In what federal prosecutors described as a national security case, a Clarkston man pleaded guilty in Spokane on Tuesday to manufacturing an explosive device and attempting to provide material assistance to terrorists.
Joseph J. Brice, 22, faces up to 15 years in federal prison, although U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko indicated he could impose more or less time than that. The federal investigation, which is still mostly sealed, followed Brice’s posting of violent videos on YouTube in late 2010 and early 2011. Brice also posted a video honoring Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Authorities began to investigate Brice after he suffered life-threatening injuries from a bomb he made that exploded on April 18, 2010, before he could get out of the blast radius.
Federal investigators later learned that Brice posted videos advocating suicide bombings. Investigators arrested Brice after he promised to provide bomb-making plans to a terrorist who actually was an undercover federal agent.
Brice did not explain his actions Tuesday in court, but he acknowledged his guilt when prompted by Suko. Brice’s attorney, Matthew Campbell, declined an interview request following the 1 p.m. hearing.
According to unsealed court records, investigators searched Brice’s email accounts and IP addresses and found videos he’d posted that show his “arguably insatiable interest in manufacturing, detonating, and assisting others in manufacturing and detonating explosives,” court records state.
In February 2011, Brice posted on YouTube about how he found an “FBI or ATF tracking device on his vehicle” and that federal authorities had investigated him after a bomb was placed along the route of the 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March in downtown Spokane. Kevin W. Harpham was later implicated and pleaded guilty in that case.
Federal court records confirmed that Brice had been viewed as a person of interest in the MLK march bomb investigation and that an investigator had interviewed Brice on March 29, 2011.
After the officer “explained to Brice that he was not a suspect” in the MLK march bomb, “Brice confessed to having manufactured the destructive device that caused his (Brice’s) injuries on April 18, 2010, and provided statements relevant to his own expertise in explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction.”
Even after that interview, Brice continued his online activities.
Court records say Brice “consistently praised jihadi activities, uploading training manuals to a jihadi website, and made statements on the forum of a jihadi website that included, ‘I fight for the cause of Allah and Islam so I fear not.’ ”
He also posted six videos under the heading “Strength of Allah,” each “glorifying jihad and the use of explosives.”
Then on May 8, 2011, Brice engaged in an online chat with an undercover federal agent “during which Brice provided his expertise in manufacturing … explosives to a person he believed was a jihad terrorist planning retaliation for the elimination of Usama Bin Laden,” court records state.
The next day, federal agents raided his Clarkston apartment and took him into custody.
Within 15 minutes of his arrest on May 9, 2011, