Judge Orders Release of Three of ‘Newburgh Four,’ Criticizing F.B.I.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the “compassionate release” of three Hudson Valley men who were part of a group known as the “Newburgh Four” after finding that F.B.I. agents had used an “unscrupulous operative” to persuade them to join a plot to blow up synagogues and bring down military planes more than a decade ago.

The decision, by Judge Colleen McMahon of United States District Court in Manhattan, was scathing in its description of the methods used by the F.B.I. in its pursuit of the three — Onta Williams, Laguerre Payen and David Williams — calling the plot in which they were convicted of participating in 2010 “an F.B.I.-orchestrated conspiracy.”

“A person reading the crimes of conviction in this case would be left with the impression that the offending defendants were sophisticated international terrorists committed to jihad against the United States,” Judge McMahon wrote. “However, they were, in actual reality, hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals.”

Under the judge’s order, Onta Williams’s, David Williams’s and Mr. Payen’s sentences will be reduced to time served plus 90 days. They were sentenced in 2011 to at least 25 years in prison.

During the trial, a fourth defendant — James Cromitie — was presented as being a key player in the plot, though Judge McMahon seemed most aggrieved by Shahed Hussain, a longtime F.B.I. informant. He later became infamous as the owner of a down-market limousine company that rented a defective vehicle to a group of partygoers in 2018, leading to 20 deaths.

In the Newburgh case, Judge McMahon wrote that Mr. Hussain — whom she described as “most unsavory” — had lured Mr. Cromitie in 2007 “with promises of both heavenly and earthly rewards, including as much as $250,000, if he would plan and participate in, and find others to participate in, a jihadist ‘mission.’”

After waffling for months, Mr. Cromitie recruited the other three defendants, though none had “any history as terrorists” and instead “were impoverished small time grifters and drug users/street level dealers who could use some money,” the judge wrote.

“The three men were recruited so that Cromitie could conspire with someone,” she wrote. “The real lead conspirator was the United States.”

Their plan, encouraged and orchestrated by Mr. Hussain, was to bomb Jewish sites in the Bronx and fire Stinger missiles at military planes at Stewart Airport near Newburgh, N.Y. Bombs were, in fact, left outside two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx — but they were fakes, built by the F.B.I.

“The F.B.I. invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance,” Judge McMahon wrote, adding that officials had “federalized” the charges — ensuring long prison sentences — by driving several of the men across state lines into Connecticut to “view the ‘bombs.’”

The F.B.I. had no comment on the decision.

Mr. Hussain, who is believed to be living in Pakistan, could not be reached for comment. In May, his son, Nauman, was found guilty on 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter in the limousine accident and was later sentenced to five to 15 years in state prison.

Lawyers for two of the men could not immediately be reached for comment. Samuel M. Braverman, who represented Mr. Payen, said he had been overcome by emotion when he heard about the decision.

“I choked up and literally leapt out of my chair,” Mr. Braverman said.

While Judge McMahon conceded that the government had a legitimate interest in identifying and capturing terrorists, she was unsparing in her criticism, saying that the defendants “never could have dreamed up” such serious criminal acts on their own.

She also suggested that the government had undermined “respect for the law” by sending “a villain like Hussain to troll among the poorest and weakest of men” with “an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.”

“Had the government not contrived its elaborate sting operation, it is highly likely that the defendants would have lived out their lives in Newburgh — quite possibly doing ‘life on the installment plan’ as they cycled in and out of jail for a string of petty offenses,” she wrote. “But never committing a crime remotely like what they became involved in.”

Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.

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