By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
On March 24, David Williams IV and three other Newburgh, New York, men face possible life prison sentences for plotting to blow up two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and to shoot down military airplanes at Stewart Airport.
The Newburgh 4—ringleader James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen—were found guilty in a six-week trial based largely on the work of an FBI informant, Shahed Hussain, who posed as a wealthy Pakistani businessman with ties to an overseas terror group as part of an elaborate government sting operation.
The trial showed that Cromitie had made anti-Semitic and anti-American statements, that he concocted attack plans with Hussain, that the four defendants met to view an anti-aircraft missile, and that they planted what they had been told were bombs at two Riverdale synagogues on May 20, 2009.
The evidence, which included secretly taped conversations, painted a picture of four men who wanted to strike a blow for radical Islam. After the verdict, one juror told reporters, "We considered what they did a serious crime."
Defense lawyers tried unsuccessfully to convince the jury that the government had actually entrapped the four, but none of the defendants testified on their own or gave interviews.
Until now. David Williams tells the Voice what he hasn't said publicly before: that he went along with the bomb plot because he was trying to cheat Hussain, the government's informant, out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even as they were being secretly recorded and trailed by the government, Williams says he and Cromitie were working on their own plot to take Hussain's cash.
In other words, they wanted to scam a guy who, it turned out, was scamming them.
"We all said lots of things only to either impress [Hussain] or make him think he found a band of real killers. We never meant one word of what we said," Williams wrote in a recent letter to a friend.
"That's what the whole thing was about," Williams tells the Voice from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn where he is being held pending sentencing. He and Cromitie were plotting their own swindle, and both were clear nothing violent would happen. "Cromitie promised me nothing was going to happen."
But plenty has happened to Williams and his fellow defendants. After turning down plea deals for significantly shorter sentences, they rolled the dice by going to trial and keeping their own mouths shut, hoping their defense attorneys could convince a jury that Hussain was an unreliable informant who had manufactured and relentlessly pushed a terror plot by plying them with cash and gifts—the FBI had even pulled strings to keep Williams out of a larceny case that would have had him behind bars when the plot was scheduled to go down. (Both federal prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to comment for this story.)
Would the jury have been more sympathetic if the defendants had instead portrayed themselves as greedy criminals looking for an easy score? It's too late now to find out: Williams and the others are appealing their convictions, but for the moment they remain officially labeled home-grown terrorists who wanted to blow up Jewish people in the Bronx. And next month they could very well be sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives.
Following their arrests, David Williams IV and his co-defendants were described in the press as being not very bright convicted felons and drug addicts. They sounded barely literate—and determined to bring down the United States.
On December 31, a handwritten letter in impeccable script arrived at the offices of the Voice. It was from Williams, and it asked for a reporter's help to get his story out: "we planned to never hurt not one soul," he wrote. (The Voice also obtained letters Williams wrote to journalist Lyric Cabral and his aunt, Alicia McWilliams.) To get a more complete picture of his background, interviews were also conducted with his mother and other family members.
Williams spent the first seven years of his life in a fairly middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, his mother says. He had an uncle, now deceased, who was involved in the narcotics business in the tough Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Williams's father was jailed on drug charges, and so his mother, Elizabeth McWilliams, decided to move the family to Newburgh, a working-class upstate town that is stricken with poverty, gangs, and drugs.
"We wanted to get away from the 'fast life,' " she says. "There was a lot of drugs and things around that I didn't want my children to grow up in."
Once upstate, she worked in a variety of jobs, first at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, as a clerk for the football coach, and as a cafeteria worker. She later worked as a public-school janitor and then in a hospital as a patient-care technician in Westchester County.
She had two other children: Lord McWilliams, who is now 22 and ailing from liver disease, and Hassan McWilliams who is 29 and currently in prison for vehicular manslaughter.
Williams says that when he was in high school, he wanted to be a detective—of all things—and then a basketball player, but he turned finally to drug dealing in his late teens. "All failed, and I just went to the streets as a future," he writes. "[It was] the worst mistake of my life and by the time it was too late, I was left with two felonies, drugs, and weapons' possession."