Al Qaeda sympathizer gets 14 years in prison for plotting Fourth of July terror attack

A man accused by the FBI of planning a 2018 attack on a downtown Cleveland park during a popular Independence...

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A man accused by the FBI of planning a 2018 attack on a downtown Cleveland park during a popular Independence Day celebration was sentenced Tuesday to spend 14 years in federal prison.

Demetrius Pitts, who has roots in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in November to attempting to provide material support to the terrorist group al Qaeda, as well as making threats against President Donald Trump and his children. His plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office called for the 14-year sentence.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. placed the 50 year old on a lifetime of supervised release. He said he agreed to the sentence and felt that a longer term in prison was not warranted, citing Pitts' mental health issues and rough upbringing.

The FBI announced Pitts' arrest two days before the Fourth of July in 2018, after he corresponded with an undercover agent and scoped out areas around Voinovich Park and had expressed a desire to park a van full of explosives near the park. He told an undercover agent he thought was an al Qaeda operative that he wanted to “destroy the government,” and had expressed a desire to kill Americans, according to federal prosecutors.

He also liked this location because it was near a U.S. Coast Guard station, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Celebrezze Federal Building, according to federal prosecutors.

Pitts' made statements about violent attacks or his allegiance to al Qaeda to mostly agents or confidential informants, according to court records. An informant gave Pitts a bus pass to travel downtown, as well as a cellphone he later used to text an undercover agent, authorities said.

He told an undercover agent that he wanted to “destroy the government,” and had expressed a desire to kill Americans, according to federal prosecutors. Pitts also said he wanted to cut off Trump's head and hands and kill Trump's children and son-in-law, according to a grand jury indictment.

Pitts, who also goes by Abdur Raheem Rafeeq and Salahadeen Osama Waleed, told Oliver that he should not have made the statements and noted several times that “I'm not a terrorist.” He said he was angry, in part because of videos he saw of U.S. attacks overseas.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Baeppler, however, characterized Pitts as “somebody who was ready and willing to take action,” and tried to downplay any notion that he was making idle threats from behind a keyboard.

Pitts was living at a Maple Heights rehabilitation facility at the time of his arrest, though was on the FBI's radar before he was in the Cleveland area. He has criminal convictions stretch back to 1989 and include robbery, domestic violence and theft. He has also said he suffers from mental-health issues.

While authorities have said they arrested Pitts to prevent violence, they haven't said whether he was capable of carrying out an attack. Then-FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony declined to say whether Pitts had access to, or was capable of making, an explosive when he announced the arrest.

Instead, Anthony said Pitts had the “desire and intent” to conduct the attack.

Baeppler also said Tuesday that Pitts was the one who sought out a terrorist operative and chose an attack date and time. She also said he was the one with the idea to do reconnaissance, in which he went downtown and took pictures and videos of buildings in preparation for an attack.

Baeppler also said Pitts had talked of similar plans for an attack in Philadelphia.

The judge he felt that Pitts' mental-health and substance-abuse issues played a role in the crimes. Pitts previously underwent a competency exam and was deemed fit to stand trial.

After the sentencing, Pitts looked toward the prosecutors and made a statement that was inaudible from the viewing gallery, though it clearly expressed displeasure. The outburst, however minor, was just one of several quirky actions he exhibited in court during his case.

At his plea hearing in November, he gave a middle finger before moving all his fingers into the same position when he raised his right hand to be sworn in under oath.

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