Were they terrorists “ready for war” or mouthy “goofs” looking to protest and party?
The first-ever terrorism prosecution by Cook County authorities began Tuesday with jurors hearing dramatically different views of the evidence against two men from Broward County and one from New Hampshire who are charged with plotting terrorist attacks during the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.
Their attorneys told jurors their clients were just loudmouthed young men, often drunk, who were goaded on by undercover police officers desperate to make an arrest to help their superiors justify the enormous security costs that came with hosting the summit.
The attorneys referred to the 1968 Democratic convention crackdown and the Haymarket Riot as they told jurors the city had once again overreached, charging three would-be vandals from Florida as if they were committed al-Qaida terrorists.
“This is not a case of terrorism at all — it doesn't even come close,” said Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney for alleged ringleader Brian Church, 22 of Fort Lauderdale. “That's why this case is so extremely important. It's a case about who the state can brand a terrorist, which is the most damning and prejudicial accusation of all.”
Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Thrun began his opening statement by quoting one of the most shocking remarks captured by wires worn by two undercover Chicago police officers, in this case as Molotov cocktails were being assembled.
“Are you ready to see a police officer on fire?” said Thrun, quoting Church, who was also recorded talking of burning police stations and squad cars.
“That is the iconic image that these defendants wanted on the world stage,” Thrun said. “These defendants wanted to set fire to the ultimate symbol of law and order.”
Now known as the NATO 3, they were arrested soon after assembling four of the firebombs with the two undercover cops outside a Bridgeport neighborhood apartment four days before world leaders met in Chicago. They are being tried together before a single jury.
Thrun promised jurors that they would “hear the crime as it happens,” saying audio recordings would be played that capture the “clink of the bottles” being taken out and then filled with gasoline as the Molotov cocktails were made.
He said the three men were united by a common anger and came to Chicago “to do battle with police in the street.” Church also spoke of destroying Chase Tower in the Loop and shooting an arrow with a note attached through a window of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home, he said.
“They intended to commit an act of terror on the world stage in Chicago,” he said, noting recordings captured them talking about “cooking napalm.”
Attorneys for the three described them as down-on-their-luck young men who found hope and inspiration in the Occupy movement.
Church, described as an alcoholic and marijuana addict, was a braggart plied with alcohol by undercover officers — even though he was only 20 — and often “drunk out of his mind,” Gelsomino said.
She said Church is “an exaggerator with delusions of grandeur” who is more often heard on the recordings asking “Can I get another beer?” or saying “I can't leave until my weed guy comes” than working to fulfill any of the plots he discussed.
“You will hear the growing desperation in their voices when nothing happened,” Gelsomino said of the undercover officers. “He fell victim to officers who manipulated him. He was a young, immature kid with a big mouth.”
Brent Betterly, 25, was an unemployed electrician facing homelessness in Oakland Park while in a custody battle with his ex-girlfriend. His involvement in the case was little more than “banter, exaggeration, one-upmanship and inappropriate jokes made on beer-soaked evenings,” said his attorney, Lillian McCartin.
In an unusual bit of courtroom theater, attorney Thomas Anthony Durkin paused in his opening statement to ask his client, Jared Chase, 29, a question about his political views.
“What do you call yourself? A revolutionary what?” Durkin asked.
“Constitutionalist,” Chase responded with a grin.