Were the Newburgh 4 Really Out to Blow Up Synagogues? A Defendant Finally Speaks Out.
From left: James Cromitie, David Williams, Laguerre Payen, and Onta Williams.
Photographs by J.B. Nicholas, Christopher Sadowski Splash News/Newscom
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.
Slideshow: Newburgh 4: FBI Fantasy or Terrorist Takedown?
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."
Williams recalls walking into a relative's apartment, and seeing money-counting machines surrounded by huge amounts of cash. "Selling drugs, I came across $10,000 at one time, spent half on clothes, girls, partying, and weed," he writes.
While the tabloids claimed he converted to Islam in prison, Williams says instead that an uncle talked to him about the religion when he was 14, and he slowly became more involved with it, even as he was falling into the world of drug dealing.
Williams has the words "Allah," and "Akbar" tattooed on his hands. He got the first when his daughter was born in 2002, and the second, in 2005. "I am a proud Muslim," he says. The tattoos, he says, had nothing to do with any particular political views.
In fact, he says, he never followed the news in Iraq and Afghanistan. He couldn't even name the president of Afghanistan. "If it don't have nothing to do with me, I don't pay attention to it," he says.
Just prior to his involvement in the Newburgh 4 case, Williams was living in Brooklyn, working in a steakhouse, and attending a technical school to study computers. He only returned to Newburgh because his brother, Lord, fell ill with liver disease. He decided to come home to help his mother, who had to leave her job to care for him.
If not for his brother's sickness, he wouldn't have been in Newburgh and he wouldn't have joined the other three with Hussain: "I'm in Brooklyn. How would I come up with this? Come on."
In the spring of 2008—well before Williams returned to Newburgh, and almost a year before he got involved in the plot—Hussain, the FBI informant, was already there, trolling local mosques without success for radical Islamists.
Hussain met Cromitie in the parking lot of Masjid Al-Iklas, the Newburgh mosque. According to Imam Dr. Salahuddin Muhammad, the founder of the mosque, some mosque members had already complained about Hussain's behavior: "They said this individual was talking about jihad—there's something wrong with this guy, he's not real," Muhammad recalls. "People thought he was an FBI agent. The guy was fishing."
Cromitie was only an occasional visitor to the mosque, Muhammad says. During subsequent meetings with Hussain, Cromitie made statements that were anti-Semitic and anti-American (these initial meetings, however, were not tape-recorded). He also spoke of jihad in the exchanges with Hussain.
"I want to do something to America," Cromitie said, according to Hussain on the very first meeting on June 13, 2008. In another meeting on July 3, 2008, he said he wanted to kill President Bush, Hussain claimed. On October 12, 2008, he expressed "his desire to kill Jews and conduct jihad for an Islamic cause."
But, for a supposed jihadi, Cromitie displayed quite a lot of ambivalence about the plot. He dragged it out and took very little action for months. At one point, he even disappeared, telling Hussain he was moving to North Carolina. (He never actually left Newburgh and simply avoided Hussain for at least six weeks.)
Hussain aggressively pursued Cromitie to get him involved in a terror scheme and provided him with whatever he needed, including gifts, cash, cars, and all the equipment and logistics for the plot.
On December 10, 2008, Hussain reminded Cromitie that the Newburgh man hadn't picked a target, chosen equipment, made up code words, or recruited others: "You've not started on the first step, brother. Come on."
Cromitie replied, "Maybe it's not my mission, then. Maybe my mission hasn't come yet."
On December 18, Hussain left Newburgh, traveled to Pakistan, and returned on February 23. During that period, the FBI stopped following Cromitie. Under cross-examination, FBI Special Agent Robert Fuller acknowledged that Cromitie was unlikely to do anything without the informant's presence.
After that, on the orders of the FBI, Hussain (who went by the name "Maqsood" in the operation) offered a new incentive: a BMW and cash close to $250,000. That was in February, and Cromitie eventually said, "OK, fuck it. I don't care. Ah, man. Maqsood, you got me."
