Three down-and-out drug offenders caught in an elaborate FBI sting involving a phony plot to blow up New York City synagogues and shoot down military planes were sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison by a judge who singled out one as a hateful buffoon who never could have pulled off a terrorist attack on his own.
The government had sought life in prison for James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams for convictions last year on conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges -- the term called for under nonbinding sentencing guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon instead imposed the lesser sentences after repeatedly pointing out that the plot was scripted by the FBI from the start and never put anyone in real danger.
Rather than foil an actual plot, the government "created acts of terrorism out of [Cromitie's] fantasies of bravado and bigotry and then made those fantasies come true," the judge said.
Later, she added, "Only the government could make a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope."
But the judge also condemned the defendants for spewing hated toward Jews, and for being "willing to kill, maim and destroy for money You were thugs for hire, pure and simple."
Defense lawyers had sought even less time for their clients, arguing they were entrapped by a paid FBI informant posing as an Islamic extremist. They also accused prosecutors of purposely introducing a Stinger missile into the plot because the charge that went with it carried a minimum 25 years in prison, and said Wednesday they would appeal the sentence on that basis.
The men's trial in federal court in Manhattan had featured two weeks of testimony by undercover informant Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant the FBI assigned in 2008 to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York.
After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, Hussain told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terrorist organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.
Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs and shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles.
Jurors also heard tapes of Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East.
"I'm ready to do this damn thing," Cromitie said on one tape. "Anything for the cause."
Defense attorneys argued the FBI overreached by targeting desperate dupes who were in it only for the petty cash and meals the informant gave them.
Cromitie, they said, constantly wavered and even purposely disappeared for six weeks before finally agreeing to go forward with the plan.
But prosecutors said that in the end, Cromitie "showed up again with renewed vigor" to carry out the plot.
Before sentencing, Cromitie said: "I've never been a terrorist and I never will be a terrorist. The government made me out to be something I'm not."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin argued that the evidence made clear the evil intent of Cromitie and the other men.
"This would have been a colossal terrorist attack and the fact that it was all fantasy really doesn't matter because in their minds, they thought it was real," he said.
The sentencing of a fourth man convicted in the case, Laguerre Payen, has been put off pending the results of a psychiatric evaluation.