JACKSON, Tennessee -- It was a case of life imitating art on a scale that was both troubling and pathetic.
The United States of America vs. Demetrius "Van" Crocker had all the elements of the hit television program 24: a white supremacist dealing with a crooked security employee at a weapons arsenal to buy stolen ingredients to make deadly Sarin nerve gas; a plot to use dirty bombs, nerve gas, and conventional weapons against federal and state courthouses and the U.S. Capitol, while the House and Senate were in session; a plot that was foiled by an informant; and a dramatic takedown by FBI agents with their guns drawn seconds after the Sarin canister and package of C-4 explosives changed hands.
Except the would-be terrorist, Van Crocker, is a 40-year-old McKenzie, Tennessee, farmhand with an IQ of 85 who was jailed in 2004 for criminal littering in a vandalism case. Crocker scraped together $500 in $20 and $100 bills for the Sarin payoff. In addition to blowing up buildings, he also planned to sew himself a radiation suit and acquire plutonium from a KGB agent by writing to Russian mail-order brides. The "crooked employee" was actually undercover FBI agent Steve Burroughs of Little Rock. The Sarin container was filled with water, and the explosives were mostly inert. The takedown took place in a room at the Comfort Inn in Jackson, with the only shots coming from a hidden video camera.
Jurors took about an hour last week to convict Crocker on five counts that could keep him in prison for life. The trial lasted four days. But it was effectively over on the second day, after prosecutors played several hours of secretly recorded conversations in which Crocker poured out his racial hatred, his loathing of the government, his obsession with chemical and conventional weapons, his admiration for Timothy McVeigh (who blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, 11 years ago this week), and a chilling familiarity with basic chemistry that belied his supposedly low-average IQ.
Martyrdom isn't in the cards for Crocker, who began flirting with neo-Nazi groups as a teenager. His trial attracted little media coverage, even though reports of it made The New York Times and other national papers. He had no followers or courtroom supporters other than his 16-year-old son, who briefly took the stand as an inconsequential defense witness. Crocker himself -- bald, glasses, medium build, dressed in khakis and a pressed shirt -- did not testify. He behaved himself in the courtroom, and marshals hustled him in and out of the federal courthouse through a garage where he could not be photographed.
But Crocker said plenty on the tapes, some of which were recorded while his 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat of agent Burroughs' truck. Burroughs pretended to be a fellow white supremacist and a security employee at the weapons arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Their conversations, filled with profanity, racial slurs, and Crocker's fantastic schemes were apparently enough to convict. Jurors declined to be interviewed.
"There is no doubt he had everything he needed to cause all sorts of destruction in the United States," said assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin, noting that McVeigh used commonly available materials to blow up the Murrah Building.
Terrorism is the top priority of federal law enforcement, according to U.S. attorney David Kustoff.
"This is the leading terrorism case," Kustoff said in an interview Friday. "The defendant was a Timothy McVeigh in West Tennessee -- just as scary, but thankfully with much different results."
At least two other cases with terrorist connections are pending or set for sentencing in federal court in Memphis. One is an immigration case against Syrian-American Rafat Mawlawi, who has pleaded guilty. The other is a fraud case against Mahmoud Maawad, an illegal alien, University of Memphis student, and pilot wannabe whose computer contained e-mails sympathetic to terrorists.
The government spent two years and thousands of dollars on Crocker from the onset of the investigation to his conviction -- including 21 days of psychological testing, two public defenders, and a defense psychologist paid more than $10,000, at a rate of $200 an hour. The case illustrates the problem the FBI and prosecutors have in determining when someone is going to act before it is too late.
"Are you gonna do something or not?" Burroughs asks Crocker on the tapes. That is the question in every anti-terrorism case. Crocker's racial views, defense attorney Randy Alden noted, are not unique or criminal. Right-wing, neo-Nazi, and paramilitary groups such as the Order and the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord flourished in Tennessee, Arkansas, and other states in the 1980s. Some of them had mailing lists, training camps, and substantial weapons caches.
Was Van Crocker the next Timothy McVeigh? Or, as Alden and the defense team's psychologist suggested, a big-talking racist loner with low self-esteem who was prone to exaggeration? Here are excerpts from the tapes.
(Crocker and Burroughs met in September 2004, in the parking lot of a McKenzie convenience store.)
