After Brian Church completed a course in emergency medicine at Broward College, he told his mother he was headed to Chicago for hands-on experience he hoped would boost his chances of becoming a paramedic.
“He was very proud of the fact that he was helping set up the first-aid tents,” said Elizabeth Ennis of her son’s participation in the NATO summit protest movement.
It has been a year since Church and two others from South Florida arrived in the Windy City and were arrested in a raid of an apartment just before the May 2012 summit.
Prosecutors allege the trio — now known by a cadre of supporters as the “Nato 3” — planned to use Molotov cocktails to blow up political targets, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel‘s home and President Barack Obama‘s downtown re-election campaign headquarters last year.
Yet, with the terrorism trial set to begin Sept. 16, defense attorneys for the men, along with Church’s mother, are calling the charges absurd.
“The whole terrorism thing just blows my mind,” said Ennis, a physician’s assistant and former Pembroke Pines resident who now lives in Central Florida. “This is a kid who made sandwiches to hand out to the homeless.”
Church, 21, Brent Betterly, 25, of Oakland Park, and Jared Chase, 29, a New Hampshire man who had been living in Miami, each are charged in an 11-count indictment with conspiracy to commit terrorism, possession of explosives and attempted arson.
In Illinois, they remain in custody on $1.5 million bond.
Church’s lawyer, Michael Deutsch, tried to get the charges thrown out, arguing that the law passed by the Illinois Legislature in the wake of 911 and used only once before is unconstitutional and being used politically.
“This is an attempt to take the acts of young people who are talking about criminal vandalism and convert it into terrorism in order to chill all militant activity in protest,” Deutsch said.
In a March 27 ruling, County Judge Thaddeus Wilson upheld the statute, saying, “The concept of domestic terrorism is not any more remote in contemporary society than the ‘international terrorism’ U.S. citizens were exposed to in September 2001.”
Church, Betterly and Chase were active in South Florida’s Occupy movement. Betterly was a familiar face around Fort Lauderdale City Hall during a brief encampment that took place there in late 2011 and early 2012.
But when the local Occupy movement began to sputter, all three looked for action elsewhere, friends said.
“He had specifically gone up there [to Chicago] to be a participant,” Ennis said of her son. “He wanted to be part of a bigger cause. At 20 years old, we all want to be part of a bigger cause.”
In the months before he left for Chicago, Church dated Danielle Hiller, then a West Park High School senior. “He always told me he wanted to peacefully protest,” said Hiller, 19. “He never seemed violent. He was really into helping people.”
The government case relies on two informants, undercover police officers nicknamed Mo and Nadia, who infiltrated the group and recorded the men talking about the plots and making four Molotov cocktails that were recovered inside the apartment during the raid. According to prosecutors, police also found swords, a bow and arrows, a slingshot and knives.
In a filing in March, prosecutors said the three allegedly obtained or planned to obtain “other improvised explosive devices, napalm, instructions for producing a pipe bomb, instructions for making potassium nitrate, a mortar … assault rifles and a long rifle.”
The three also constructed a wooden shield with sharp metal screws protruding from its front and hid it in an alley, “where they intended to violently confront police officers” during the summit protests, the filing alleged.
Deutsch acknowledges that Molotov cocktails were found in the apartment. But, he said, they were made at the urging of the police agents.
“When [police] didn’t get them to do anything, they got them to make these Molotov cocktails, with their money and expertise, and created a crime that never would have occurred,” he said.
Ellis said she has visited her son in jail, and talks to him regularly.
“It is starting to sink in, the magnitude of this,” she said. “He wants to be a flight medic, but the FAA has revoked his student’s pilot’s license. Even if these charges get thrown out, he has fears of never getting a job as an EMT.”
Ennis said her son, who is housed apart from the general jail population in semi-isolation, spends his time reading.
“He has his good days and bad,” she said. “He tries not to let the gloom set in.”