Robert Hester Jr. left the U.S. Army a broken man and returned to Columbia to side with a nefarious group of terrorists.
For betraying his country, he will go to prison.
But his case also brings into question the actions of federal agents, who mentored him for months, gave him money and ultimately threatened him and his family while displaying a knife, all under the guise of determining if the 28-year-old was a threat to national security.
On Wednesday, Hester was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Greg Kays to 20 years. He pleaded guilty in September to a count of providing material support to ISIS over the course of several months. The FBI accused Hester of supporting the Islamic State and planning an attack on President’s Day 2017 on “bus, trains and a train station” in Kansas City.
The plot was the culmination of months of interactions between Hester and two unidentified undercover agents, court documents show. They posed as members of the caliphate and their actions as stated in court filings bring into question if Hester was in part led by the government to perpetrate the crime.
Hester came from a difficult upbringing and had substance abuse issues before enlisting in the Army, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by federal public defender Troy Stabenow. He was often bullied because of his biracial heritage and both parents were absent from his life while serving prison terms.
As a young man he had anger issues and turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, abusing painkillers by the time he was 15. He graduated high school, got married and joined the Army to become a medic — a dream of his, Stabenow writes.
Hester finally felt he would be accepted by society.
“Shortly into his training, Robert Hester’s hopes ran into reality,” the memorandum reads.
Hester found himself regularly subjected to mockery and ridicule by fellow trainees, both for his lack of intellect and his biracial heritage, Stabenow writes. 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.
He felt increasingly despondent and resorted to alcohol use.
Following a squabble with other recruits, Hester would receive a general, honorable discharge. He returned to Columbia “disheartened” with no marketable skills, Stabenow writes. In his quest for peer approval, he turned to Islam at the suggestion of acquaintances who assured him the religion would value him.
It may have, as the majority of the world’s Muslims seek a path to peace and enlightenment through religion and abhor violence. Like many religions, however, there is a dark side — that of the militant terrorists who seek a world controlled by religious law and are willing to turn to violence to further those ends.
It was the propaganda of the latter Hester soon found himself enmeshed in. Stabenow writes. As a new father himself, Hester was heartbroken and infuriated by carefully edited videos of western forces engaged in combat resulting in the deaths of women and children in the Middle East.
“Robert expressed his anger about the violence he saw online, and began to parrot some of what he saw,” Stabenow writes. “For his efforts, Robert received praise and was told by other social media users that he was becoming a good son of God. As he received more praise, Robert re-posted others’ stories, feeling a growing sense of acceptance.”
The FBI was piqued by the former soldier’s postings. The undercover agents posed as members of the terrorist group and engaged with him. Comments were exchanged someone should “punish” the government for what it was doing to Muslim women and children. A meeting was arranged for Hester to meet a “brother” who would “steer him in the faith” and help him do something about the mistreatment of Muslims.
The agents offered to mentor him and “walked him through different ways and actions that he could become a better Muslim and become more right with God.”
Case documents raise questions on how serious Hester initially was about actually committing an attack. Stabenow writes his client was initially reluctant to take any direct action.
“For instance, when asked if he was willing to directly participate in an attack that might result in his death, Robert exhibited clear hesitation and stated ‘I can’t say yes like I’m ready to die because I don’t know where I sit with Allah right now,'” the memorandum reads.
The agents used inducements and threats to prod Hester, Stabenow writes. In one instance, the agents provided him with money to buy presents for his children.
On another occasion, one of the agents pulled a knife, exhibited the open blade and told Hester that they, and those they work with, were serious and now knew where he and his family lived. The episode hung over the rest of the relationship, Stabenow writes.
“The agent purportedly had the motive of intending to protect society while also allowing Robert more time to back-out of any real support for terrorism,” 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.”
After the knife incident, Hester was more deferential and agreed with whatever the undercover agents said. Stabenow writes that it made it impossible to separate his client’s motives from a desire to please the agents.
When reached by telephone Thursday, Stabenow stopped short of outright questioning the FBI’s actions in pulling a knife and displaying it in a threatening manner to his client.
“I don’t want to comment on the agent’s actions,” Stabenow said. “The statements made about his family did affect my client’s thinking.”
Hester himself would contact the other undercover agent expressing concern about the knife incident. An FBI affidavit filed in the case shows he was rattled.
“Hester asked undercover 1 not to raise the matter with undercover 2, because Hester did not want to have to kill someone for running up in Hester’s family,” the affidavit reads.
FBI Kansas City bureau spokeswoman Bridget Patton did not respond to an email asking if the agents’ actions in pulling a knife were appropriate.
Don Ledford, spokesman for Tim Garrison, U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, wrote in an email that the actions of the agents were necessary to protect the public from an individual eager to inflict mass casualties.
“This was recognized by the U.S. District Judge who sentenced the defendant to nearly 20 years in prison and lauded the FBI’s ‘good police work’ in open court,” Ledford writes. “Thanks to the intervention of the FBI, Hester was prevented from acting upon his violent criminal impulses.”
The agents told him he could back out on several occasions, but Hester pressed on with the plan, Ledford wrote and FBI affidavits show. Ledford wrote it was essential that agents impress that he could be part of the plan or not, but that acting on his own was unacceptable.
Simply put, “a verbal promise from Hester was not sufficient to protect the public,” Ledford wrote. “Stronger measures were needed to insure Hester would be compliant.”
Ledford wrote it was at that point undercover agents threatened to come back and find Hester if he reneged on the promise to not act on his own.
“For emphasis, and for the purpose of mitigating the security threat posed by Hester, the undercover employee displayed a knife and reminded Hester that the undercover employee knew where Hester and his family lived,” Ledford wrote. “This necessary measure proved to be an appropriate and successful law enforcement strategy that led to the conviction and imprisonment of a dangerous criminal.”
The relationship between Hester and the agents continued. In January 2017 they gave him a list of bomb-making materials and the money to go purchase them. He told them he was ready to help anyway he could and bought several of the items.
In one instance agents told him hit was OK to leave and take care of his family, but he insisted he was willing to leave them and risk death for the sake of the operation.
After gathering material and confirming he was willing to carry out the attack, the agents arrested him outside a storage shed in Columbia. Hester has been in the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth since his arrest and will serve his sentence there.
Stabenow said he does not believe his client will cause any problems and has changed his anti-American mentality.
“He is not one of these defendants you see who is still saying bad things about the United States,” Stabenow said. “I think he got his head twisted around by stuff he was reading and seeing on the internet and didn’t know how to separate from that mindset.”
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