Rain soaked the clothes of the six figures walking through the pitch-black Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Across the river from the scenic railroad's Brecksville station, where the Towpath Trail forks around a last remnant of the Ohio & Erie Canal, two of the men stopped to act as lookouts. The other four approached one of the giant concrete pillars holding up the 145-foot-tall Route 82 bridge. Its seven arches curved above them, holding up a roadway a fifth of a mile long.
A night vision camera stood guard, waiting.
The camera's live feed kept pausing, interrupted by the storm. But the agents watching a video screen at the FBI's Cleveland headquarters, 14 miles away, could see the dim profiles of three men. One, in a light-colored shirt and dark pants, set a small black toolbox next to the pillar. He reached into the box, and a bright light flicked on.
The other two men were puzzling over a second box. One stood over it, while the other, kneeling, fiddled with what was inside.
A fourth figure, much larger than the rest, stepped into the camera's view. "How much longer?" he asked.
"One is good to go — we just got to do this one," 20-year-old Connor Stevens replied, not knowing the big guy was wired for sound.
A little after 9:30 that night, April 30, the six men — five anarchists and a guy one of them had met at a protest rally — rolled up to the Applebee's in Garfield Heights, ready to drink some beer, get a quick bite to eat and remotely detonate two bombs.
The Garfield Heights Applebee's may have the best view of any Applebee's anywhere. It stands on a bluff, overlooking the Cuyahoga River valley. The parking lot gazes down at the bright lights of the massive Cinemark at Valley View movie theater. On clear nights, downtown's Cleveland skyline sparkles on the horizon. I-480, alive with headlights, flows directly past the restaurant and across the Valley View Bridge. The building lies at the end of Vista Way, a dead-end street off another dead-end street, in a half-empty shopping center near another, larger, emptier shopping center. It's a perfect spot for an ambush.
The skinny guys told the waiter they were a band playing clubs around Lakewood. The 290-pound, 39-year-old guy sitting with them must not have looked as punk rock as the rest, because they passed him off as their security guard. Two of the guys weren't old enough to drink, so the big guy ordered one of them a Yuengling tallboy. It was a good cover story.
Surrounded by the restaurant's corporate version of neighborhood-hangout memorabilia — a framed jersey for the hometown Garfield Heights Bulldogs; Cleveland State Vikings and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat T-shirts; a Cleveland Metroparks poster — Doug Wright, 26, and Joshua Stafford, 23, took out cellphones and started dialing.
In the toolboxes they'd left at the Route 82 bridge were phones that they believed were connected to blocks of C-4, a high-impact, military-grade plastic explosive.
Instead, they got voicemail.
They tried again, calling and texting. They even called the guy who had sold them the fake bombs, asked him to confirm the codes, and tried sending them again. Nothing worked. No off-in-the-distance rumble. No sirens. Nothing.
Stevens laughed. "What kind of group did I get involved in?" he asked.
It's a good question. Who were these guys?
Were the five men arrested near the Applebee's that night a Cleveland-grown domestic terrorist group, willing to risk killing innocent people for a nearly incoherent political motive? Or are they just a bunch of dimwit loners, angry at The Man and lured by an FBI informant and con man into acting out their revolutionary fantasies?
The young, semi-homeless radicals, who came together during the Occupy movement, spent months trying to decide how to "send a message" to big business and the U.S. government. "[We] just wanted to stop the flow of money to some of these large corporations, slow it down a little bit," Brandon Baxter, 20, told an FBI agent after his arrest.
In the end, Baxter and his buddies decided the best possible way to do that was to shatter a pillar of a bridge crossed by 13,000 drivers a day.
For that, they're heading to federal prison. Stevens, Baxter, Wright and Anthony Hayne have all pleaded guilty to weapons of mass destruction charges. (Stafford is being examined to see if he's mentally competent to stand trial.)
The audacity of their plot may make them the most significant left-wing domestic terrorists caught in the United States in years — only one of the many reasons their arrest became national news.
The FBI's investigation began at an Occupy Cleveland rally in Public Square, spurring Tea Party groups to seize the case, trying to link the Occupy movement to terrorism. Some on the left, meanwhile, say the case reminds them of the FBI's abuses of power under J. Edgar Hoover, when agents infiltrated political organizations and tried to undermine and discredit activists from Martin Luther King Jr. to John Lennon.