But Cromitie did little more until April, when he called Hussain to ask for money because he had been fired from his job. Hussain pressed him and promised a two-week vacation to Puerto Rico, a car, and a barbershop business if he went along with the plot.
David Williams's name didn't even show up in the investigation until April 2009, nearly a year after Cromitie and Hussain first met. In that April 10 meeting, Williams, Cromitie, and Hussain bought a camera and drove to the Bronx, supposedly to select targets. Williams says he didn't really understand the purpose of the trip.
Williams says that when Cromitie first approached him to get involved, he specifically said that no violence would take place, and only on that basis did Williams agree to get involved, and only then because he was desperate for money to support his family and get a liver transplant for his brother.
"He was like, 'This guy [Hussain] is offering me $250,000, and I'll give you half for your little brother's operation,' " Williams tells the Voice. "Just be a lookout. You don't have to worry about anything happening. Nothing is going to happen."
"We knew nothing was going to happen," he adds. "He offered the money, and we were just plotting to rip him off."
In a recent letter to a friend, Williams writes, "My role—our role in this case—was to get over on the CI and get that money he was offering us."
Williams says that when they spoke outside of the presence of the informant, they only talked about what they would do with the money they would get. They never spoke about "jihad," or the plot, or anything related to terrorism.
Moreover, he says that the four men barely knew each other. He knew Cromitie a little through his brother, who worked with him at Wal-Mart. He knew Onta Williams better because they'd sold drugs together in the past. He didn't know Payen at all.
"Prior to this, I never actually interacted with James [Cromitie]," Williams says. "Before this, I never really sat down and talked with him. Then, all we did was smoke lots of weed and played video games—NBA 2K, mostly," he says.
Williams says he didn't meet Hussain until April 10, 2009, just five weeks before the phony plot took place.
"I came into this basically at the end, and the other two defendants came in five days after me [records show it was April 28]," Williams says. "When I came in, everything was already in the making—planning, codes, targets, day of the operation, the whole government made-up mission."
He says Hussain gave him $160 during that period, and promised to get him money for his brother's liver transplant operation and a doctor who could help. Williams says he only cooperated with Hussain because he wanted to take even more money from him.
Cromitie, meanwhile, was also not being very truthful with Hussain. Cromitie claimed he was the commander of a team training for jihad in the woods with guns. It wasn't true. Cromitie promised to introduce Hussain to this "security team," but never did because it didn't exist.
Cromitie claimed he had gone to Afghanistan. He claimed he had blown up a police station. He claimed he served 15 years in prison for attempted murder. He claimed he stole handguns from Wal-Mart. None of it was true.
"Every time James lied to him, or said something anti-American or whatever, the informant would give him money," Williams says. "Cromitie knew what the informant wanted to hear and gave it to him so he could get that money. I even lied to the informant about a bunch of stuff. Like I said, we were always lying to him, and he was always lying to us."
Williams added, "I told the CI a bunch of stories about prison that were exaggerated. I never said anything about being radical. Just as far as seeing stabbings. Again, we were just trying to convince him that we were this band that was going to do this."
In the trial, the government made much of the May 6, 2009, meeting in which Hussain showed the four plotters the "missile." Asked why he even attended that meeting, Williams says, "Every move we made, it was because of [Hussain]. I didn't want to go to that meeting. But we were following along, looking for the money—we was just playing the script. I said things that obviously I wasn't going to do. He was lying to us, and we was lying to him."
Williams says he had an open grand larceny case in Queens for which he was scheduled to be sentenced on May 13. If the FBI hadn't secretly intervened and had the date changed, he would have been in jail when the supposed plot climaxed on May 20.
When that critical day came, Williams says that the informant outmaneuvered them by refusing to give them the keys to UPS mailboxes supposedly containing the cash until after they left for Riverdale. "He knew if he gave us the keys in Newburgh, I would have been out of that car," he says.
As proof of this decision not to commit violence, Williams claims that none of the defendants actually switched on the cell-phone triggers for the "bombs." It was Hussain, he says, who connected the phones to the bombs.
