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Missouri man faces 20 years for terrorist plot in support of ISIS

Robert Hester. (Columbia Daily Tribune/TNS)

A 20-year sentence and lifetime supervision will deter Robert Lorenzo Hester, Jr. and others like him from the “clarion call” of the Islamic State, federal prosecutors wrote in a memorandum seeking the maximum penalty for a Columbia man who pleaded guilty to aiding terrorists.

In opposition to the long sentence, defense attorneys for the 28-year-old who plotted to attack transportation services in Kansas City and other acts over the course of several months argue mental health issues combined with a mockery of his race and intellect by fellow soldiers led him to extremists ideologies.

Hester pleaded guilty in September before U.S. District Judge Greg Kays and will be sentenced March 4 in Kansas City. Discharged from the U.S. Army shortly after basic training in 2013, Hester over the next several years turned to Islamic extremism, eventually preparing to wage war against the United States.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Brian Casey and David Raskin wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed Tuesday that the risk of violence Hester created should not be underestimated.

“Hester repeatedly glorified violence, and proclaimed his excitement to help ISIS carry out a terrorist attack,” prosecutors wrote. “Hester thought he was assisting in a plan to cause widespread deaths, doing everything he could to help. Hester did not act in a vacuum. His conduct was part of a larger movement of growing support for ISIS in the United States and abroad.”

Federal public defender Troy Stabenow is seeking a 15-year sentence for Hester. He writes in his motion for sentencing that a combination of societal factors drew Hester to ISIS.

Stabenow did not immediately return a message left at his office seeking comment,

Following an abusive childhood and drug use at an early age, he wanted to feel accepted and do something to make others proud, so he joined the Armed Forces, Stabenow writes.

“He thought he had finally found a brotherhood with whom he would feel welcomed, and with whom he could make a difference in service of his family,” Stabenow writes in response to the sentencing recommendations. “Shortly into his training, Robert Hester’s hopes ran into reality. He found himself regularly subjected to mockery and ridicule by his fellow trainees for both his lack of intellect and his mixed-race heritage.

“He struggled to handle the criticism, but despite his best efforts, he was simply not able to learn at the pace required by the trainers.”

After a scuffle with another recruit and due to his alcohol use, Hester was honorably discharged before completing advanced training or being assigned to a unit, Stabenow writes. When he returned to Columbia he was disheartened.

When “several young men who suggested that Islam was a religion that valued men like him,” Hester began to listen, Stabenow wrote.

“As a new father himself, he was heartbroken and infuriated when he watched carefully edited footage of Western forces engaging in violence that resulted in the deaths of women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” Stabenow writes. “In the videos, he was consistently told that the American military had been corrupted and that the United States government had adopted a policy of actively trying to hurt young Muslim families.

“Robert expressed his anger about the violence he saw online, and began to parrot some of what he saw.”

His social media posts drew the attention of the FBI. Undercover agents reached out to him to establish if he was a threat, but before they could establish a rapport, he was arrested in Columbia for throwing a knife through a window at a Hy-Vee and threatening management with a firearm.

Charges of first-degree property damage and unlawful use of a weapon were still pending as of Wednesday in Boone County, stalled by the ongoing federal investigation.

The sentencing memorandum filed by prosecutors states that after agents were able to make contact with Hester, he told them the government should be overthrown and he sought others who felt the same. He touched on his knowledge of military tactics and firearms and even suggested an attack on an undisclosed military base because he knew how to enter it.

“Hester wanted to hurt the economy ‘by hitting oil pipelines’ or ‘computer systems,'” the memorandum states. “Throughout their conversations, the undercover employee provided Hester a number of opportunities to dissociate with no questions asked, but Hester repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to their plot.”

As the relationship between Hester and the undercover agents evolved, the agents served as “mentors,” gave him money to buy presents for his kids and at one point allegedly threatened him with a knife if he were to try and act on his own.

The agents claim they were trying to protect society while giving Hester time to back out of the plan, Stabenow wrote.

“That may be true, but unlike other cases of this type counsel has found, this is the only one in which a federal agent threatened the family of the defendant, and this occurred before Robert committed to any act of support,” he wrote.

The staged plot came to a head in the spring of 2017, culminating in a plan to attack buses, trains and a train station on President’s Day 2017 in Kansas City. Weeks before the planned attack Hester purchased nine-volt batteries, duct tape and roofing nails. On Feb. 17, 2017, three days before the planned attack the undercover agents picked Hester up under the guise of seeking out storage sheds to store weaponry.

He was arrested at a Columbia storage unit and has since been detained at U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth.

“During one of their final in-person meetings, the undercover employee showed Hester a number of firearms and purported bombs that the undercover employee stated would be used for an attack,” federal prosecutors wrote, “This excited Hester, who adamantly approved. Hester understood that the plan was to cause mass casualties, and he was excited to assist.”


© 2020 Columbia Daily Tribune