The story of the bridge-bomb plotters is also a case study in how the FBI runs counter-terrorism stings — and new fuel for a growing controversy about them. Critics argue that since 9/11, overzealous FBI agents and informants have at times overreacted to minor threats and ensnared hapless losers in their stings by encouraging, escalating or even creating the very plots they bust.
Until the five men met the FBI informant — the sixth man at the bridge that night — they appear to have had little means to carry out any of the attacks they dreamed up. They lacked explosives, cars and, arguably, brains.
"They couldn't blow their noses, let alone blow up a bridge," John Pyle, Baxter's attorney, argued in May, "were it not for what this provocateur did."
The informant, a longtime crook with 13 felony convictions, talked two of the defendants into buying the fake C-4, drove them around, nudged the plan along, hired three of them and — according to several sources close to the men — gave some of them illegal drugs. Meanwhile, he continued to commit crimes of his own.
The Cleveland bridge-bomb plot brings up thorny questions about counter-terrorism strategy, questions the public rarely gets to examine: When should the FBI set a trap for a would-be bomber? Who can be trusted to set the trap? And what should happen when a target says he wants to back out?
Connor Stevens grew up in Oberlin as a sensitive kid who liked playing in gardens, digging up dirt and exploring the woods. He loved the wild, organic abundance of nature, but not the darker realities of the struggle for survival. Once, he found a snake, and his aunt tried to kill it with a BB gun. She shot it, but it didn't die. A year or two later, when he was 7 or 8, his family's cat brought a bird back to their house, wounded but still alive. He broke into tears.
Early in life, he developed a sense that the Earth had been damaged before he arrived. "I can remember being no more than 8 or 9 years old and looking around," he wrote recently, "thinking something's wrong with what we've done with the place."
His outlook turned darker still when he saw police take his father away.
In 2001, when Connor was 9, his father, James Stevens, was charged with inappropriately touching two 10-year-old girls. (He pleaded guilty to two counts of gross sexual imposition and was sentenced to 80 days in jail.)
"I developed a keen hatred for authority, 'order,' and especially 'law,' " Stevens wrote recently in an autobiography for a website raising money for his legal defense. One reason was "watching the cops arrest people, including my dad," he wrote. "The simple fact they can put you in handcuffs and haul you off was enough for me to hate them at that adorable age."
The family moved in with Stevens' grandfather, who lived next to the Metroparks' Mill Stream Run Reservation. Lonely for his friends in Oberlin, Stevens sought solace in the woods, where he played cowboys and Indians with a younger brother.
Stevens was home-schooled for eighth grade, and he tore across Wikipedia, tutoring himself in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hinduism and Buddhism. By high school, he was reading Marx, Lenin and Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani while living in that most unlikely of revolutionary hotbeds: Berea.
He carried the Communist Manifesto around Berea High School in a mostly failed effort to provoke interesting conversation. Teachers found his Marxism cute and quaint, but his peers generally ignored him. He started a radical group, the United Student Front, but at most of the meetings, only one other person showed up.
"He was very independent, teaching himself," recalls his mother, Gail Stevens, "not getting much of an education in school." Mostly bored, he lit up during class presentations — impressing his brother's girlfriend, at least, with so much knowledge that it seemed as if he could teach the class.
Late in his freshman year, in April 2007, Stevens finally got some attention by confronting military recruiters at a school job fair. "He said they would zero in on the kids that weren't dressed well, that you could tell were poor," recalls his mother.
His anger grew out of control. A month later, the recruiters reported him to the Berea police. One said Stevens called him a "fascist pig" in an email. Another student had contacted the recruiter to complain that Stevens' MySpace page was violent and threatening; it reportedly included the Unabomber's manifesto. The recruiters gave the police printouts of a MySpace forum page where Stevens had vented his hatred of authority.
"Kill cops!" Stevens, then 15, had written, signing his full name. "The pigs in blue are the fascists we have to fight!" He advocated throwing acid on them. (Berea police resolved the complaint by speaking to Stevens' mother, according to the report; she says they never talked to her.)