Williams says that about five minutes after he was deposited near the synagogue—supposedly to act as a lookout—he decided to walk away. He wanted to visit his son in Coney Island and went looking for a subway station. It got dark, and he got a little lost looking for the station.
"I walked toward the highway, but then it got dark, so I went back around looking for a hill where I had seen the subway station," he says. "A helicopter was following me, and that's when the SWAT team jumped out on me."
"He was leaving the situation," Alicia McWilliams says.
Because Williams never testified, the federal jury never got to hear his side of the story. That's something that he now regrets. "The lawyers were like they were going to pick [Hussain] to pieces," he says. "They said we don't need to testify. They felt they were strong enough to win. I wanted to testify, and I wish I had. I have a lot to say."
Williams says that the government offered several plea deals to the four defendants. But he turned down those offers, including a final one that would have put him in prison for 13 years. Now, for having gone to trial, he faces life in prison.
"If I really felt guilty, or felt we were actually going to do this [attack], I would have taken the 13 years," he says. "But in my heart, I knew we weren't going to do anything, and so I turned down the offer and went to trial. We just knew we could beat it. The only thing that's important is our intentions—our true intentions—not what the government put out there."
Williams was confident enough that the government's case would fall apart under cross-examination of the informant to turn down the plea deals. The trial verdict was a bitter shock.
"Evidence-wise, we had them beat," he says. "We got convicted on feelings. They [prosecutors] started talking about 9/11, and James was saying a lot of stuff that was ill and real stupid, and we got convicted on that. Once you put 'terrorist' in front of anything, it's like being charged with rape or child molestation. Once a jury hears that you're accused of a certain type of crime, you're already guilty."
Following his arrest, David Williams was sent to Valhalla, a jail in Westchester County, to await trail. He says that he was held in near-isolation, 23 hours a day in his cell, for four months. He was searched twice a day, ordered each time to crouch in the corner of his cell on his knees, cross his legs, put his hands on his head and lean his forehead against the wall.
"[Correction officers] were trying to tear me down for reasons only God and their hearts know," he writes. Westchester "almost broke me mentally."
One officer, telling him his son was half-Jewish, told Williams he wished him 60 years in jail. Officers called him a "radical Taliban." Another said Williams would get the death penalty. Yet another claimed he knocked down the pictures in Williams's cell in case he was hiding "anthrax powder" there. A somewhat more sympathetic correction officer eventually told Williams that they were told to "go hard" on him.
"If I am presumed innocent until proven guilty, why was I feeling the wrath of people's hate, especially when the facts have yet to be told?" he wrote at the time.
Williams's letters from jail are those from a man consumed with regret over being so stupid as to allow himself to be drawn into the scheme to get money out of Hussain. He expresses the fear of rotting away in a super-maximum prison for the rest of his life and of never seeing his children again. He also expresses frustration with some of his relatives, for, as he writes, "turning their backs to me as if I were an enemy of the state."
Williams talks about suing the government for false arrest. He feels "dumb for allowing myself to be in such a jam." He writes that he wants to "expose our government's lies": "We went from convicts, taxpayers, fathers, etc., to terrorists overnight, and we were never terrorists," he writes.
He expresses repeatedly that he will continue to press for his release. He says he is thankful for his supporters—including his aunt, Alicia McWilliams—who has been trying to rally local politicians to get involved. He has allowed his beard to grow as a symbol of that.
"I guess you can say that I'm like a woman when she's pregnant: Emotions are everywhere but where they should be," he writes in a January 25 letter.
In another letter to a loved one, he writes, "I am humbled to hear you understand my reasons for what I did for Lord, and to ask if I would ever do it again, yes, I would just as long as our plan remained the same, meaning no one would be hurt of course. My decision was crazy, emotional, but never will I kill any human beings."
Williams says he was fairly abruptly transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federally run holding facility in Manhattan. The conditions eased somewhat. Now, he was locked down for 18 hours a day, instead of the previous 23 hours.
"Besides the past and some biased words and feelings, I'm treated as a regular inmate, besides being searched everyday, being escorted everywhere, I go around the jail."
More recently, Williams was transferred again, to the federal holding facility in Brooklyn known as Metropolitan Detention Center, and he says things have settled down.
He has taken to writing poetry. He says he has decided to change his name to "King Solomon."
In a more recent letter, dated January 19, 2011, he writes that dwelling on the case "just reopens the wounds of a justice system that has failed its citizens."
The Newburgh 4's hopes currently rest on two things: the goodwill of the federal judge in the case, and a series of motions filed by their lawyers. One of the motions demands dismissal of the case for "outrageous government conduct."
Cromitie's lawyer, Vincent Briccetti, writes that once Hussain "cynically" turned Cromitie from an angry and disaffected man into someone motivated by money and spiritual reward, "the government designed, funded, supplied, engineered and directed every detail of a[n] . . . entirely fake terrorist plot."
Cromitie, Briccetti writes, had never engaged in any action similar to the plot, nor did he have the resources, skills, or money to do it. And, most importantly, he did nothing "on his own" to further the plot, he writes.
Hussain made up the plan, identified the targets, and supplied the transportation and equipment, including the fake bombs, a non-functioning Stinger missile, a safe house, two storage facilities, rental cars, cameras, and cell phones. He suggested the code words, trained the four men on the weapons, assembled the fake bombs, and paid for everything, including meals, rent, groceries, and personal expenses.
"The defendants, by contrast, did little more than ride around in Hussain's fancy cars and follow his orders to carry bags from one location to another," Briccetti writes. "The government did not produce any evidence that the defendants took a single step to further the conspiracy when they were not with Hussain. In short, this was a government show from start to finish."
He points out that FBI Special Agent Fuller admitted on the witness stand, when the defendants were with Hussain, that the government was "pretty much in control of what the defendants were doing."
"Without the government's guiding hand, no crime would or could have occurred," Briccetti writes.
The motion awaits a judge's decision, but in a previous ruling, one judge noted that if the evidence shows that Cromitie did nothing more than make anti-Semitic and anti-U.S. statements—protected by the First Amendment—"and the government responded by setting a criminal scheme in motion and coaxing it to fruition, the court will have to take a fresh look at the defendants' argument." Briccetti argues that that is exactly what happened.
"Cromitie never came up with any concrete ideas or plans for any terrorist plot," he says.
With a case built around one witness—the government informant—his credibility was naturally a major issue in the trial. The defense claims that Hussain lied repeatedly and exaggerated statements made by the defendants.
The judge herself noted she was "skeptical" about some statements that Hussain made, and said the FBI's notes of their debriefings of the informant "don't reflect many of the significant things Hussain claims to have told them."
"The critical conversations in which Cromitie ostensibly came up with the idea to do jihad are conveniently not on any tape or video recording," the judge noted.
Just to take one example, cited by the defense: Hussain claimed on June 23, 2008, that Cromitie told him he hated Jews and American soldiers and said he would kill President Bush 700 times. But Hussain didn't tell the FBI this when they spoke to him directly after that meeting, the defense says.
Instead, the notes indicate that Hussain said Cromitie "wanted to straighten out and was trying to be a good Muslim." One would think that if Cromitie had indeed made any offensive remarks, the FBI would have noted them.
In a meeting on October 19, 2008, Cromitie complained that Jews treat him differently because he is Muslim. Hussain then told him that Jews are "responsible for all the evils in the world."Cromitie replied, "They aren't responsible for that. I don't want to go that far."
