Updated, 5:36 p.m. | At Masjid al-Ikhlas, the mosque where James Cromitie, described as the leader of the four defendants, is said to have met with an F.B.I. informer, the imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, stressed that none of the men were active
members of the mosque.
An assistant imam, Hamin Rashada, said he had counseled one of the defendants, Laguerre Payen, at a transition center in Newburgh for former prison inmates. Mr. Payen would drop into the center at least three times a week since he moved to Newburgh from Middletown in February, Mr. Rashada said, adding that Mr. Payen was quiet,evasive, penniless and unemployed.
Mr. Rashada said he believed Mr. Payen had “some very serious psychological problems,” but said Mr. Payen never discussed politics or violence. “That’s what puzzles me,” Mr. Rashada said. “I’m shocked.”
Mr. Rashada said Mr. Payen had been fighting a deportation order and had custody of a 3-year-old son. He said Mr. Payen had converted to Islam in prison but had only gone to the mosque a handful of times. “He has no involvement here,” Mr. Rashada said outside the mosque, which is also known as the Islamic Learning Center of Orange County.
Mr. Cromitie showed up at the mosque every few months. “He would come and
then he would disappear like a phantom,” Mr. Rashada said.
Mr. Muhammad, the imam, said the mosque is moderate, diverse and very involved in interfaith initiatives. “I am for cooperation, appreciation and respect,” he said, adding, “The majority of our members are hard-working people who love America.”
Updated, 2:47 p.m. | After years spent in prison, David Williams seemed to be getting his life in order by enrolling in college, working as a cook, and recommitting to his family, his mother Elizabeth McWilliams, 48, said Thursday morning outside her apartment in Newburgh.
“He is not who they say he is,” Ms. McWilliams said sitting on a concrete stoop behind which her front door showed a splintered boot print where an officer had kicked it in at 10 p.m. Wednesday night.
Having served time on a drug charge from late 2003 through 2006, Mr. Williams took a job as a saute chef at Boulder Creek Steakhouse in Brooklyn, Ms. McWilliams said. He also studied computers at ASA college on Lawrence Street in Brooklyn, she said.
A week ago, Mr. Williams became a father for the second time over, she said. In addition to an infant son, he has a 7-year-old daughter whom he had been making efforts to spend more time with, she said.
Ms. McWilliams said that Mr. Williams took a leave of absence from his job in March when the family feared that his youngest brother, who lives in Newburgh, had cancer.
“He came up here the same day that his brother went into the hospital,” Ms. McWilliams said. “The same day.”
Raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and with two younger brothers, Mr. Williams moved to Newburgh with his family several years ago. He left in 2003 when he was sent to prison and since moved back to Brooklyn.
He rarely talked about religion and never about politics, save for saying he was excited to vote for Barrack Obama last fall, his mother said.
She said he enjoyed working out and on many days could be seen hoisting a dumbbell on the grass outside the family’s apartment, a townhouse in a development of similar two-story, attached houses in Newburgh. Mr. Williams enjoyed playing baseball and basketball with the kids in the neighborhood.
He also wrote poetry, she said, journals of which the police confiscated when they raided the house on Wednesday night. Mr. Williams poetry, his mother said, detailed his life growing up without a father and his experiences in jail.
Although his father left when Mr. Williams was young, he did inherit one thing from him; his religion. Though Ms. McWilliams is a Catholic, she said Mr. Williams is Muslim, a religion he learned from his father.
“He respected my religion and I respected his,” she said.
Mr. Williams’s girlfriend, Cassandra McKoy, 21, said that he became more deeply committed to his faith while in jail.
“He was raised Muslim, that’s just the way he is,” she said. “He became more that way in jail.”
Ms. McWilliams said that Mr. Williams would hang out with James Cromedy around the neighborhood. The two lived only a few hundred yards apart and were very friendly with each other. She had no knowledge of them interacting in jail, she said.
“They met around two years ago,” she said. “He didn’t know James that long.”
Aahkiyaah Cummings, Mr. Williams’s aunt, said the last time she saw him, about a week ago, he seemed distant. Ms. Cummings said she gave Mr. Williams a hug outside his mother’s apartment and felt a change.
“You know your family and one of the things I always looked forward to was a hug from David because there was such realness, such love,” she said. “But after I embraced him I said to my husband, ‘Something is not right. You need to talk to him.’”
She said he never got the chance.
Updated, 12:38 p.m. | Adele Cromitie, 65, the mother of James Cromitie, answered the door at around 11:10 a.m., standing next to Wanda Walker, 45, his sister.
They call Mr. Cromitie “Fildy” - a nickname derived from his youth when he used to dance to a television commercial to keep New York City clean. On the commercial, the mother said, there was a little man who used to put the garbage in the can and it would say ‘fill dee basket.’ Over the years, it became Fildy.
Mrs. Cromitie said she first heard of his arrest on the television news. She said she was sleeping and when she rolled over and opened her eyes, she was looking at her son’s face on the TV. She said she wasn’t sure if it was him because the TV news pronounced his name wrong.
“I said, ‘That looked like my son,’” she said. She wore a blue denim jacket with matching pants and a pink shirt underneath. Her apartment, where she said she’s lived for 26 years, was disheveled - books piled on the table, movies piled on another, papers strewn about.
She said she last saw James three years ago when he showed up at her apartment door after one of his many stints in jail. She said he brought her up to his house in Newburgh where he was living with a woman, though she didn’t remember her name or know their relationship. She stayed with him for three
days. It was then that he told her he was a Muslim.
“When he told me that, I said, ‘get outta here’,” she said. James had been raised as an Episcopalian and the family attended St. Augustus’s Church, albeit infrequently.
Before that, it had been nearly 15 years since she had seen him.
“He has been out of our lives for years,” said Walker. The mother interrupted her and said, “I would always wonder why he didn’t call me on my birthday or Mother’s Day.”
They both said he had been in and out of jail since he was 14 or 15 years old. They said they never visited him jail and both said they don’t want to see him now.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said the mother. “I went and got the paper and I was looking at my his face.”
She said he was born in Brooklyn and raised on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Adele Cromitie has 10 children, and said James was a middle child.
Wanda Walker, his sister, said, “He was the dumbest person in the world. If he had gone through with this, anybody from his family could’ve been walking by.”
At that point, as they stood in their living room, the mother broke down in tears and asked, “Why would he do something like that?”
Ms. Walker remembered her brother as a jokester, always singing and dancing, impersonating R and B singers. She said he used to sing gospel songs and oldies. He would mimic Smoky Robinson or Luther Vandross.
“You could be down, on your downest day and downest luck, and he’d make you laugh,” said Ms. Walker. “I’m still waiting for the punch line of all of this.”
Ms. Walker said that in the past, her brother had worked for Wal-Mart and Pepsi, but she added, “Well, that’s what he said. He can lie.”
Updated, 12:38 p.m. | A federal magistrate judge, Lisa M. Smith, ordered three of the defendants — James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams — to be held at a Westchester County jail at least until a June 5 court date. Lawyers for the three men declined to file bail applications, but said they reserved the right to do so in the future.
The three men entered the courtroom shortly before noon, handcuffed and shackled around the waist in thick metal chains.
Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said at the presentation of the charges, “It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot.” He added, “These are extremely violent men. These are men who eagerly embraced an opportunity” to “bring deaths to Jews.”
The suspects looked nervous, all wearing the same clothes they wore the evening before when they entered custody in Manhattan. The men were transferred to White Plains on Thursday morning. Mr. Cromitie shook his head and grimaced, appearing to stare into space at one point when Judge Smith explained the penalties for perjury. “I didn’t hear you, your honor,” he told her at one point.
David Williams, wearing sagging shorts without a belt, pursed his lips and appeared to be gripping the waistband of his shorts with his right hand, which was manacled in front of him, to hold them up. Onta Williams clasped his palms together, grinding them in front of his body. When asked various questions by Judge Smith about whether they understood the charges against them, they replied in monotones.
Asked whether they had done anything to impair their judgment recently, Mr. Cromitie acknowledged having smoked marijuana on Wednesday, but maintained that he was clear-headed in the courtroom. Mr. Cromitie’s court-appointed lawyer, Vincent L. Briccetti, said his client’s arms had been injured by glass the previous days when law enforcement officials broke the windows of the sport-utility vehicle the suspects were riding in, in the Bronx.
Mr. Snyder appeared to single out David Williams, saying he was someone who “stands out as more violent” and who was “bragging, boasting that he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him.” Mr. Williams bought a pistol in a Brooklyn housing project for $700 from a man who Mr. Williams described to an F.B.I. informer as a “supreme Blood gang leader.” (Mr. Williams told the informer that if the informer had not been with him when he bought the gun, Mr. Williams would have killed the gun seller and held onto the $700, Mr. Snyder said.)
One of the four defendants, Laguerre Payen, was not present at the presentation of charges. A representative of the United States attorney’s office said Mr. Payen would likely appear later on Thursday afternoon.
Updated, 11:06 a.m. | A group of Jewish and Muslim leaders have scheduled a 1 p.m. news conference at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, one of the city’s largest mosques, to condemn violence.
Imam Muhammad Shamsi Ali, the spiritual leader of the mosque, on East 96th Street near Third Avenue, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and founding rabbi of The New York Synagogue, are to attend. “We call upon Muslim leaders to stand firm against the forces of evil,” Imam Ali said.
Rabbi Schneier said in a statement: “It is reassuring to hear the voices of Muslim leaders speaking out in solidarity with the Jewish community and unequivocally condemning acts of terrorism and violence.”
Updated, 11:02 a.m. | Wanda Cromitie, whose brother, James, has been described by the authorities as the ringleader of the terror plot, said in a phone interview, “I was very surprised. I heard about it on T.V. this morning. This is really shocking. This is crazy. I’m really devastated.”
Asked whether her brother had ever expressed any political views like the ones ascribed to him by the authorities, Ms. Cromitie replied: “Never. Right now to me he’s like the dumbest person I ever came in contact with in my life.”
Ms. Cromitie said she was not close with her brother and last talked to him about two years ago. She believed he had a job at a K-Mart or Wal-Mart.
Ms. Cromitie said she did not believe her brother was a Muslim, but noted that many inmates convert to Islam in prison. “They do a little time in jail and they don’t eat pork no more,” she said.
Updated, 10:57 a.m. | The four men who were arrested Wednesday night in what the authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y., were “petty criminals” who acted alone and did not appear to be acting in concert with any terrorist organization, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Thursday morning.
In a news conference at the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the two synagogues that were said to be the targets of the plot, Mr. Kelly offered new details about the four defendants — James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen. The men are to appear in Federal District Court in White Plains, N.Y., later Thursday morning.
Mr. Cromitie, 53, had lived in Brooklyn and had a record of “as many as 27 arrests” for minor crimes “both upstate and in New York City,” Mr. Kelly said. He, David Williams and Onta Williams are native-born United States citizens, while Mr. Payen is a native of Haiti. “We believe they knew each other from prison contacts, for the most part,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Cromitie was the oldest member of the group and its leader, while the others were “significantly younger,” in their late 20s or early 30s, Mr. Kelly said.
“They stated that they wanted to commit jihad,” he said. “More information about their motives I’m sure will be developed as the case progresses, but right now, they stated they wanted to make jihad. They were disturbed about what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that Muslims were being killed. They were making statements that Jews were killed in this attack and that would be all right — that sort of thing.”
The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, were arrested around 9 p.m. Wednesday after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue.
The arrests came after what officials described as a “painstaking investigation” that began in June 2008 involving an F.B.I. agent who had been told by a federal informant of the men’s desire to attack targets in America.
At no point, the authorities emphasized, did the men actually acquire weapons of mass destruction, though they stand accused of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles.
Mr. Kelly offered fresh details on Thursday morning of the moments leading up to the arrests on Wednesday night.
The arrests, he said, occurred after one of the suspects placed what he believed were homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices, in separate vehicles parked outside the synagogues. The other three suspects served as lookouts, Mr. Kelly said.