Stevens dropped out in 10th grade, but he remained troubled. Tempted by thoughts of suicide, he found solace in the "good red road," a Native American spiritual path involving a balanced life in harmony with nature.
For the next three years, he didn't go to school and didn't work. "He'd read, hang out with his friends, basically kind of just being a kid," Gail Stevens says. "He didn't know what he wanted to do."
He spent hours at a time writing poems that expressed alienation from a corrupted world or his longing to return to nature. "Lets try and tidy up on the way out," reads one, "Maybe dismantle a few reactors, / Put some rubble to use and / Return what we can of / the old-growth forests. / And struggle for / a new way of / Living."
Stevens began volunteering with Food Not Bombs, a collective that serves dinner on Saturdays in Ohio City's Market Square. Regulars there remember him talking passionately about freedom from hunger and citing literary references, from Ernest Hemingway to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda.
In spring 2011, Stevens went to see a concert at the Agape House off Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. The rented home was devoted to Christian anarchy, an anti-authoritarian movement dedicated to living a radically Christlike life. Its residents, all young men, met for morning and evening prayer and threw rowdy punk rock shows in the house on weekends. One housemate, Zachy Schraufl, invited Stevens to join them.
Stevens and his crates of books moved in soon after.
"He read Gandhi, he read Marx, he read everything between that," recalls Schraufl. "He used to feel there was no way to have a revolution unless it was a violent revolution," Schraufl recalls Stevens saying — but he'd started to see it wouldn't work in the long run.
Stevens began attending St. Luke's Episcopal Church in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood with Schraufl. He even talked about getting baptized. The two started "guerrilla gardening" projects in vacant lots, planted squash in their backyard and stayed up late smoking grandfather pipes and talking about philosophy.
Schraufl grew close to Stevens, but noticed one thing about his new friend that gave him a little pause. "Connor was the kind of kid that drank in the morning," he recalls. "I was the kid who drank the most in the house, and then he moved in."
At Food Not Bombs last year, Stevens met another young anarchist, Brandon Baxter, as intense and passionate as Stevens was cerebral.
The 19-year-old Lakewood High graduate's influences weren't long-dead, bearded writers, but websites ranging from the far right (the conspiracy-minded InfoWars) to the far left (the Anonymous "hacktivist" movement). He embraced Food Not Bombs with gusto, screaming "Free food!" across Market Square when dinner was ready. He'd shaved his blond hair on one side, but the rest cascaded down the other side of his face, almost to his shoulder. He carried a vintage backpack and collected pipes and knives.
"I like to refer to him as a post-apocalyptic Boy Scout," says Schraufl. "He was really into survivalism."
Knives are a recurring theme in Baxter's life. He road-tripped to powwows with his father, selling pocket knives with patterned Damascus blades while his dad sold tepees.
At 17, after a fight between his mother and stepfather, Wayne Raymond, Baxter cut Raymond across the chest and arm with a kitchen knife. Baxter admitted to attempted felonious assault in juvenile court and received six months probation.
Mental illness tormented Baxter. He tried to kill himself in February 2010 by taking 30 pills of Seroquel, a medication for bipolar disorder. Three months later, when Baxter was 18, Raymond obtained a restraining order against him. Baxter's mother had found a disturbing note he'd written.
"In my deepest darkest fantas[ies] I see myself as evil, as possibly tearing down our society, lacking all reason and empathy," the note began, "spilling the blood of the innocent, driving [the] force of militants down the throats of all my enemies, who just happen to be anyone that I can see." The note's end focuses on a single victim: "I let one rip from my clip as my target screams in fright." A magistrate ordered Baxter to stay 500 feet away from Raymond.
He moved in with his father, Andy Baxter, who says his son found a purpose a year later by volunteering at Food Not Bombs and Occupy Cleveland. "He walked a foot taller. He was proud of what he did."
Despite their differing styles, Baxter and Stevens were excited by Occupy's leaderless decision-making and its message that the government served corporate wealth and screwed over the rest of society. They gravitated from Market Square to Public Square.
That's where a documentary filmmaker interviewed Stevens one night in October. In the video, Stevens stands next to a line of tall white tents, smoking a cigarette. Streetlamp light catches the reds and browns in his short-trimmed beard. In a steady, clear voice that made him sound older than 19, Stevens explained why he was spending his days and nights at the Occupy encampment.
