Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of stories looking at the top 10 local news stories of 2016 as chosen by the Telegram staff.
Garden City’s perception of itself as a diverse and welcoming community took a blow on October 14 as news spread about the arrest of three southwest Kansas men accused of plotting a terror attack targeted at an apartment complex where many Somali residents live.
That day, a Friday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the arrests of Curtis Allen, 49, and Gavin Wright, 49, both of Liberal, and Patrick Eugene Stein, 47, of Wright, for allegedly planning to bomb an apartment complex at 312 W. Mary St. in Garden City that is home to more than 100 people, many of them Muslim and Somali. One of the apartments is also used as a makeshift mosque where tenants worship.
The alleged plot and the community’s reaction to it is The Telegram’s Top Story of 2016.
Abdul Kadir Mohamed, one of the leaders of the local Somali community, said on the day of the arrests that the news scared him, and Halima Farh, owner of the African Shop, 911 W. Mary St., was equally shocked.
“It was traumatizing, and I was terrified about it,” Farh said. “I was so scared, you know, but thank God nothing happened. I know these things are happening around the world, but I never thought it would come to Garden City. This changes nothing, though. I know Garden City is a good place full of lovely people.”
Stein, Allen and Wright were later charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction to carry out the planned attack. The men are scheduled to go to trial on April 25, 2017, in federal court in Wichita.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the indictment against the three men alleges that they conducted surveillance to size up potential targets, stockpiled firearms, ammunition and explosive components, and prepared a manifesto to be published after the bombing.
If convicted, the men face up to life in federal prison.
According to a criminal complaint, the men were part of a small militia group called the Crusaders that espouses sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant beliefs.
On Dec. 15, federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment in U.S. District Court in Wichita adding two counts of illegally possessing a firearm against Stein for allegedly knowingly carrying and using a firearm in connection with the alleged bombing plot, and one count of illegally possessing firearms against Allen for allegedly knowingly possessing firearms in connection with a prior misdemeanor domestic battery conviction.
The indictment calls for the forfeiture of the firearms if the two men are convicted.
The alleged plot was planned for Nov. 9, the day after the presidential election. News of the alleged plot shook the local Somali Muslim community, as well as local residents, many of whom rushed to support the many Somali refugees.
The weekend following the arrests, residents of the apartment complex joined with other community members and local, state and federal law enforcement members to talk about the alleged plot in an attempt to allay fears.
Local law enforcement officials expressed anger and shock about the news of the alleged plot.
“I am shocked that somebody would target our community for a terrorist attack,” said Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue the day of the arrests. “I’m shocked by it. I just can’t believe someone from here would consider doing that here.”
Bascue, who has worked at the sheriff’s office for 32 years, said he has always been proud of how receptive and welcoming the community has been to people of all nationalities.
“We’re mentioned nationally on how well this community responds to that, and the fact that three individuals not from Garden City would plan on carrying out such a plan angers me,” Bascue said. “It upsets me that any individual living in this country would be targeted for violence.”
Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz said in a statement that the GCPD was aware of the FBI’s investigation since its onset in February.
“The results of it is obviously alarming and disturbing to us all because this was not — although it was an attack toward a specific group of members of our community — it was actually an attack on our community,” Utz’s email read.
In a separate interview, Utz expressed his own personal reaction to the news.
“It is very upsetting, and it does anger us that we have individuals who have their own ideological thoughts on how communities should be made up, and the fact that they were going to try to take lives is very, very disturbing,” he said.
Federal prosecutors said the men were part of a small militia group called the Crusaders. The FBI had been conducting a domestic terrorism investigation of the Crusaders since February, a criminal complaint against the men states. The group, operating in southwest Kansas, espouses sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant beliefs, according to the complaint.
Officials from the Garden City Police Department, the Finney County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI team that investigated the three men’s activities held the gathering.
After the initial shock, the community pulled together to demonstrate its support for diversity. A week after the arrests, an estimated 250 people participated in a unity walk held as a way to bring the diverse community together.
“I’m a big believer that when tragedy can be avoided, we need to celebrate that, because the aftermath of a tragedy is full of lots of sadness and wondering, ‘why?’” said Valarie Rivera on Oct. 22 during a candlelight walk to celebrate unity. “Had this not been stopped, this community would have felt that sorrow.”
More than 250 people of all ages, races, ethnicities and faiths joined in the walk, which began in the North Ridge Plaza on the northwest corner of Eighth and Mary streets. Participants gathered there to light their candles, with some holding signs with such messages as, “We love our Muslim neighbors,” and “God loves all.”
From the parking lot, the crowd walked east, toward Garden Spot Rentals, where the Muslim residents were having their nightly prayer. After members of the Muslim community had finished their prayers, a stream of Somali residents crossed the street to join the group of walkers when they reached the apartment complex.
Janice Gian said at the time that she and her husband were political refugees from Iran who moved to Garden City in 1979. She said she participated in the unity walk because it was about solidarity for Garden City, peace, love and standing up for the rights of all people.
“Garden City welcomed us, and it’s been a wonderful community with wonderful people,” she said. “We must stand together in our community for one another.”