Days before the 2012 NATO summit, Chicago authorities made national headlines when they announced the arrests of three "domestic terrorists" who had plotted attacks against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home, President Barack Obama's re-election headquarters and four police stations.
"We had to act," Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters soon after the three were arrested the day they assembled four Molotov cocktails. "We did not want to take this case down as quickly as we did, but we had to because of the imminent threat."
But as the terrorism trial — the first conducted by Cook County prosecutors — goes into its second week, the portrait that emerges from undercover recordings and courtroom testimony isn't of a deadly terrorist cell looking to spark widespread fear but of bumbling young men led by a stoner trying to impress a female police officer on her first undercover assignment.
Alleged ringleader Brian Church, 22, and Jared Chase, 29, had made plans to use a single slingshot and marbles to break windows at Obama's re-election campaign headquarters in the Prudential Building but couldn't figure out how to find the address online.
The two, who drove here from Florida with third defendant Brent Betterly, 25, built a 7-foot-long plywood shield with screws jutting from the front and painted with the words, "Austerity ain't gonna happen." But they couldn't figure out how to get that downtown, according to the recordings.
Church, who is often heard bragging about his archery skills, once said he wanted to shoot an arrow with a note attached through a window of Emanuel's Ravenswood home but never brought it up again. He built a "mortar" with firecrackers, a piece of wood and PVC pipe but then re-purposed the pipe to make a flagpole.
He spoke of attacking four police stations and said he'd done reconnaissance on two but didn't want to do a Google search to find another two stations.
Defense attorneys do not dispute that their clients had incendiary devices but told jurors that their clients never should have faced terrorism charges, calling it a political move by authorities desperate to justify millions of dollars spent on security for the summit.
The attorneys have also used the trial to ask questions about police surveillance tactics in the months before the summit, including sending undercover officers to places like the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park or a concert at Permanent Records to listen to conversations and run license plates.
But prosecutors said the men, known as the NATO 3, came to Chicago to battle police in the streets and wanted to send a message by attacking police stations. They have made repeated reference to Church asking Nadia Chikko, the female undercover officer, if she was "ready to see a police officer on fire."
Undercover recordings played for jurors show that at times Chikko and another undercover officer appeared a bit vexed by the inability of Church to focus or get things done. He talked about his love of "Grand Theft Auto" video games, his housemates' plan to brew beer and an attempt to get a girl's phone number.
Church apparently loved going on "recon missions" and talked of "going ghost," a reference to becoming invisible using techniques he'd learned in military school, techniques he offered to share. One method was to put duct tape on their soles so police couldn't track their shoe prints.
At a meeting in Palmisano Park in the Bridgeport neighborhood, Chikko said she and her partner arrived but didn't see Church or Chase and sat down to wait. She soon got a text message that said, "We see you."
Then Church, dressed in camouflage, emerged from a hiding spot, Chikko testified.
The undercover officer's first encounters with Church were not recorded — police did not obtain a judge's permission to put a wire on Chikko until May 4 — but Chikko testified that Church wanted to strike the Chase Tower building in the Loop.
He walked by the building with the two officers, counting cameras and then pretended to stop and tie his shoe, Chikko testified. When she asked him what he was doing, Church said he was measuring the thickness of the window, she testified.
Chikko spent three days and part of a fourth on the witness stand, going over nearly 55 recorded conversations in detail as the defendants and jurors flipped through large binders containing transcripts of the recordings.
The backbone of the prosecution's case involves the events of May 16 when the undercover officers came to the Bridgeport three-flat where the NATO 3 and a dozen others were crammed into a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment. Talk turned to explosives after Chase dropped a Lemonhead candy into the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer he was drinking, causing a fizzy chemical reaction.
Soon the men decided to build Molotov cocktails, finding four empty beer bottles but no alcohol to use as fuel. After Chikko's undercover partner Mehmet Uygun accompanied him to a nearby gas station, Chase poured gasoline into the bottles while Uygun cut a rag into strips for wicks.
Though the NATO 3 were watched by a surveillance team of up to 16 officers who also planted a GPS tracking device on Church's car, no photos or video captured the group assembling the Molotovs on the outdoor back porch, Chikko testified.
As he filled the beer bottles, Chase spilled gasoline on the wooden porch. At the other end of the porch, Church and Chikko smoked cigarettes and talked.
Chikko asked Chase if he planned to bring to a protest march a cache of weapons he'd proudly shown her — two swords, two knives with brass-knuckle handles, a shooting star with a yin-yang symbol in the center and "his favorite toy," a $65 bow-and-arrow set he said he bought at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shop affiliated with stuntman Steve-O from the reality series "Jackass."
Church told her on the recordings that he didn't believe in "pre-emptive strikes" but that if police started threatening or hurting "innocent civilians" he would return to Bridgeport and go out again with the weapons to confront police.
When she asked where they should use the Molotovs, Church told her "we'll figure something out" and said maybe they would toss them at a nearby bank.
After Church suggested storing the explosives at Palmisano Park, Chikko asked if he wanted to test some of them there later that night. Church replied that he wanted to wrap himself in a blanket and sleep instead.
He and the other two were arrested hours later.
Twitter @SteveSchmadekeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun