Region still coping with aftermath of alleged plot
Trial for three men accused of planning to blow up Garden City apartment complex begins this week
The federal trial for three men accused of plotting to bomb a mosque and apartment complex in Garden City is set to begin this week in Wichita, starting with Tuesday's jury selection. Meanwhile, the alleged plot has laid bare tiny pockets of the ugliest, potentially violent racism in a region that’s seen immigrants drawn to tough meatpacking jobs for decades.
The raw hate exposed in the alleged plan shocked some of the refugees who were targeted, reminding them of violence they fled in Somalia and sparking an exodus from one southwest Kansas town.
It also prompted more people to talk with admiration of the workforce that keeps the meatpacking industry, and the region’s economy, alive. They’ve reached out to the would-be targets of domestic terrorism.
“We all give each other a chance here,” says LeVita Rohlman, who directs the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services in Garden City. “Even when things go wrong. I believe that this community stands united.”
The alleged plot took root near Dodge City, at the easternmost point of the meatpacking triangle formed with Liberal and Garden City. All three cities have for generations drawn immigrants for work in the industry.
Just outside Dodge City, Patrick Stein lived in an old trailer home in Wright, next to a rusting Quonset and a grain elevator. Neighbors say that Stein came from a respected family in town, but that he kept strange hours.
When FBI agents raided his home Oct. 14, 2016, they found a high-powered rifle on the couch, ammunition and what appeared to be methamphetamine pipes. They also found a piece of paper with the address of an apartment complex in Garden City that authorities say was a target for an act of domestic terror.
In Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal, people of European descent are now in the minority. Immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America are a key part of the workforce.
One of Stein’s old neighbors in Wright, Chelsea Bradville, lives in a home decorated with taxidermy and patriotic figurines. A pickup sporting a large black assault rifle decal sits out front. Bradville, like many in the region, harbors an abiding respect for immigrants doing the hard work at area slaughterhouses.
“It’s very intensive labor, and there’s a lot of the community that doesn’t want to do that, you know, and they do,” says Bradville. “They’ll do the hard work, and make it.”
The region speaks to a place where just about anyone, from anywhere, can make a living and gain a toehold on the American dream. Earl Watt publishes The High Plains Daily Leader and the Southwest Daily Times in Liberal.
“Opportunity may take you elsewhere, but this is a place where you get a chance to get started,” Watt said. “If life bottoms you out, come on out, get restarted here. You'll get that chance. We'll get you back on your feet. That's what defines us more than anything else.”
Southwest Kansas might have been defined by something more sinister, domestic terrorism. Instead, authorities contend, a deadly scheme was foiled through the work of someone Stein believed to be a natural compatriot in an anti-Muslim crusade.
'Only good Muslim, is a dead Muslim'
Early in 2016, an acquaintance of Stein’s contacted the FBI and became a paid confidential informant. That led him to record conversations with Stein and during meetings with two other men — Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright — who had allegedly joined his makeshift, anti-government, anti-Muslim militia.
They called themselves the Crusaders. According to the indictment, Stein seemed to relish mass murder.
“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” Stein allegedly said in one recorded conversation. “If you’re a Muslim, I’m going to enjoy shooting you in the head.”
That, according to court records, included 1-year-olds. Stein regularly referred to Somalis as “cockroaches,” prosecutors contend, and compared himself to an exterminator.
The recordings allegedly chronicle the group discussing bomb types and ordering supplies to make explosives, some of which were shipped to Gavin Wright’s modular home dealership in Liberal.
Allen allegedly was put in charge of writing a manifesto to be released after the group launched its bombing campaign. That document would frame the terror attacks as patriotic defense of the U.S. Constitution and, the three supposedly hoped, inspire other groups to wage war on Muslim immigrants. They allegedly decided to time the attack for just after the November 2016 election, so as not to hurt Donald Trump’s chances.
Their lawyers had sought to make sure jurors were drawn not from more urban Wichita, but from more reliably conservative voters in the state’s southwestern corner. A judge rejected that request.
Allen had been convicted of domestic battery and wasn’t supposed to have guns. But court documents say that when agents searched his home, they found almost two dozen firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
'Why are you trying to kill me?'
The men eventually settled on the apartment complex at 312 W. Mary St. in Garden City, a closely spaced cluster of eight one-story apartment buildings. More than 100 people, primarily east African immigrants, live there. One apartment serves as a mosque.
According to court documents, the group discussed parking trucks loaded with explosives at the corners of the complex, placing bombs disguised as trash receptacles, and laying explosives in the duct work.
They spoke of shooting survivors, after leveling the buildings.
Ifrah Farah, a Somali immigrant who proudly states that she’s been in the United States four years, lives in a sparsely decorated apartment at the edge of the complex.
“I would like to ask the bad guys, ‘Why? What am I doing? Why are you trying to kill me? Am I Somali? Or, am I Muslim? What?’” she said.
The Plot Unravels
On Oct. 11, 2016, police in Liberal arrested Allen, not long after his girlfriend called 911 to report that he had beaten her.
The next day, Stein had a meeting with an undercover FBI agent. The agent had been introduced by the FBI’s confidential source within the Crusaders group as some kind of underworld figure who could get him explosives. Stein had a long wish list: C-4 high explosives, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades.
“If I could get ahold of a warthog (an A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft) or an Apache helicopter, I would be after that, too,” said Stein, according to court records.
Stein and the agent discussed trading cash and methamphetamine for explosives and machine guns.
At the meeting, the FBI employee let Stein fire fully automatic weapons. Then the agent and Stein drove to 312 W. Mary St. to scope the place out.
Garden City gets it right
Two days later, FBI agents arrested Stein when he delivered them 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the same raw material Timothy McVeigh used to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
In the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh was inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a novel that glorified the idea of a race war. McVeigh had hoped his act would inspire others to take up arms against the federal government.
After Stein’s arrest, the FBI called Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz. He, in turn, called local immigrants.
'What do you need, chief?'
“When the terrorist plot was uncovered, I reached out to the president of the African Community Center, and I said, ‘I need your help,’” Utz recalled. “He said, ‘What do you need, chief?’”
Utz wanted help convene a quick meeting with African immigrant leaders to tell them about the bomb plot before it hit the news. The next day, he was back to reassure other refugees.
“We made it a point to let the community know, that the three individuals involved in this conspiracy, were in custody, that the community was safe,” he said.
More meetings, along with public demonstrations supporting the immigrants, followed. By most accounts, they worked.
Sitting on his couch in the Mary Street apartment complex, Abdulkadir Mohamed said Garden City has grown closer since government exposed the alleged bomb plot.
“The FBI, CIA, and law enforcement work together. That’s what I believe. That’s why I’m really happy. And I appreciate what they do here. Because, I’m still alive,” said Mohamed.
Mohamed is optimistic about the future of Garden City.
But 60 miles south of Garden City, in Liberal, the disclosure of the alleged plot had the opposite effect.
“Liberal is not innocent, anymore,” said Ambiyo Farah, an 18-year-old college student in Liberal whose family fled civil war in Somalia over a decade ago. “It’s like Somalia now, you know, there’s a threat on you.”
Farah says that she’s one of the few from her native country still living in Liberal. Nearly 200 Somalis have fled the small city. That’s clear at what used to be a thriving African grocery store.
“This is the place, or it used to be the place, but now it’s a ghost town. There’s no one here,” Farah said while standing at a corner storefront in downtown Liberal.
Down the block, ripped up carpet and insulation litter what used to be a storefront mosque.
Farah said many Somalis from Liberal moved to Garden City, joining a larger and more secure Somali community there.
“A lot of people … have a misperception about what my religion is,” Farah said. “If you don’t believe what they believe in, you’re an automatic threat. You’re here to take something, or you’re here to hurt somebody.”
Frank Morris reports for KCUR and NPR. Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio. Kansas News Service is online at kcur.org/term/kansas-news-service#stream/0