MIAMI -- A federal judge ruled yesterday that six South Florida men arrested on terror conspiracy charges will remain in Miami's Federal Detention Center until their trial, despite defense claims that the men were set up by a government informant.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra said he was disturbed by "strong and significant evidence" that the group swore allegiance to al-Qaida and conspired to blow up buildings in Miami and Chicago.
Bandstra said the government's lawyer showed that defendant Narseal Batiste devised the plan for an alliance with al-Qaida, and the other defendants voluntarily joined it "without government coercion."
Attorney John Wylie, who represents Batiste, argued that it was entrapment: "This case is essentially something the government set up to knock down."
A federal grand jury in Miami returned an indictment June 22 charging Batiste, 32; Patrick Abraham, 26; Stanley Grant Phanor, 31; Naudimar Herrera, 22; Burson Augustin, 21; and Rotschild Augustin, 22, with conspiring to support al-Qaida, destroy buildings with explosives and wage war on the United States.
The men pleaded not guilty Friday. If convicted, each faces a maximum possible sentence of 70 years in prison. A seventh defendant, Lyglenson Lemorin, 31, is in custody in Atlanta.
The government's investigation of the group began in 2005 after Batiste asked an acquaintance for help finding Middle Eastern terrorists to support his plan to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, said prosecutor Jacqueline Arango. The acquaintance reported the conversation to the FBI, she said.
In December, the FBI infiltrated the group using an informant of Middle Eastern descent who posed as a representative of al-Qaida. Batiste gave the informant lists of items the group would need to execute its plans, Arango said, including $50,000, military uniforms, boots, guns, bulletproof vests and SUVs.
In March, the informant led the men in a loyalty oath to al-Qaida and told them al-Qaida wanted to destroy the FBI headquarters in Miami. The informant asked the defendants to take photographs and record video surveillance of the building, Arango said.
Each of the men went along with the fictional al-Qaida plan, she said: "Not one of them walked away from this."
But several defense lawyers argued during yesterday's hearing that it was the government informant - not their clients - who drove the alleged plot.
"It was the FBI that provided the boots, the cameras, the van and the warehouse for these individuals," said Roderick Vereen, who represents Phanor.
Herrera's attorney, Richard Houlihan, said Batiste might have invented the alleged conspiracy to trick al-Qaida out of money. "It is a very, extremely weak case," Houlihan said.
Defense lawyers described their clients as hardworking and family-oriented.
Albert Levin, who represents Abraham, said his client gave money to the homeless and dreamed of building an orphanage in Haiti.
Nathan Clark, who represents Rotschild Augustin, said he was not surprised by Bandstra's decision.
"The case is not as strong as the government made it out to be," Clark said.
Vanessa Blum writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.