ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Two Illinois militia members pleaded guilty Thursday in the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque, admitting that they hoped the attack would scare Muslims into leaving the country.
Michael McWhorter, 29, and Joe Morris, 23, of Clarence, Illinois, pleaded guilty in federal court to five counts that also included an attempted bombing of an Illinois abortion clinic. Each faces at least 35 years in prison.
A third defendant, 47-year-old Michael Hari, whom prosecutors said directed the bombing, remains in federal custody in Illinois.
Hari is portrayed as the ringleader of the White Rabbits militia group that included McWhorter and Morris. Morris’ attorney, Robert Richman, said Morris merely followed the lead of a man he had known as a father figure since he was 9.
“Hari essentially weaponized Joe Morris,” Richman said.
The August 2017 attack on the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in suburban Bloomington shook the community. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota, called for life sentences for McWhorter and Morris, saying that would send the message that such acts won’t be tolerated.
He noted the men’s admission that they wanted to inspire fear in Muslims. He added: “We’re not going anywhere.”
Prosecutors said the men threw a pipe bomb into the mosque that caused an explosion and fire that damaged the imam’s office just as morning prayers were about to begin. No one was hurt. The indictment alleged that the men interfered with Muslims’ free expression of religious liberty.
The counts against all three include damaging property because of its religious character, forcibly obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs, conspiracy to commit felonies with fire and explosives, and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. Hari was also charged with possessing an unregistered destructive device.
They were also charged for a failed attack on a Champaign, Illinois, abortion clinic in November 2017. A pipe bomb they allegedly threw into the clinic did not explode.
Prosecutors allege that Hari built the pipe bomb for the mosque attack and rented a pickup truck that the men drove to Minnesota. The indictment says they stopped along the way to buy diesel fuel and gasoline that was mixed in a plastic container. It alleges that Morris broke a window with a hammer when they got to the mosque and tossed the container inside, while McWhorter lit the fuse on the bomb and threw it through the broken window as Hari waited back at the truck. The indictment says they then drove home.
According to weapons and other charges in Illinois, the men also conspired to rob or attempt to rob Walmart stores and attempted to extort Canadian National Railway by threatening to damage tracks if the railroad didn’t pay ransom.
A fourth man who was accused in the Illinois case, Ellis Mack of Clarence, has already pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence and unlawful possession of a machine gun. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in April.
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