Flash-forward a month to late March. The group was still dithering. It had made only one decision: That its action should coincide with May Day, when Occupy was calling for a national day of protest. Wright had finally downloaded The Anarchist's Cookbook, which he'd been talking about doing forever, and which he hoped would jump-start their imaginations: "We can make smoke bombs, we can make plastic explosives," Wright said in his gravelly voice, laughing. "It teaches you how to pick locks. It does everything."
At the word "explosives," Azir perked up. "How much do we need?" he stammered. "How much money we need to make explosive – make the plastic explosives?"
"I'm not sure," Wright said. "I haven't read too much yet."
"Well, you gotta get with me," Azir persisted. "If we gonna be trying to do something in a month, you need to get with me as soon as possible on how much money we gonna need, and the materials that we gonna need. Tell me what all we need to make the bombs." The very next day, Azir met with Wright to float a remarkable proposal: Now that they were broaching the topic of explosives, was Wright determined to make the bombs from scratch – or should they just buy some C4 from a guy Azir knew?
Days later, Wright and Baxter were standing with Azir in the kitchen of one of his vacant properties, agog as Azir's arms-dealer friend laid out an array of batons, tear gas and gas masks before them. Wright and Baxter excitedly asked about ordering some riot gear. The arms dealer – in reality, an undercover FBI agent – pointed to a picture of explosives and asked if they would need "the heavy stuff."
"Yeaaaah, we're gonna wait on that," Wright sidestepped. He repeated his disinterest in explosives two days later, when the undercover agent phoned – and then again the next day, when Azir prodded him about it. Wright explained that they were flat broke, without money to afford even the riot gear, much less the explosives.
Azir had a solution. He gave them jobs.
Everybody at the warehouse – Occupy Cleveland's commune where anyone who worked a shift at the information tent earned a space – agreed that Baxter and Wright's boss sounded way cool. Since the boys didn't have a car, Azir picked them up for work each morning and drove them to the day's construction site. He gave them beers all day long. And when he dropped them off at the Warehouse each night, they came in bearing cases of beer, baggies of pot and Adderall – all procured with the help of Azir, they said.
Stevens had joined the conspirators not long after they met with the arms dealer, in part because of the lure of a job. "Scratch my back, it hurts!" Stevens would cry out as he burst through the door of the Warehouse, skin burning from handling fiberglass insulation. He was proud to be employed for the first time, even if his pay was only five bucks an hour. "Just getting home, boss is gonna get here at nine to start it all over again," Stevens would text his sister near midnight, before zipping into his winter coat to get some sleep.
Rest was near impossible in their freezing-cold living space. The Warehouse was a cavernous indoor tent city for a dozen or so residents – mostly young men – who stayed up till all hours drinking 40s, playing guitar and arguing over cigarettes. There were no rules, no respect for personal space, no working stove and almost no heat. The place was filthy, with dishes stacked so high in the kitchen that someone just moved the pile into the bathroom.
The chaotic atmosphere wore down Stevens. "I don't feel spiritually right," he complained to a friend. He was frustrated with the stagnancy of Occupy Cleveland, whose entire existence was now staked to round-the-clock staffing of a tent that no one even visited. Stevens was attending church weekly. He told his sister he thought God might be calling him to the ministry.
And yet at the same time, Stevens was also busy trading ideas with Baxter, Wright and Azir about what to bomb. Some friends wonder if Stevens initially joined to talk his comrades out of the plot: "He's a deeply moral guy," says Occupier Joe Ziff. "I have a hunch that he may have gone along in the hopes that he could stop it." Whatever Stevens' reasons, from the moment Azir had brought his arms-dealer friend into the picture, the conversation had definitively shifted to talk of explosions. The friends discussed attacking a KKK headquarters, then dismissed the plan as lacking a deeper message about the one percent. Baxter mentioned blowing up a bridge, which earned a vote from Azir – "Gotta slow the traffic that's going to make them the money" – but then Baxter backpedaled, concerned that the media might not portray the action in a positive light. Stevens suggested targeting mines or oil wells. Wright joked that if he got drunk enough he might wear a suicide vest; Baxter confided that once he would have been willing to do that, but no longer. He'd gotten himself a girlfriend now – fellow Warehouse-dweller Justine Strehle, an 18-year-old who wore fuzzy hats with animal ears – and was moony with new love.
