AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - Three self-described anarchists who pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up a four-lane highway bridge near Cleveland were sentenced to prison on Tuesday by a federal judge.
Douglas Wright, 27, Brandon Baxter, 20 and Connor Stevens, 20, pleaded guilty on September 5 to conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, along with other related charges.
U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. gave Wright 11 1/2 years, Baxter just under 10 years and Stevens 8 years in prison. After serving their sentence, they will be on probation for life - they will have to regularly check in with law enforcement officers.
Prosecutors had asked for 30 years for Wright and 25 years for Baxter, who they claimed had violent criminal pasts and were the leaders of the failed plot. Prosecutors had sought 19 years for Stevens.
The sentences constitute “a big rejection of the government’s position,” Stevens’ defense attorney, Terry Gilbert, said outside of the courthouse.
The men were three of five accused of plotting in April to blow up a bridge 30 miles south of Cleveland that runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
They were arrested after leaving two toolboxes at the base of the bridge that contained inert C-4 explosives purchased from an undercover FBI agent.
After placing what they thought to be active explosives, the five men drove to a restaurant and used a cellphone to try to set off the bomb. FBI agents have said that the public was never in danger.
A fourth suspect, Anthony Hayne, 35, pleaded guilty in July and agreed to testify against the others in a trial that was to have started in September. Hayne is expected to face more than 15 years in prison when he is sentenced on Wednesday.
The fifth suspect, Joshua Stafford, has been undergoing competency testing.
Supporters of the three men packed the Akron courtroom on Tuesday.
Andy Baxter, father of Brandon Baxter, told the court his son was manipulated by an FBI informant.
“Why don’t they send someone in these groups to calm them down rather than instigate?” Baxter asked.
James Stevens, father of Connor Stevens, told U.S. Attorney Duncan Brown he knew his son was guilty but added, “So are you.”
Connor Stevens told the court he would get his high school equivalency degree and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in prison.
“I thought that trying to improve the world was futile,” he told the judge. “Today I am not the same person.”
The FBI has said the men had no ties to foreign militant groups. They considered several possible plots, starting with smoke grenades and then moving up to explosives, prosecutors said in court documents.
The investigation into the group began in October 2011 when the informant met the five men at an anti-Wall Street Occupy Cleveland rally. Authorities paid the informant more than $5,000 as part of the investigation, according to an FBI affidavit.
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach told reporters after a hearing in September that his office was not spying on protest groups such as Occupy and did not entrap the five men.
The Ohio FBI undercover operation was one of a number of stings by federal authorities in recent years aimed at preventing attacks by foreign and domestic militants.
A Moroccan man pleaded guilty in June to attempting a suicide bombing of the U.S. Capitol in Washington in February. An undercover agent drove the suspect on the day of the planned attack.
Authorities also used undercover officers to gather evidence at the Chicago summit of the NATO military alliance in May. Three men described as anarchists were arrested then and accused of attempting to make Molotov cocktails to hurl at police.
Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Bill Trott and Mohammad Zargham