f---ing Federal Reserve.”
In another segment, the conspirators talked about using a “rocket-propelled grenade” to strike inside the so-called Fusion Center, prosecutors said.
Finally, on April 20, Wright and Stephens, led by the informant to that point, chose the state Route 82 bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Ryan Taylor, an FBI agent who hand-picked the informant, testified Monday that it was Wright who first suggested the bridge. It is a sprawling structure, more than 1,100 feet long, standing on national park grounds between Summit and Cuyahoga counties.
On April 30, all five defendants and the informant went there and deployed — or so they thought — two C-4 plastic explosives on the lower, backside bridge beams, Ryan said.
He confirmed that Stafford and Wright affixed the dud bombs to the bridge base, while the others, including the informant, acted as lookouts.
Later that night, however, they were arrested by a team of FBI officers as they attempted to remotely detonate the dud bombs after leaving an Applebee’s restaurant off state Route 480, court testimony showed.
On the drive there, Stephens talked about the seriousness of their strike.
He was recorded saying: “I was talking the biggest act of terrorism — the only act of terrorism that I know of — in Cleveland since the 1960s.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.