A pair of gray-haired north Georgia military veterans were sentenced on Wednesday to five years in prison for plotting to blow up government buildings as part of an alleged homegrown terrorist plot.
Prosecutors say Frederick Thomas and Dan Roberts were fueled by anti-government anger and made plans during a series of clandestine meetings to attack federal buildings in Atlanta.
Thomas and Roberts had both pleaded guilty four months ago to illegal weapons and explosives charges. But on Wednesday they told a federal judge in Gainesville that that the violent talk was just that and they never intended to follow through.
"What we were talking about ... all of it was bull," Thomas told U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Story.
"My intent was not to cause harm to anyone," Roberts said.
Prosecutors say Roberts, 68, of Toccoa, and Thomas, 73, of Cleveland, Ga., targeted the IRS and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives buildings in downtown Atlanta.
Between March and November of 2011, "They were talking about killing judges, killing IRS personnel, killing federal employees," assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Brown told the judge.
"Why? They were disgruntled with the federal government."
Respective defense attorneys said discussions the two men had with an FBI informant and co-defendants Ray Adams and Samuel Crump, who haven't entered into plea deals with prosecutors, were about plans to form a militia to defend Georgia in the event of a catastrophe.
"This was the trash talk of old soldiers," Roberts' attorney, Michael Trost said.
Thomas' attorney said his client had been amassing an arsenal for nearly nine years in preparation for the worst.
"It was anticipatory," Jeffrey Ertel said. "He believed the government was going to collapse."
Story lamented being forced to sentence the veterans, pointing to the importance of the men to their families, as well as their contributions to the country and to their communities.
"I respect so much about your life that is good and positive," he said.
Roberts is a Vietnam War veteran, and Thomas spent more than three decades in the military before becoming an engineer, family said.
Thomas suffers from emphysema and heart disease, and Roberts' family said he devoted his time to rescuing injured animals.
In November, when they were indicted, federal agents found caches of firearms and ingredients for making toxic weapons and explosives in their homes.
In a deal with prosecutors, Thomas and Roberts pleaded guilty to charges that they conspired to obtain an unregistered explosive device and a firearm silencer.
But Brown suggested that a silencer isn't used to defend oneself.
"Isn't the whole purpose of a silencer to muffle your round offensive?" he asked the court. "If someone comes into my home and I shoot them, I don't need a silencer."
Brown played for the courtroom recordings made by FBI informant Joe Sims.
"Our primary targets ... ATF, the IRS or people in their hierarchy," Thomas said during a meeting Brown said was recorded in March 2011. "We would research who they are, stalk them so we know their habits so we can shoot the guy or gal ... and all the judges in the DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice]."
In June 2011, Thomas was recorded critiquing the work of Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted of blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building on April19, 1995, killing 168 men, women and children and injuring more than 800 others.
"He killed kids," Thomas said. "We don't want to do anything to harm children."
Trost and Ertel pointed out that, over time, the men backed away from their violent rhetoric, but were urged to continue with their plot by Sims, a one-time fellow Georgia militia member.
"When he was released from jail, Mr. Sims promised the FBI that he would deliver the [plotters]," Ertel said. "He was the ember starting this smoke."
Thomas' and Roberts' family chimed in with accusations of entrapment against the informant and against the federal agents Sims was aiding.
"I think that the government has overstepped its bounds when it can induce a person to commit crime," Jack Roberts, Roberts' younger brother told the court.
Amy Sasser, Thomas' daughter, said the informant was "85 percent responsible" for the trouble her father and his friends were in.
"He was the one who pushed them," Sasser said after the sentencing. "And the federal agent [working undercover] said, if they didn't go through with buying the items, someone would get hurt."
Story reigned in the finger-pointing, however.
"I understand the need to blame the government or folks trying to gain favor with the government," the judge said. "But when they made their plea, I asked them would these [weapons] be used to hurt federal employees, and they said 'yes.'"
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