‘NATO 3’ plotted attacks on Obama election HQ, Rahm’s house, police stations, prosecutors say
By FRANK MAIN, MARK KONKOL AND MICHAEL LANSU Staff Reporters May 19, 2012 8:08AM
- ‘Black Bloc’ profile: Brent Vincent Betterly inspired by revolutionaries
- ‘Black Bloc’ profile: Jared Chase has done ‘dumb things, but nothing like this.’
- ‘Black Bloc’ profile: Brian Church allegedly asked ever see a “cop on fire”?
- The charges against the 'NATO 3'
- Black Bloc a tactic, not a group
- The brides wore white, the cops wore black
- Two more face NATO bomb charges
Updated: August 23, 2012 9:50AM
When Billy Vassilakis and his girlfriend moved into their new place — a $600-a-month two-bedroom with carpeted floors and a linoleum-tiled kitchen in Bridgeport — they didn’t bother getting much furniture. They needed big empty rooms for visitors. Strangers were coming from across the country, a dozen at a time, to protest at the NATO Summit. Vassilakis, a community activist who grew up in suburban Naperville, put his phone number on an Occupy Chicago housing board and met personally with any takers before deciding if they were welcome. “There was a constant influx of people,” Vassilakis’s girlfriend Zoe Sigman said. “It was really a really awesome atmosphere in the apartment.” Prosecutors paint a different picture of life in the sparsely furnished apartment at 1013 W. 32nd St. They say some out-of-town visitors were “domestic terrorists” intent on hurting people. Three men — Brian Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Jared Chase, 27, of Keene, N.H.; and Brent Vincent Betterly, 24 of Oakland Park, Fla. — allegedly plotted to firebomb President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s North Side home, as well as police stations and squad cars.
They needed big empty rooms for visitors. Strangers were coming from across the country, a dozen at a time, to protest at the NATO Summit.
Vassilakis, a community activist who grew up in suburban Naperville, put his phone number on an Occupy Chicago housing board and met personally with any takers before deciding if they were welcome.
“There was a constant influx of people,” Vassilakis’s girlfriend Zoe Sigman said. “It was really a really awesome atmosphere in the apartment.”
Prosecutors paint a different picture of life in the sparsely furnished apartment at 1013 W. 32nd St.
They say some out-of-town visitors were “domestic terrorists” intent on hurting people.
Three men — Brian Church, 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Jared Chase, 27, of Keene, N.H.; and Brent Vincent Betterly, 24 of Oakland Park, Fla. — allegedly plotted to firebomb President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s North Side home, as well as police stations and squad cars.
Undercover Chicago Police officers who infiltrated the group were with the suspects when they allegedly made Molotov cocktails — bottles filled with flammable liquid that are used as firebombs, sources said.
After raiding the apartment Wednesday, police said they found written plans for assembling pipe bombs and confiscated a mortar gun, swords, a crossbow, a throwing star, ninja knives and blades with brass knuckles, too.
Law enforcement officials said they asked a judge for a “no-knock” search warrant because the protesters were getting ready to put the explosive devices into a car and move them to another location.
Police feared they might lose track of the weapons and firebombs if they didn’t move in late Wednesday.
One of the alleged conspirators had warned that Chicago “doesn’t know what it’s in for” and promised “the city will never be the same” after they unleashed their wrath, prosecutors said in court.
On Saturday, the men were charged in Cook County Criminal Court with possession of an explosive or incendiary device, conspiracy to commit terrorism and providing material support to terrorism.
It’s the first time anyone has been charged in Illinois with the state anti-terrorism law passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, officials said.
Sigman says she never saw even a hint that her roomies were anything but peaceful demonstrators.
“I don’t know, man. I have no idea. They confiscated my guitar, too,” the 22-year-old said. “I was in court [Saturday] and my jaw dropped when I heard the charges. It was completely odd. The opposite of everything that I had felt and seen and done in the apartment.”
A Cook County judge Saturday ordered Church, Chase and Betterly each held on $1.5 million bond. Prosecutors indicated Church was the ringleader.
“This represents a victory, not a failure, in preventing something from happening, ” Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez called the suspects “domestic terrorists,” adding “these men were here to hurt people.”
But outside court Saturday, Michael Deutsch, the attorney representing the men now known as the “NATO 3,” said they were railroaded — “a Chicago Police set-up, entrapment to the highest degree.”
Deutsch said three undercover cops nicknamed “Nadia,” “Mo” and “Glove” befriended his clients on May 1: May Day, an international day of labor solidarity.
Two of the nine arrested people were themselves undercover cops, Deutsch said. And those undercover officers “egged on” the accused men, he said.
“From our information, the so-called incendiary devices and the plans to attack police stations — that’s all coming from the minds of the police informants and not coming from our clients, who are non-violent protesters,” he said.
Prosecutors, however, said in court that the men had anything but peaceful intentions. They labeled each of the NATO 3 as self-described anarchists who consider themselves part of the “Black Bloc” movement that’s wreaked havoc at past global gatherings of global leaders, such as NATO.