Azir implored them to decide. "What are we going to do with the stuff we got?" he asked. "We're on the hook for it."
"We've got eight fucking pounds of C4," Wright said in disbelief.
It was true. The "arms dealer" had been remarkably flexible about payment, allowing them to place an order for eight bricks of C4 plastic explosives, vests, tear gas and gas masks for $900, only half of which would be due upon receipt; if they couldn't come up with the additional $450, the dealer would even allow Wright to work off the debt. Stevens was worried that the C4 salesman could be a cop, but Azir vouched for him, saying if it made Stevens feel better, he'd personally meet with the guy when it came time for the buy. Now, as Azir wouldn't stop reminding them, they needed to come up with something to blow up in time for May Day: "We're 10 days away – if you guys are going to do something, let's put together a plan!"
The guys in the crew put on their thinking caps. They could turn the C4 into depth charges and throw it into a river to sink a ship. Would that work? Or they could blow up the Cleveland Justice Center. Better still: They would blow up the Federal Reserve Bank. But wait – where was the Federal Reserve, anyway? Discussions were endless. So fantastical did their schemes seem to Baxter that he proposed they throw tacks out the window of their getaway car, to foil would-be pursuers.
Azir was fed up with their bumbling indecision. "Did you follow up on anything? What are we doing? Because as usual you got me on a stupid-ass holding pattern," he scolded. "Every time we meet, we leave saying we're going to do some research and then we get back together and we're back to square one!"
The boys had come to look up to Azir, one of the few adults in their lives. "This guy portrayed himself as a father figure," says Occupy's Sam Tylicki. "He provided them work, provided them drugs, provided them with alcohol, provided them housing." Azir, aware of their miserable living situations, had offered to let the guys squat in one of the empty apartments he was rehabbing, an opportunity that Wright and Stevens took him up on. They were grateful to Azir, who even proposed to pay for identical tattoos for all of them, branding them as their own little gang for life.
The buy, which took place on April 29th, was simple. Azir, Wright, Baxter and newly drafted crew member Tony Hayne – who had a rap sheet for theft and domestic violence – drove to a hotel room in nearby Warrensville, where they snapped on latex gloves and blasted the TV in an attempt to foil any recording devices in case the guy was a cop. Wright threw $450 in cash on the bed. The undercover agent handed over a duffel bag full of riot gear, along with two black boxes containing decoy bombs that looked like real IEDs. He explained how to arm them and how to detonate each with a cellphone. Then they were on their way.
Driving back to Cleveland, Azir asked if they were all in for the plan, which would take place the next night. Wright replied yes, except for Stevens, who had skipped out on the buy for a reason: He didn't want to go through with it after all. Azir told Wright to have Stevens call him.
Later that day, amid performances and speeches at an Occupy festival next to City Hall, Stevens was even quieter than usual. He'd been acting weird for a few weeks – by turns depressed, aggravated, antsy and either drunk or high as hell. But now, during a Native American shaman circle in which everyone took turns congratulating an Occupy friend about to become a father, Stevens burst out crying. And at 8:00 the next night, when Azir pulled up in a van to pick him up with Wright and Hayne, Stevens hung back. The others were already inside: Baxter and one last-minute member, 23-year-old Josh Stafford, a stoned street rat and devoted Juggalo who told a friend he was schizophrenic.
Stevens looked haggard, his normally trim beard and hair grown out grizzly wild. He said he wasn't coming. He asked Azir whether his decision to bail would affect his construction job; early in his employment, Azir had told Stevens that if he wasn't "good" with the plan, he didn't want Stevens around. Azir now replied that the van still had space for one more, but that tonight's plan and the job were separate issues. It was all up to Stevens.
Wright rolled down a window. "There's still space if you want to join."
Stevens looked at his friends in the van. He got in.
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