Crocker: "But they haven't got no VX gas on the site?"
Burroughs: "No . . . but I'm gonna tell ya, Sarin is hell. I mean, ah, VX, you get a drop of it on ya, you start foaming at the mouth, and, you know, anyway, GB's the same thing. As far as lethality of it, it's the same. But Pine Bluff did not have VX. It has GB. It used to have mustard, but there is no mustard down there anymore."
Crocker: "Yeah, alright, I make that myself."
Burroughs: "Really?" [laughs] "Really?"
Crocker: "All you gotta do for that is, ah, hydrochloric acid, any of these platin' factories, electro-plating factories? If they do zinc plating they got, ah, sodium cyanide, and you mix the two together. That's what falls in the bucket in the gas chamber ... that makes the mustard gas."
Burroughs: "What happens if you breathe that in? Then that's your ass?"
Crocker: "Scares the hell out of ya. ... When you take hydrochloric acid, and, ah, sodium hypochlorate, colic, caustic soda, chemical name, you can mix those two together and get chlorine gas. And you can see chlorine gas too. It's a giveaway."
Burroughs: "What's it look like?"
Crocker: "It's a yella fog, and if it's got any cyanide in the mixture, it'll make a red fog. See, I used to work in a 'lectric-plating factory, and I played around in science in school."
Burroughs: "So you ain't just a farmer." [laughs]
Crocker: "Ain't just a farmer. I just never had the money to go to college and be a chemist major. I've made nitroglycerine too, but I wouldn't advise it. I haven't the schoolin' nor the stuff to quite do it to where it's stable enough to move around."
Making a deal
(Burroughs and Crocker discuss the "risk" to Burroughs.)
Burroughs: "Uh, my thing is, there's a lot of people that will talk your ear off all day long, you know what I mean? But, uh, [pointing to the girl in the back seat], right there's what we're fighting for, right there. ... Because that's endangered species, right there."
Crocker: "You got that shit right. Big endangerment in this town."
Burroughs: "I'm gonna tell you, that's the way it is. But, uh, what do you wanna do?"
Crocker: "I ain't decided yet. Like I said, if I take a spell I want to blow my lid, I can [unintelligible] a bunch of sorry-ass government motherfuckers down the drain. I want something that can do a bunch at a time with minimum of ease."
Burroughs: "I understand. If, if I go out the gate with that GB, then I'm past the point of no return."
Crocker: "Yeah. How long is the shelf life on this stuff?"
(After talking for several more minutes, they discuss money.)
Crocker: "How much do you want for it?"
Burroughs: "Van, it's one of those things where I ain't in it for the money. I mean, I'm just tellin' ya, I'm not in it for the money. ... I'm tired of this shit. I'm not gonna be responsible for where this country's goin'."
Crocker: "I ain't wantin' it to be no ruthless murder, you know. ... Only just certain people even have an idea of anything, that I knowed, trust all my life, that's just like me. ... You see no other way out and you see an opportunity to strike a blow at 'em, then so be it. I'm not for goin' out here and just wastin' honest people."
Burroughs: "Just dumb, dumb, dumb ignorant people."
Crocker: "Yeah. Not for that. So, ah, somethin' big, if I had to, federal, federal courthouse."
Burroughs: "I'm gonna tell ya, in any war there is collateral damage."
Crocker: "It can't be helped. And the way things is now, everybody hollered about what Timothy McVeigh done, and I said, well, I don't like the government, anything associated with the government -- a building. I don't want my kids around it, cuz I know how I feel about the government, you know? And you top all that now. They ain't gotta worry about home terrorists. Look at the al-Qaeda. I mean, would you want your kids around a government building right now? School's bad enough."
Crocker: "I ain't no cold heartless murderer, but like I said, l feel the need come or somethin' happens in the government and I have an uprising, I want somethin' by God that I can be on a side even if we don't win, we gotta make a hell of a a smited blow against 'em."
Burroughs: "One man at a time."
(Crocker tells Burroughs about trying to meet Russian women in order to get a briefcase bomb from a KGB agent.)
Crocker: "You get me one of those and help me get it back to my country, we'll see whether the capitalists won the cold war or not. You know, anything to get my hands on one ... talk about the government, ah, rail-roadin' . ... My God, if there was 10 fuckin' people over here, and each had one of those that was sworn to use it, I mean this country ... ."
