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FBI: Government's response to virus incited would-be bomber

This April 2020 photo shows the Belton Regional Medical Center in Belton, Mo. Newly unsealed court documents detail the FBI's investigation into a violent confrontation last month with a man who investigators say was planning to bomb the Kansas City hospital.

TAMMY LJUNGBLAD, THE KANSAS CITY STAR/AP

By STEVE VOCKRODT | The Kansas City Star | Published: April 15, 2020

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KANSAS CITY. Mo. (Tribune News Service) — In September 2019, Timothy Wilson was communicating through an encrypted messaging app with a soldier at Fort Riley named Jarrett Williams Smith.

Smith, a private first class who joined the Army in 2017 and transferred to the Kansas base in the summer of 2019, was on the FBI’s radar.

Smith was disseminating information on how to build explosives and talking about his goal of traveling to Ukraine to fight with a far-right paramilitary group known as Azov Battalion, which was formed in 2014. Some members of Congress told the State Department last year that the group was recruiting and radicalizing Americans.

Later, Smith discussed plans to bomb a major United States news network.

Authorities arrested Smith on Sept. 23 and indicted him in federal court in Kansas with distributing information related to weapons of mass destruction.

For Smith, who would later plead guilty, the story ends there. But for Wilson, a 36-year-old father of four children who was living in Raymore, the story was just beginning.

After Smith’s arrest, Wilson told someone with whom he had shared manuals on how to build explosives and booby traps that he would lay low for a while. That person, it turns out, was a confidential source for the FBI, which had started watching Wilson just days before arresting Smith.

“On a side note, if your (sic) a fed, then I suppose you got me now,” Wilson wrote, perhaps sarcastically, to the FBI’s source after sharing the manuals. “If that’s the case make sure you bring lots of body bags when you raid my house lol.”

Wilson’s suggestion of a violent confrontation would, in fact, occur about six months later. On March 24, FBI agents attempted to arrest Wilson in Belton because they suspected him of planning to bomb a hospital.

Wilson, according to the FBI, was armed and expecting to pick up a bomb when the FBI tried to arrest him. Wilson died of injuries sustained in a shooting with FBI agents.

Newly unsealed court documents detail the FBI’s months-long investigation and surveillance of Wilson, whom the FBI labeled a “potentially violent extremist” plotting a terrorist attack.

Among the revelations in the FBI’s detailed account in these court records was that Wilson considered an attack on a hospital, mentioning the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, before settling on a plan to park a vehicle loaded with explosives and detonate it in the parking lot of Belton Regional Medical Center in Cass County.

Just two days before his death, Wilson and an undercover FBI agent visited Belton Regional to inspect the hospital property and conduct a dry run of their plot, according to court records.

The same records, which were unsealed last week, indicate that Wilson had for months discussed ideas for a terrorist attack, telling an undercover FBI agent that he was considering sites ranging from a nuclear plant and Islamic centers in Missouri to the Walmart headquarters or a synagogue in Arkansas.

But Wilson appeared to become agitated as the coronavirus made its way to Missouri. He was distressed by the government’s response to the health crisis and accelerated his timeline for an attack — to March 24 — as well as narrowing his focus to a bombing plot on the Belton hospital.

The FBI said in a public statement that Wilson was motivated by racial, religious and anti-government animus. FBI records support the theory, indicating that at one point last year Wilson talked to an undercover FBI agent in graphic terms of an idea for shooting up a predominantly black elementary school.

Wilson, according to one affidavit, told the undercover agent that he wanted “to create enough chaos to kick start a revolution.”

The investigation begins

Wilson appeared to take note of the FBI’s surveillance on him in September. FBI records say they saw him taking counter-surveillance measures and that he suggested to the confidential informant that he was aware of it.

“(J)okes on them because I moved all my gear to a safe undisclosed location” after Smith was arrested, Wilson wrote to the informant.