In a separate motion for a new trial, the quartet's lawyers argue that Hussain committed perjury in his testimony. "Hussain lied repeatedly, pervasively and shamelessly," the lawyers write.Confronted with those lies, they argue, the federal prosecutors ignored their ethical and constitutional duties to correct them. Instead, they decided to simply "pretend that it did not believe Hussain told any intentional lies or was perjuring himself in any way, dismissing even the most glaring fabrications and contradictions as nothing more than 'inaccuracies' and 'mistakes' attributable to a 'bad memory.' "
For example, Hussain portrayed himself as a struggling businessman whose only income was a modest amount from a motel he owned and $52,000 from the FBI. Then, on cross-examination, he admitted he had received $250,000 from a family trust fund in Pakistan in 2009 and 2010 and $50,000 more in 2007.
"He lied on his immigration papers, he made fraudulent tax filings, he lied to his probation officer," a source close to the case says. "He had hundreds of thousands of dollars coming into his accounts from unknown sources. Tell me what the government is doing with this CI?"
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a 126-page rebuttal to the defense motions, stating that the jury heard about Hussain's shortcomings, heard the entrapment defense, heard the argument that Cromitie was manipulated, and still found the four defendants guilty.
"The most basic flaw in the defendants' motion is the little heed they pay to the jury's verdict: they press their claims as if they were still at the podium summing up; as if there had been no verdicts of guilt; and as if those verdicts were not entitled to substantial deference," prosecutors David Raskin, Jason Halperin, and Adam Hickey write.
"There was an abundance of evidence supporting the jury's conclusion that the defendants committed the charged crimes, not because they were pressured, persuaded, or enticed by the CI, but because bombing synagogues and firing Stinger missiles was what they wanted to do," they write.
For now, Williams and the rest of the Newburgh 4 can only wait for news from the courthouse. "What we did was stupid, and we deserved and lived up to all the name calls and everything else," Williams writes in that December 31 letter to the Voice. "But from the beginning, we planned to never hurt not one soul. We are far from what the media made us out to be."
On May 20, 2009, when federal agents and police swept in and arrested all four men, the news quickly went national and international. The following day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stood outside a Riverdale synagogue and congratulated the investigation for a job well done.
"The good news here is that the NYPD and the FBI did exactly what they're trained to do and they have prevented what could be a terrible event in our city," Bloomberg told the media the day following the arrests.
Of course, Bloomberg's suggestion that authorities had foiled an actual plot was misleading. There was no real danger. It was all stage-managed by law enforcement.
"These guys were in no way terrorists," says Imam Muhammad, founder of Masjid Al-Iklas, the Newburgh mosque where Hussain went to troll for radical Islamists. "It's unfortunate they could get life in prison for something manufactured by the government, for basically being stupid and going along with what the guy was feeding them."
But as for the tune Williams is now singing—that he was merely led by greed to rip off Hussain—his claims were greeted with skepticism by Anthony Barkow, a former federal prosecutor now teaching at NYU law school.
"It's a very self-serving statement, and it's inconsistent with the entrapment defense at trial," says Barkow, who prosecuted terrorism and white-collar crime with the Justice Department. "Either one or the other is not true, potentially both."
Williams and the other co-defendants had options, Barkow says. "They could have called the police, they could have told the informant to go away," he says. "Now he is saying they wanted to make money. I'm sorry but just because you're a greedy criminal, it doesn't give you the right to get into a deal where you're going to blow up synagogues."
On the other hand, says Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU, the claims seem to fit with the fact that none of them were interested in jihad or politics before the informant came along.
"It sounds like a good defense, which is what he should be trying to mount," she says. "It may or may not be credible, but the underlying narrative seems consistent with the narrative of the trial: that they didn't appear to be committed jihadis, they weren't particularly political."
Greenberg points out that none of the most serious terror cases since January 2009 have involved FBI stings—Umar Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber"), Malik Hassan (the Fort Hood shooter), David Headley (plotter of the Mumbai attacks), Najibullah Zazi (9/11 anniversary bomb plotter) and Faisal Shahzad (the Times Square attempted car bomber).
"The issue isn't whether you can get convictions like the Newburgh case, because you can," Greenberg says. "The issue is whether these kinds of cases are really making us safer as a matter of national security, and how do we amass the intelligence to determine who's already dangerous? That's where the resources should go."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.