"My favorite part about it is meeting people walking down the street — normal, average people," Stevens says, "talking to them, hearing about how they're affected by the economy, by the justice system."
The cameraman tells Stevens about a friend who protested the first Gulf War in Public Square and confided in him, "If I was down here two years earlier, I'd be kicking windows in at the BP Building."
"I could definitely identify with your friend," Stevens says. "Back in, like, 2008, I was at that state of mind. And now I'm understanding that we're in it for the long haul. Those tactics, they just don't do, they just don't cut it. It's actually harder to be nonviolent than it is to do stuff like that."
A kaleidoscope of activists spun themselves together to create Occupy Cleveland — students and organizers, anti-fracking environmentalists and universal health care supporters, musicians, hippies and anarchists.
They met first at Willard Park by the Free Stamp on Oct. 6, then relocated to the Tom Johnson statue in the free-speech quadrant in Public Square. Like the protesters in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, they began a day-and-night protest, camping on the wide sidewalk of West Roadway on the square's edge. Big white canopies sprang up — an information tent, a donations tent, a kitchen tent. Little blue tents gathered next to them, like a giant scouting expedition gathered around an urban bonfire.
For many of Occupy's young members — and a lot of them were young — those two weeks were the first time they'd found a community of like-minded people, belonged to a nationwide movement and felt, for a fleeting moment, that the whole society was shifting their way.
Stevens thrived at the Occupy camp. He volunteered for the kitchen tent and became known for starting deep discussions. "Connor was a really amazing guy," says Erin McCardle, a 23-year-old community organizer and Occupier. "He was really interested in stepping up and helping to do some of the harder work."
Brandon Baxter struck some protesters as big-hearted and passionate, others as immature and impulsive. He joined a training session for peacekeepers, but the teacher, veteran anti-war activist Tim Smith, says he acted like a high school kid. "He didn't pay attention, was distracted, kinda ADD," Smith recalls. "He didn't know why he was there."
Still, Baxter impressed law student Jacob Wagner while working the camp's night watch. "He was one of the most peaceful people there," Wagner recalls. "He was very loving and caring, and always tried to defuse any situation. If someone tried to get him riled up, he'd just walk away, rather than get violent with words even. He didn't want to say something he'd regret."
In a camp colored with every shade of progressive politics, from Democratic blue to socialist red to earthy green, Stevens and Baxter gravitated to others of their hue, anarchist black. Baxter worked night watch with a guy he'd met at a Lakewood cafe, Joshua Stafford, whom the Occupy campers knew as Skelly. He was thin and gangly, like a skeleton hanging from a string, with frizzy, tangled blond hair.
Stafford, 23, told his friends he'd struggled with schizophrenia. "Half his childhood he spent in the psych ward, and the other half he spent on the streets, learning different kinds of martial arts," says Schraufl. Stafford had a long misdemeanor and juvenile record — attacking teachers and threatening to kill one of them as a kid, serving jail time for assault as an adult. But Occupiers remember him as a calming presence. He often defended a transgendered camper from street harassment. When drunken bar-goers and the troubled homeless stumbled through Public Square and razzed the protesters, Stafford defused the situation.
"Whenever someone was getting intense," Schraufl recalls, "he'd get in their eyes and be like, 'You need to calm down.' "
Another night watchman, 35-year-old Tony Hayne, made a lot of friends in the first few weeks of camp with his charming, upbeat attitude. But when police or reporters came by, Hayne pulled a bandana across his face. He'd served time in prison twice for theft and attempted domestic violence — a fact the protesters learned months later, when money went missing from the donation box and Hayne fell under suspicion.
While the other Occupiers frequently talked among themselves about their movement's dedication to nonviolence, Hayne kept his thoughts secret from most. "Tony would often admit to me, 'I'm not nonviolent,' " recalls Schraufl, "but he adhered to the role of peacekeeper around Occupy."
Stevens, Baxter, Stafford and Hayne all befriended the most intense personality among the camp's anarchists, Doug Wright, a 26-year-old drifter and train-hopper. Tall, with hollow cheeks and missing teeth, Wright sported a Mohawk and wore the same black T-shirt with the anarchy symbol on it for several days straight. He said he'd hitchhiked around the country and come to Cleveland with someone he met at a concert about a week before Occupy's first event.