The alleged anarchists planned to use torn bandanas jammed into gasoline-filled beer bottle bombs as wicks, prosecutors said. They allegedly planned to attack four police stations with Molotov cocktails in hopes of slowing down the police response to the higher-profile attacks.
The conspirators bought gasoline for those firebombs at the BP station at 31st and Halsted, across the street from the Deering District police station, prosecutors said.
While filling the beer bottle bombs, Church asked fellow protesters if they had ever seen “a cop on fire” and suggested firebombing the police station, prosecutors said.
On Saturday, police confiscated security tapes from the station’s four security cameras as evidence, BP clerk Andrew Mills said.
Prosecutors also said Church allegedly said he wanted to recruit 16 people — split into four cells — to conduct the attacks. He also wanted to buy several assault rifles so that if police pointed a gun at him he could “point one back.”
Asked if he was sure that men planned actions of violence, McCarthy said, “They weren’t going trick or treating.”
‘Seemed like punk kids’
The Bridgeport flat police raided sticks out. It’s taller than the other buildings on the block. And neighbors noticed the apartment was swollen with young protestors.
Chase, Church and Betterly spent a lot of time on the back porch — drinking and smoking cigarettes. One night they tossed firecrackers toward the alley, a neighbor said.
“Seemed like they were more inclined to be partying than doing work or something like that,” neighbor Ollie Anthony said. “They seemed like punk kids.”
Sigman said their 10 guests did like to relax, drink and smoke cigarettes like a lot of 20-somethings. But they also spent days volunteering at a Bridgeport food pantry.
“They volunteered so we could get some food. We’d cook big meals. A lot of it was what we warmly referred to as ‘vegan s--- over rice,” the former coffee shop counter girl said.
Despite the number of people crowded in the place, there wasn’t much arguing.
“We had communal discussions about issues,” Sigman said. “But most of the time we were kidding around, hanging out and sharing stories about our lives.”
Every morning as she left for work, the visitors ventured out into the neighborhood to volunteer at different places.
Betterly, an electrician with strawberry-blond dreadlocks, often volunteered to help with rewiring at The Plant — an urban aquaponic farm in a former meat packing plant in the old Chicago Stockyards site, Sigman said. And Betterly even helped her move some of her stuff out of her old apartment into the new one.
“Brent was one of my favorite people that I met who traveled with Occupy. Very genial, a real loving guy,” she said.
“He was very open, a joy to give hugs and always happy and joking. I’m really worried about him.”
Chase and Church were mostly “quiet and shy and spent a lot of time sleeping,” Sigman said.
The three defendants met in Fort Lauderdale as part of an Occupy group. Chase posted on Facebook that the building he was staying in was raided by FBI and the police. “F--- you pigs,” he wrote.
They drove to Chicago in the red Ford Taurus that Church’s stepfather Bill Ennis gave him.
Ennis said his stepson is a good kid who has “problems with authority.” Chase was in South Florida studying to be a paramedic, but dropped out after meeting people involved in the Occupy movement, Ennis said.
“He got caught up in the hoopla of anarchy,” Ennis said. “The boy stepped in s--- this time.”
‘We believe it is a set-up’
A more violent story was told by officers who infiltrated the group, secretly recording what went on in the Bridgeport flat, sources said. FBI and Secret Service analysis of computers and cell phones also helped build the case.
But Deutsch, the attorney for the trio, told Judge Edward Harmening the undercover officers were the ones trying to draw the others into illegal activity.
“We believe it is a set-up … to discredit the protesters that have come here to non-violently protest,” Deutsch said.
“They are not anarchists. They are not members of the Black Bloc organization. … This is a way to stir up prejudice against the people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Another defense attorney, Sarah Gelsomino of the National Lawyers Guild, claimed there was a “pattern of harassment against the men. They were previously pulled over by Chicago cops while in a car near a CVS pharmacy and questioned about their protest plans, she said.
“All three of these guys, interestingly, were in the car about a week ago that was stopped and harassed by the Chicago Police Department,” she said. “They then posted video online in an attempt to expose the police misconduct. Each of those three are now being charged with these crimes.”
The traffic stop was the work of beat officers not involved in the terrorism investigation, a police source said.
‘Refugees in our own city’
Sigman and Vassilakis haven’t moved back into their apartment, and they don’t plan on it yet.
“We went to get some things, but we’re not going back home,” Sigman said. “We were in a place to offer housing to people desperate for it, and now we’re in a situation where we have to move every night. We don’t know if we’re being targeted. We don’t want to stay in one place for too long.”
Sigman was invited to speak at Sunday’s anti-NATO rally before her apartment was raided and her visitors were marked as terrorists. She plans to step to the microphone as planned.
“I’m going to speak out against police oppression, the links between that oppression and the powers of the world at NATO and G8,” she said.
Sigman and Vassiglakis remain “scared, confused and very uncomfortable” about the future.
“We’ve been driven from our home,” Vassilakis said. “We’re refugees in our own city.”
For them at least, their visitors’ prediction might prove true.
Chicago may never be the same.
Contributing: Natasha Korecki, Rummana Hussain, Tina Sfondeles, Kim Janssen and Dan Mihalopoulos