So here they were at Applebee's, wet and bedraggled as they took their seats around the table. The operation had gone smoothly: Wright, Stevens and Stafford had planted the bombs under the bridge while Baxter, Hayne and Azir had acted as lookouts. Although it had taken mere minutes, the tension and the rain had made it feel like forever, and the mood in the van afterward had been one of adrenaline-charged bonhomie. "If you do this stuff together, you're basically family," Wright had said, adding, "I'm glad you came, Connor." Stevens had agreed he was glad, too.
In the cheery restaurant, Wright scanned for cameras; Azir had suggested going to a place with surveillance video, to establish their alibi. As another red herring, the guys volunteered to their waiter that they were a touring rock band en route to a gig in Lakewood. As soon as the waiter left the table, Wright and Stafford each hunched over a detonator phone.
Wright tried punching in the code first. Back in the van he had joked, "I guess if we call and the FBI picks up, we know it didn't work." Then he added, "Something like that happens, I'm just going to swallow a razor blade." But now, when Wright dialed the number he'd been given, a voicemail picked up. Stafford tried too: voicemail. Each tried calling again, then texting; they tried entering multiple codes.
Stevens snickered. "What kind of group did I get involved in?" he asked.
"This is serious," Wright said. "We need to figure it out." They called the arms dealer to ask whether they had the correct code. Then Wright and Stafford tried sending the codes at the same time. For more than 10 minutes, they tried unsuccessfully to detonate the bombs. Then they all got up and left the restaurant. The FBI was waiting in the parking lot.
"The public was never in danger from the explosive devices," read the U.S. Attorney's Office statement to the media the next morning, announcing the arrests. "The defendants were closely monitored by law enforcement." All five were charged with conspiracy and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. The trial is scheduled to begin on September 17th – if convicted, the boys could get life in prison. Hayne has already cut a deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to testify in exchange for a sentence of up to 19 years.
It's difficult to characterize five young men who may have been willing to detonate a bridge – killing an untold number of people in the process – as innocent. The pivotal question is not how sincere they were, but whether they could ever have managed to put together and act on such a plan on their own, without the pressure, funding and resources provided by Shaquille Azir. Consensus among friends and family is unanimous. "I hate talking about them like this, but they weren't smart enough for something like this," says Strehle, Baxter's girlfriend, echoing the prevailing opinion. "They were clueless."
The crux of the Cleveland Five's defense will likely rest on whether Azir's aggressive role in the crime constituted entrapment – a strategy which Baxter's defense attorney John Pyle foreshadowed at an early court appearance. "They couldn't blow their noses, let alone blow up a bridge," he said of his clients, "were it not for what this provocateur did." Yet the government has had no problem overcoming the entrapment defense to win convictions in similar cases. The legal definition of entrapment is actually rather narrow: Even though enticing people into committing crimes might seem unjust, that doesn't make it unlawful. Prosecutors typically argue that defendants' histories show they were predisposed to commit the crime. And juries frightened by the magnitude of the foiled plots are inclined to bring down the hammer.
In the case of the Cleveland Five, defense attorneys have also signaled their intention to reveal Azir's extensive criminal history, which could undermine his credibility. Azir has been causing prosecutors plenty of headaches since the arrests. After his identity was outed by the Smoking Gun, the FBI scuttled him into the witness-protection program, reportedly in response to a threat. But living life under federal protection hasn't kept him out of trouble. In May, Azir – who still faces two outstanding bad-check cases he picked up during his time with Occupy – was arrested in Cuyahoga County for theft. He's out on $5,000 bail.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Five, denied bail, have remained in prison since their arrests. (All declined comment for this article.) Each is adjusting to prison in his own way. Baxter has been stalwartly upbeat, saying that what he's read so far of the FBI transcripts of Azir's recordings are "not bad." Wright, by contrast, is lashing out, having been put into solitary confinement for breaking minor prison rules, including "hoarding Personal Hygiene." "I didn't know you could have too much soap . . . WTF?!" he wrote to a friend, signing off, "Freedom or Death, Down with the Fascist Pigs." He recently declared a hunger strike in protest of his treatment.
But it is Connor Stevens who has blossomed behind bars, writing zealous, rambling diatribes from jail, warming to his new role of political prisoner. "More and more of the truth will come out during the trial. What's done in the dark will be brought to the light," he wrote in one letter. "They can stone me to death tomorrow and I will die with dignity on the righteous side of the People." Stevens has been bowled over by the letters of solidarity pouring in from friends and strangers, and is relishing the embrace of the anarchist brotherhood. He often gets swept away by his own rapturous outrage. "The Fascists have not merely imprisoned the May Day 5," he wrote. "They have, in effect, declared war on any life which even QUESTIONS their hegemony." It's as though Stevens, in his rhetorical fervor, forgot the part where he tried to blow up a bridge.
From the loving yet angry kid with half-baked political ideals, Connor Stevens has morphed into someone who sounds like the fiery radical the government has painted him to be. Perhaps in the end, after all their efforts, the feds really did get the terrorist they wanted. But Stevens got something, too. With his legit cred as a political dissident, he has finally found a life-defining mission and, at last, a sense of belonging and identity – the fulfillment he was searching for all along.
This story is from the September 17th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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