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Feds defend arrest of Rochester terror suspect amid criticism from family

Emanuel L. Lutchman, an ex-convict turned Muslim convert, is the newest face in the government’s war on homegrown terrorists.

And now, just a few days after the Rochester man’s arrest, federal prosecutors find themselves fending off accusations by Lutchman’s family that he is mentally ill and most likely entrapped by the FBI.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. on Wednesday defended his office’s prosecution of Lutchman and insisted that he was a serious threat with ties to an overseas contact with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Even worse, Hochul said, were the threats he made. Lutchman, 25, is accused of buying a machete, two knives and two black ski masks as part of an ISIS-inspired plot to attack a Rochester restaurant on New Year’s Eve.

“He expressed his intention to kill as a way of getting into the terrorist organization,” Hochul said at a news conference.

The government’s defense came just days after Lutchman’s grandmother in Florida told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that he was mentally ill, on several medications and prone to suicide attempts.

She also said he was contacted by the FBI before his arrest, asked to be an informant and refused.

“Whatever went down, the family is sorry,” said the grandmother, Beverley Carridice-Henry. “We do not support radical Islam. We don’t. We’re sorry for what happened. But they sent this guy to befriend him and set him up in a sting. How is that right?”

At the heart of the family’s criticism is the suggestion that Lutchman was not a serious threat. The criminal complaint charging him notes that someone else bought the machete and knives at a local Walmart because Lutchman did not have $40 to pay for them.

“He didn’t have money to buy Pampers for his son,” his grandmother told the Democrat and Chronicle. “How would he find money to go buy these (weapons)?”

Central to the government’s case is the allegation that Lutchman had contact with a member of ISIS in Syria and asked for advice on how to join the organization.

The FBI, in its complaint, alleges that the “Overseas Individual” identified himself as a member of ISIS. Agents also contend that the contact encouraged Lutchman to prove himself by killing Americans here.

“When the FBI gets that type of information, it’s the FBI’s responsibility to investigate,” Hochul said, adding that the federal judge in the case found Lutchman dangerous enough to keep him in police custody while he faces charges.

Lutchman’s grandmother insists he was never serious about carrying out an attack and that one of the confidential informants working with the FBI – there are at least two others – coerced him into taking part in the plot.

The family’s complaints also followed a Democrat and Chronicle article reporting that one of the informants in the Lutchman case also acted as an informant in the investigation of Mufid Elfgeeh, a 31-year-old Rochester restaurant owner who recently admitted trying to recruit for the terrorist group.

Elfgeeh’s conviction on two charges of trying to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization made him one of the first Americans convicted of recruiting for ISIS.

If the same confidential source worked on both investigations, it could open the FBI to criticism that it was overzealous in its pursuit of Lutchman and may have used informants to push him into criminal activity.

Hochul doesn’t think the government did anything wrong.

“We will continue doing what we’ve been doing over the last 14 years,” he said of his office’s terrorism-related investigations and prosecutions.

In Erie County, one local resident is charged with supporting ISIS.

Arafat M. Nagi, of Lackawanna, was arrested in July after the FBI determined that he was preparing to leave for Turkey and eventually travel to Syria to serve with ISIS. Nagi also is accused of posting pro-ISIS photos on social media and publicly indicating his support of the group.

Hochul’s comments about the Lutchman case came at a news conference in which he outlined his office’s recent emphasis on street gang prosecutions and his intention to continue that effort this year. He noted that, on Buffalo’s West Side alone, two large gangs have been dismantled.

“Well over 60 gang members, all but one of them convicted,” he said.

The gang prosecutions have been the work of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, a coalition of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

“We continue to remove violent gangs through sustained, proactive and coordinated investigations,” said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo. “While we recognize new neighborhood gangs may fill the void left behind by a series of arrests, the Safe Streets Task Force will continue to focus its work on the most violent gangs in Buffalo and its surrounding communities.”