Judge questions FBI's role in post-9/11 sting and orders 3 of 'Newburgh Four' freed from prison
Three men ensnarled in an infamous post-9/11 terrorism sting have been ordered freed from prison by a judge who deemed their lengthy sentences “unduly harsh and unjust” and decried the FBI's role in radicalising them in a plot to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down National Guard planes.
Onta Williams, David Williams and Laguerre Payen — three of what's known as the “Newburgh Four" — were “hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals" caught up in a scheme driven by overzealous FBI agents and a dodgy informant, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said in her ruling Thursday.
“The real lead conspirator was the United States,” McMahon wrote in a 28-page decision granting the men's request for compassionate release, effective in three months.
The judge, citing concerns for the men's health and her own qualms about the case, cut the 25-year mandatory minimum sentences she imposed on the men in 2011 to time served plus 90 days. A fourth man, James Cromitie, has not sought early release and is expected to complete his prison sentence in 2030.
“The 14-plus years that the moving defendants have already served for starring in the Government’s made for TV movie of May 20, 2008, is at the upper end of what the court would have imposed if it had been free to fashion a sentence that accurately reflected the nature and circumstance of the offense and the history and characteristics of the impoverished and susceptible criminals who committed it,” McMahon wrote.
Delaying the men's release until the end of October will give probation officials time to prepare and a lawyer for Payen, who has a severe mental illness, a chance to line up supportive housing for him, the judge said.
Payen, Cromitie and the Williamses were arrested in 2009 , during a period of heightened public and law enforcement concern about the threat of terror strikes hatched within the U.S. by supporters of foreign extremists.
Officials portrayed Cromitie as the ringleader of a “chilling plot” among “extremely violent men” loyal to a Pakistani terrorist group. A court complaint described him as a man seething with anti-American and antisemitic sentiment and eager to translate those feelings into bloody action.
Prosecutors said the defendants had spent months scouting targets and securing what they thought were explosives and a surface-to-air missile, aiming to shoot down planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York, and blow up synagogues in Riverdale, a heavily Jewish part of the Bronx. They were arrested there after allegedly planting bombs that were, in fact, packed with inert explosives supplied by the FBI.
From the start, relatives said the four were men who were down on their luck after doing prison time. Payen’s lawyer said he has intellectual disabilities and schizophrenia.
The men’s lawyers soon raised questions about entrapment — a legal defense that argues that people were enticed into illegal conduct they wouldn’t have otherwise committed.
Calling the case “a government-inspired creation from day one,” the defense lawyers said an oft-used federal informant, Shaheed Hussain , tried to stir up the men with rhetoric and went on to choose the targets, offer to pay lots of money, buy the defendants groceries, provide the fake bombs and missile, and act as chauffeur. The defense portrayed Hussain as a self-serving manipulator who was trying to please the government after his own, unrelated fraud conviction.
Jurors deliberated for eight days before convicting the men in 2010. Three years later, they lost an appeal .
Hussain also worked with the FBI on another sting targeting an Albany pizza shop owner and an imam, who said they were tricked in a case involving a business loan using money from a fictitious missile sale. Both were convicted of money laundering and conspiring to aid a terrorist group.
A few years later, Hussain came under renewed scrutiny when a stretch limo crashed in rural Schoharie, New York , killing 20 people. Hussain owned the limo company.
After it emerged that the limo had failed a safety inspection a month before the crash and that the slain driver didn’t have a commercial license, Hussain’s son, Nauman – the company’s operator -- was charged with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter . His lawyer blamed a repair shop for the vehicle’s problems and said his client was being treated like a scapegoat.
Nauman Hussain was convicted this May and is serving five to 15 years in prison.