“(R)ight now I’m gonna play it like everything is normal but watch my back,” Wilson told the FBI’s source, “figure maybe I’ll lay low till Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania appears to be a reference to a trip he took on Nov. 7, 2019, when Wilson drove his white 2018 Ford F150 to Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where he met with the undercover FBI agent. It was not clear why the two met in Pennsylvania.

Wilson told the agent at this meeting that he had an idea to go to an African-American elementary school and “shoot the place up,” as well as carry out attacks on the power grid and bridges.

After that meeting in Pennsylvania, Wilson kept up his conversations with the undercover agent through an encrypted messaging app.

Wilson told the agent that he wanted to give his kids a good Thanksgiving and Christmas before going “full-time with operation boogaloo,” a term understood by groups that track extremists to mean an incident of civil war or mass violence.

Wilson was married in 2013, according to a marriage license on file in Jackson County. The couple adopted four children and lived in Gladstone before they separated on Feb. 3, 2019. They filed for divorce on June 4, 2019.

Wilson worked at Catholic Charities when the divorce was filed.

When asked about the timeline for his “operation boogaloo,” Wilson told the undercover agent: “I never thought I’d make it this far in life and yet here I am,” according to a transcript of the app conversation, “and I always thought I’d go out in a blaze of glory.”

Affidavits tell story

The records that form the basis of this story are affidavits by an FBI agent investigating Wilson. They were written by the agent to convince a federal judge that the FBI had probable cause — a low legal standard compared to what’s required to convict someone of a crime — to track the whereabouts of Wilson’s truck and to later search the truck and two houses connected to Wilson.

The Star visited the two homes last week. At a townhouse in Raymore where Wilson was living after separating from his wife, FBI agents searched trash early in the investigation and found empty boxes of ammunition and gun magazines that are usable on an AK-47 rifle. Later, they recovered several guns and rifles, ammunition, tactical vests, helmets and a computer from the house.

An elderly woman who answered the door declined to discuss Wilson with a reporter.

Another house in Belton was empty when a Star reporter visited; a note left on the door seeking an interview went unanswered.

Search warrant applications contain only one side of a story — law enforcement’s — and the allegations were not yet tested in court. In Wilson’s case, because he’s dead, they will never be tested in a criminal proceeding against him.

While not unusual, undercover FBI stings of suspected extremists sometimes have raised questions about the agency’s methods.

In Wilson’s case, a key informant was a previously convicted felon whom the FBI compensated for information on Wilson.

Michael German, a former FBI special agent and fellow for the Brennan Center for Justice, said the FBI’s use of paid confidential informants is common and acknowledges it’s potentially problematic.

German has been critical of other FBI undercover sting operations where it appeared the FBI had pushed a subject to commit violations of the law that they otherwise would not have without the encouragement and aid of its agents.

At The Star’s request, German reviewed the search warrant application by the FBI in the Wilson case. German said that while such documents contain only one side of a story and are often incomplete, based on the information presented, it appears the FBI acted reasonably.

“This doesn’t strike me, on its face, as a use of undercover agents that is problematic, that I have criticized in other cases,” German said.

Wilson and the undercover agent met again on Dec. 21 at a parking lot of a shopping center in Belton. The undercover agent had leased a storage unit for the two of them after Wilson had earlier discussed needing a place to store “garden supplies,” an apparent code the two used to discuss bomb-making materials.

German said this was likely a smart move by FBI agents if Wilson started buying up explosive materials, even if it meant an agent took the step of leasing a storage unit where explosive materials would later be stored.

In such a situation, the FBI could monitor what Wilson was doing and he would be storing potentially dangerous materials there instead of, say, a house where it could pose a safety risk to his family.

“That alone wouldn’t raise my concerns,” German said. “In fact, it seems to suggest they were being prudent.”

Wilson told the agent that the storage space he picked should provide plenty of space and that it would be March or April when he would “be startin’ to get some stuff in.” The agent kept one key to the storage unit and gave the other to Wilson.

Late in January, Wilson started buying up what the FBI would refer to as “explosive precursors” to a bomb.

