ST. PAUL, Minn. — Two East Central Illinois men who admitted their roles in firebombing an Islamic mosque in Minnesota, trying to firebomb a women’s health clinic in Champaign and other violent acts during 2017 and 2018 associated with a homegrown terrorist group face 35 years to life behind bars.
No sentencing dates have yet been set for Joseph Morris, 23, and Michael McWhorter, 29, both of Clarence in eastern Ford County.
In separate hearings Thursday in federal court in St. Paul, the men pleaded guilty to several charges filed against them in Minnesota and Illinois last year.
Morris and McWhorter were members of a militia group dubbed the "Patriot Freedom Fighters" that authorities think was headed by Michael Hari, 47, also of Clarence.
Hari remains in the Livingston County Jail in the Central District of Illinois and is currently set to be tried in Urbana beginning July 15.
Morris and McWhorter each pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank to:
— Intentionally obstructing and attempting to obstruct by force and threat of force the free exercise of religious beliefs, and carrying and using a destructive device during and in relation to crimes of violence.
The most serious of all the charges, this one carries the potential of 30 years to life in prison. It stemmed from the Aug. 5, 2017, fire that extensively damaged the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn.
Morris and McWhorter admitted they traveled to the mosque from central Illinois in a rental truck with Hari, avoiding toll roads along the way so as not to have their license plates identified.
Morris admitted that he used a sledgehammer to break a mosque window so that McWhorter could toss in a homemade pipe bomb Hari had assembled. Morris admitted he threw in a container of gasoline and diesel fuel, also filled by Hari, to fuel the fire.
The firebombing took place about 5 a.m. that Saturday, while people were assembled for morning prayer. However, no one was injured. Besides being a place of worship, the building housed a religious school for children.
McWhorter and Morris admitted the bombing was done to scare Muslims into believing they are not welcome in the U.S. and should leave the country. The pair said they believed the mosque was so far from their central Illinois home that they did not think they would be suspected in the bombing.
Morris, McWhorter and Hari returned to Illinois that day.
— Attempted arson, possession of a machine gun and conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence.
Those charges stemmed from activity that took place in East Central Illinois and Indiana.
The attempted arson happened Nov. 7, 2017, at Women’s Health Practice, 2125 S. Neil St., Champaign. An employee found a broken window and a homemade pipe bomb that apparently failed to ignite on the floor of a surgery room. At the time, the clinic performed abortions.
McWhorter said he was the lookout at the clinic while Morris admitted breaking the window and tossing in the incendiary device, which fizzled.
The charges of possession of a machine gun — actually two guns converted to fire in full automatic mode — relates to a period between October 2017 to Feb. 27, 2018, in Clarence.
The charge of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence includes several crimes alleged in Illinois and Indiana, including the Dec. 4, 2017, armed robbery of a Walmart in Watseka, where the robbers netted just over $1,000; the Dec. 4, 2017, armed robbery of a Walmart in Mount Vernon where no cash was obtained; a Dec. 16, 2017, home invasion and armed robbery at a home in Ambia, Ind., where the suspects dressed as police while they restrained and robbed people in the house; and a Jan. 17, 2018, threat to blow up a portion of the Canadian National Railway near Effingham unless the rail company paid them more than $190,000 where no money was received.
Unlike the guilty plea entered in the Central District of Illinois by a fourth member of the militia, Ellis "E.J." Mack, 19, the stepson of McWhorter, for his role in the crimes, Morris’ and McWhorter’s agreements are silent about them testifying against Hari.
Hari is charged in Minnesota and Illinois with all the same crimes as Morris and McWhorter plus one additional count: unlawful use of weapons by a felon.
Police and prosecutors think Hari was the mastermind behind the "Patriot Freedom Fighters" group, which changed its name to "White Rabbits" after the mosque bombing.
A former Ford County sheriff’s deputy and one-time Libertarian candidate for sheriff, Hari is alleged to have kept bomb ingredients and weapons in an office in Clarence.
Hari, Morris, McWhorter and Mack were all charged in Illinois in March of last year with possession of a machine gun for weapons found in Clarence. On that day, Hari, Morris and McWhorter were also charged in Minnesota with the mosque firebombing.
In May, the additional charges of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats of violence were added by a grand jury in Illinois against all four.
Prosecutors said Mack was not actively participating in the group at the time of the mosque fire and they did not believe he played a role in the attempted arson against the health clinic.
Mack pleaded guilty last September to conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence and is awaiting sentencing in April.