Burroughs: "You read the Turner Diaries, ain't 'cha?"
Crocker: "Yeah. This country would fall overnight. Each one, a precise city, a major, the largest populate city there is or a heavy area of military, equipment and men, but ya got to get Washington, D.C., when the House and Senate's in session, just go up there and blow it off, you ain't done shit, I mean most of them bastards are somewhere else."
Burroughs: "Mmmm, mmm."
Crocker: "But you do it while they're all in session, you've cut the head off the copperhead." [laughs]
Burroughs: "You got more vision than most people I've ever talked to."
Crocker: "Well, I always, like, like Arnold Schwarzenegger made a mistake and said he idolized Adolf Hitler as a young boy. Me too. I was a member of the American National Socialist Movement."
(They talk about Jackson's "nigger problem.")
Crocker: "That's another thing I've always wanted, is my license in a helicopter."
Burroughs: "Yeah, Van."
Crocker: "Lower downtown Jackson, over on the far side of Kmart, Spookville, USA. You ever watch the news on Channel 7?"
Burroughs: "I don't think I get your Channel 7."
Crocker: "There's a nigger doin' somethin' every night down there. Armed robbery, rapes ... Jackson's a metropolitan area so there's enough of 'em and enough ignorant motherfuckers that they'll scatter out through town and start problems, look out for trouble, make trouble, ah, I've got my handgun permit, went down there a few times, and tried to get me some to come in the public bathroom in the shoppin' mall to rob me maybe."
Burroughs: "But they didn't take the bait?"
Crocker: "They didn't take the bait. I watched, I love Charles Bronson and the Death Wish. You know what I mean?"
(In a meeting in October two weeks before the takedown, Crocker seems to have second thoughts.)
Burroughs: "But, ah, like I said, if you're not comfortable with me, let me tell you, you're a white brother."
Burroughs: "And let, I respect you, and I've had a lot of people do a lotta talkin', I don't, I know you a man that's more, you're not just a talker."
Burroughs: "But I told you when I first met you, I'm a careful man."
Burroughs: "If you're a careful man, and somethin', I don't care what it is, if this ain't what I want to do then don't do it. But I'm in it for the go. I'm in it, and I'm gonna make a stand while I'm here, and if I'm here for six more months, if I'm here for two more years, if I'm here for 20 more years, I'm gonna do somethin'.
Crocker: "That's what I want to do. I just worry about, you know, I don't know you."
A speedy verdict
The last witnesses testified Thursday afternoon. Out of the jury's presence, U.S. district judge James Todd then took up the issue of jury instructions. Todd said that although the case for entrapment was "thin," he would nevertheless include an explanation of entrapment in his jury charge.
In his closing argument, Godwin said the government had proven its case. Crocker, he said, "wanted to do what Timmy McVeigh did." Given opportunities by Burroughs to back out, he had not. At least one juror nodded his head.
Defense attorney Randy Alden argued that Crocker, admittedly a racist, was a victim of entrapment. "There are so many exaggerations on these tapes you can't count them all," he said. He told jurors they were the only thing standing between Crocker and "the tyranny of the government."
Following Judge Todd's instructions, which took nearly 45 minutes, the case went to the jury at 4 p.m. Shortly after 5 p.m. jurors requested to see once more the videotape of the takedown in which Burroughs first searches Crocker for weapons and then gives him the canister and packet of explosives just before FBI burst into the motel room. Before the equipment was set up, Judge Todd wondered aloud whether to go ahead or wait until the next day. He did not mention what jurors likely knew, which was that the next day was Good Friday, a holiday and the start of a three-day weekend for many workers but not federal jurors. He decided to go ahead.
After the tape was played, the jury foreperson, to the apparent surprise of both attorneys and the judge, asked if jurors could deliberate for 15 more minutes.
Five minutes later, at 5:30 p.m. the jury sent word it had reached a verdict. Excluding time taken to choose a foreperson and set up recording and video equipment, they had deliberated for about 45 minutes, or the same length of time Judge Todd spent on instructions. The verdict: guilty on all five counts.
Todd thanked them for their service, told them they were free to discuss the case, and dismissed them. As the 12 of them piled into an elevator, a reporter asked if anyone would be willing to be interviewed.
"No," they answered in chorus, as the elevator door closed.
Crocker's sentencing date is July 13th.