First, on Jan. 30, Wilson bought two five-pound bags of urea, a nitrate commonly used in improvised explosive devices.

The following day, Wilson bought a combined 60 pounds of ammonium nitrate and another type of fertilizer that, when combined, could be used to develop an explosive device.

“Guess what I just got boys,” read a message that Wilson sent on Feb. 6 to the FBI’s source and its agent, along with a picture of a hand holding a bag of ammonium nitrate.

Ammonium nitrate was a main ingredient that Timothy McVeigh used to build a bomb that was later used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.

Video surveillance captured Wilson dropping off materials from his truck to the storage unit in Belton two days later, along with two empty gas containers.

“It’s all deposited,” Wilson wrote to the undercover agent.

Building a timeline

On Feb. 21, Wilson told the FBI’s confidential source that he knew a guy some 15 years ago when they were in the Navy together.

“I’m gonna see about maybe trying to bring him into the fold,” Wilson said in a message to the source. “We had similar views back then but that was 15 years ago so I’m going to see where he’s at.”

Ultimately, the individual declined to participate in Wilson’s plan.

After spending part of February obtaining explosive precursors, Wilson started building a timeline for his plan.

He told the undercover agent that he would have his tax money and time off work in April, making it a good time for the two to meet, discuss potential cities to visit and “scout around.”

Wilson appears to have considered going to a National Socialist Movement convention in April, but decided to skip it when he learned that one of its members had been “doxxed,” or had personal information unwillingly published online by someone else.

“So I’ll be free April 15-22nd we can meet up any time there,” Wilson messaged the agent.

A rally by the National Socialist Movement in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was planned for April 18 but later postponed because of concerns about holding a gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.

Later Wilson mused about June 20, summer solstice, as a “good day to hit something,” wondering about two Islamic centers south of Springfield, the Walmart headquarters or perhaps a nuclear plant.

A change in plans

Missouri reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on March 8, a 20-year-old woman in St. Louis County who had been studying in Italy.

By March 10, Wilson told the FBI’s source and its agent that he wasn’t all that worried about coronavirus, but wondered if there was a plan if one of the three of them were infected.

A week later, however, Wilson appeared to grow more concerned about coronavirus, or at least the government’s response to it. He messaged the confidential informant and the FBI agent, telling them to delete “everything you have from me” if martial law goes into effect, which was widely rumored as federal and state governments started to contemplate stay-at-home orders and other measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Wilson said he knew people who had gotten out of the military who had been called back.

“That is not a good sign,” Wilson told the confidential informant. The informant told the FBI that Wilson was serious during a subsequent phone conversation — no joking, no laughing.

On March 18, Wilson told the undercover agent that they needed to accelerate their timeline. The agent said he could be in town by the weekend of March 21.

Wilson said “hitting a hospital would be like prime target right now” before mentioning KU Hospital, given that coronavirus patients were going there but acknowledged he didn’t know what security was like at the KCK hospital.

“(W)e could drive around and kinda look at things, but I think right now with the way everything is going it could be prime time,” Wilson said, “like I’d hate to wait til’ April and then the worst case scenario you know they’ve locked everything down tight where you can’t travel and we miss the opportunity.”

The undercover agent visited Wilson on March 22. That’s when Wilson appeared to settle on Belton Regional Medical Center.

The agent asked Wilson how he would execute an attack on the hospital. Wilson said he would wear all black, have the agent leave a vehicle charged up with explosives in a Walmart parking lot and that Wilson would walk from his house to the vehicle and drive it to the hospital.

Wilson’s plan was to activate a timer to detonate the bomb in 20 minutes, walk away and have the agent pick him up and take him back to his house in Raymore.

If they got pulled over, Wilson said, he’d shoot the police officer. “WILSON explained if the attack led back to him, there would be a ‘firefight’ at his house.”

The firefight Wilson predicted happened, just not at his house. It’s not clear why FBI agents sought to arrest him on a street in Belton, Wilbur Parish Circle, but there is a storage unit facility nearby.

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
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