“There was a driver who was a cooperator, and there was the individual who placed the bombs in the vehicle, and then there were three lookouts,” Mr. Kelly said. “When everyone returned to their car — as everyone was going back to the car — that is when the signal was given to the emergency service officers to move in.”
An 18-wheel New York Police Department vehicle — known as a “low-boy” — blocked the suspects’ black sport utility vehicle at 237th Street and Riverdale Avenue. The F.B.I. informer also served as the driver of the suspects’ S.U.V., Mr. Kelly said.
Another armored vehicle arrived, and officers from the department’s Emergency Service Unit smashed the blackened windows of the S.U.V., removed the men from the vehicle, and handcuffed them on the ground. None offered resistance.
Other police officers, along with members of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the F.B.I., and the State Police, were also on hand, and “moved in and took those individuals away,” Mr. Kelly said.
Each of the two homemade bombs was equipped with “about 37 pounds” of inert C-4 plastic explosives, but the devices had been “totally disabled by the F.B.I.” and “there was no danger to anyone,” Mr. Kelly said.
He said of the case: “It speaks to our concern about homegrown terrorism.”
Mr. Kelly joined Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and elected officials for a news conference on Thursday morning outside the Riverdale Jewish Center to greet morning worshipers.
The mayor praised the Police Department, which worked on the F.B.I. and other agencies on the case, and described the disruption of the terror plot as a frightening but exceptional occurrence. “Most people in New York City want to live together, work together, and I think we’re as safe today as we’ve ever been before,” the mayor said.
State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat who represents Riverdale, noted that he is a member of the congregation at the Riverdale Temple. “I think most people will agree that we’re very angry, but very sad that this kind of plot would take place in our community,” he said. “There are people out there motivated by religious hatred, hatred against Jews, frankly, but the good news is that the N.Y.P.D. and F.B.I. were on top of this from the very beginning.”
City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, who also represents the neighborhood, said: “It’s a very frightening, disturbing situation. Fortunately, good, enormously good police work averted a terrible tragedy.”
He added: “Unfortunately, people with twisted minds often copy things. I think our community needs special protection now — I’m sure we’ll get it.”
The overwhelming sentiment among members of the Jewish population in Riverdale interviewed on Thursday morning was astonishment.
“I was shocked,” Eric Suss, 18, said outside the Riverdale Jewish Center. “As a Jew, I felt targeted.”
Harry Feder, 59, former president of the Orthodox synagogue, said: “I think it’s just a shock. Of all the places in the metropolitan area, of all the communities, this is surprising. This has put fear into whatever community you’re in.”
Another synagogue member, Elliot Falk, 56, said: “I felt a heightened sense of danger. There’s always been anti-Semitism in this world, it’s a shame to see it taken to an extreme here.”
David Winter, executive director of the synagogue, said he was “both shocked and relieved.” He said, “Instead of a terrible story, it’s a story of success.” The Riverdale Jewish Center has close ties to Israel.
More than 700 families are members of the synagogue, and people normally pray there from 5:30 in the morning until 10 in the evening, Mr. Winter said.
The Riverdale Jewish Community Council, whose leaders were briefed on the terror plot by police officials on Wednesday evening, noted that Jewish synagogues in the neighborhood had been the subject of threats. Ari Hoffnung, the council’s chairman, said in a statement:
Unfortunately, this is not the first attempt to terrorize a house of worship in Riverdale. This incident demonstrates the need for the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant agencies to expand the funding of security grants for religious institutions and houses of worship. High-density, high-vulnerability areas like New York ought to receive all resources necessary to protect themselves.
Also on Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties organization for Muslim Americans, urged the public not to link the case with mainstream Islam.
“We applaud the F.B.I., the New York Police Department and the other law enforcement agencies that took part in the investigation for their efforts in helping to prevent any harm to either Jewish institutions or to our nation’s military,” the organization’s executive director, Nihad Awad, said. “We repeat the American Muslim community’s repudiation of bias-motivated crimes and of anyone who would falsely claim religious justification for violent actions. Members of the American Muslim community should remain vigilant in reporting any activities that could harm the safety and security of our nation or its citizens.”
Colin Moynihan, Kenny Porpora, Sam Roberts and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.