Schraufl hit it off with Wright, impressed with his tales of traveling to every state by boxcar and his knowledge of obscure punk bands. "He was the most hardcore train punk I ever met," he says. Wright and Schraufl would leave the square and go down to the river to drink and complain about campmates they thought were poseurs. Wright "can only speak in grunts," Schraufl says.
Wright did a lot to organize and set up the camp's donation, info and food tents, impressing McCardle with his dedication. "He was unemployed, and I definitely got that sense from Doug that he felt betrayed by all the systemic values of America, the mentality of 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' and that monetary worth is the only worth," she says.
Wright grew frustrated that other Occupiers proved unwilling to work as hard as he did. He often turned angry and aggressive, sometimes screaming at people, McCardle says. "I saw a very damaged person in him, but then I also saw an earnest, hardworking guy underneath that."
Smith was less impressed. "You know people in the world who get really excited about things and ideas and jump on the bandwagon?" he says. "They start preaching and haven't even read the holy writings? Doug was like that with anarchy. I don't think he read anything of substance. I think he just hated cops, hated rules, hated The Man.
"He bragged about fighting with cops in the past," Smith says. "He was an asshole."
Occupy's curbside utopia lasted two weeks. Mayor Frank Jackson's administration told the activists that they could no longer camp out overnight. In defiance, they planned a protest rally for the night of Oct. 21, when their permits expired. Some resolved to stage a sit-in to court arrest.
Around that time, the FBI received a report from an unidentified source about "potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists" at the rally, according to an affidavit. That evening, the FBI's Cleveland office sent an informant to the square.
By afternoon on Oct. 21, Public Square was abuzz.
In front of the Terminal Tower, speeches squawked from bullhorns and a guitarist played for a crowd of about 50. Across Superior Avenue, in the camp, protesters took down tents and the kitchen served one more meal.
Around 6:30 p.m., the informant arrived at the rally, looking for anarchists. They weren't hard to find. He spotted seven men he found suspicious. All but one had covered their faces. Four were carrying black backpacks and anarchist flags and wearing dark clothes with walkie-talkies around their necks.
One of the seven men was Doug Wright.
"The whole group appeared to be together and was constantly moving throughout the crowd expressing displeasure at the crowd's unwillingness to act violently," according to the FBI affidavit filed in the case.
At one point, the informant was likely standing close enough to the anarchists to overhear them. When an organizer explained the night's plan for peaceful civil disobedience — 11 people would be arrested while linking arms around one last, symbolic tent — one of the anarchists turned away and said, "F--k that."
Occupy protesters who attended the rally say parts of the informant's account ring true, but others do not. Occupy bought the walkie-talkies for the night watchmen, who moved equipment and provided security for the rally. The masks? Some protesters didn't want to be seen by cameras, fearing reprisal from police, the government, or employers, they say.
The "act violently" line isn't true, say McCardle and Wagner. But Cleveland city councilman Brian Cummins, who helped organize Occupy Cleveland, says some anarchists at the rally thought the civil disobedience plan was pointless and said so.
"Some clearly wanted to cause trouble," Cummins recalls. "There was definitely talk from the anarchists in the group — I can't point out or separate them by name — a buzz, 'This is bullshit.' "
No violence broke out. The crowd grew to 100, then 350 by 10 p.m., when police arrested the 11 volunteers.
Sometime that night, the informant struck up a conversation with Wright, who was in an angry mood from having to take down the tents he'd helped erect.
Wright started talking about riots. He showed the informant his missing teeth and his crooked, once-broken nose, the results of street battles. "He also explained that if he goes to jail this time, he probably won't get out for a while," the affidavit said. Wright wasn't kidding. In 2006 in New Orleans, Wright pleaded guilty to two charges of aggravated assault, one against a peace officer with a firearm.
The informant hadn't witnessed violence, but he'd found a violent anarchist. He exchanged phone numbers with Wright.
The informant, a 39-year-old con man, began working for the FBI last July when he was facing an indictment that would result in his 13th felony conviction.
His record at the Justice Center dates back to soon after he turned 18. Police arrested him twice on cocaine charges, in late 1990 and early 1991, and once for receiving a stolen credit card. At 19, he robbed a bank in Maple Heights. He pleaded guilty in all four cases and was sentenced to 5 to 16 years in prison.
Paroled in 1995, he embarked on a new career in 2001: check fraud. He cashed two bad checks, one stolen from a neighbor. He also filed two forged deeds to a real estate parcel and later sold the land for $50,000. The checks got him probation, the land scam a year in prison. Once he got free again, the paper really started flying. He was indicted in seven bad-check cases between 2006 and 2009, pleaded guilty in each, and got three years probation and six months in prison.
In late 2010, he passed a $52,000 bad check and got caught. His lawyer began negotiating a plea. On July 20, 2011, according to the FBI, he began working as a federal informant. The bureau has paid him about $5,750 since then. It's unknown what other cases he's worked on, but the FBI affidavit says information he's provided has opened up several investigations.
He continued committing check fraud while working for the FBI, passing one bad check, for $1,471 to a home decor company, on July 25, 2011, five days after signing up as an informant. This August, he pleaded guilty in three new cases. He was ordered to pay restitution and sentenced to probation.
After the rally, the Occupiers scattered.
The camp moved to a deconsecrated church Tim Smith owns in Hough. But Wright, Baxter, Stevens, Stafford and Hayne didn't stick around for long. They left and formed a splinter group they dubbed the Revolutionary People's Army.
The group met to talk about how to break free of the liberals in Occupy, upset that they wouldn't do anything even mildly disruptive, such as taking marches into the street without permits. They went on a graffiti binge, tagging the anarchy symbol and the phrase "Rise Up" throughout the city.
Stevens split his time between his mother's house in Berea and his friends in the city. Baxter went back to his dad's house in Lakewood. Wright moved in with a girlfriend on the near West Side. And Wright and the informant started playing phone tag, then emailing.
In mid-November, they met up, and Wright began taking about a grandiose plan of his. Wright said he'd been talking with fellow anarchists about how to "send a message" to corporations and the government. He wanted to set off smoke grenades on the Detroit-Superior Bridge as a distraction and then knock the bank signs off the tops of large downtown buildings. But he didn't know how he'd do it yet.
It sounds like a ridiculous fantasy. How could a bunch of young punks hope to knock the green Huntington Bank logo off the 658-foot former BP Building, or the big red key off the 888-foot Key Tower? But the government later claimed the idea was the beginning of the bridge-bomb plot.
Winter came and many of the Occupiers went home. Experienced activists left, sensing the younger protesters' resentment of their unofficial leadership. Stevens, Stafford and Hayne returned and spent time freezing inside Occupy's lonely informational tent at Public Square.
"It was him and another guy that were always asked to do the night shift," Stevens' mother recalls. "He hated the night shift."
The dedicated members most willing to staff the tent in the cold also tended to be those without a regular home. So in mid-February, the group rented a warehouse just north of Clark Avenue on Cleveland's near West Side. Hayne co-signed the lease. It wasn't much, but it had a small kitchen, a loft for sleeping bags, and room on the floor for a bunch of tents. Hayne, Stevens and Stafford were among those who moved in.
On Feb. 15, the informant took Wright to breakfast and got him talking again. Wright lamented that there weren't enough anarchists in Cleveland to start a good riot. He wanted to look up some recipes for smoke bombs and make them with the informant. He also wanted to plan something for the spring with an anarchist from Lakewood named Brandon.
Brandon Baxter was not in the best shape at the time.
On Feb. 12, he'd tried to commit suicide on Rocky River's Hilliard Boulevard Bridge, leaping in front of a woman's car and yelling, "Kill me!" The driver called police, who talked Baxter off the railing and the bridge and then tackled him. They found a 3½-inch knife in the left pocket of Baxter's camouflage pants and a 10½-inch knife in his inside coat pocket. He was booked on a charge of carrying concealed weapons.
Still, on Feb. 20, Baxter joined Wright and the informant for lunch in Lakewood to plan some crime. They talked about using stink bombs, paint guns or explosives at a bank or a hospital.
Wright said he wanted C-4 explosives, but they might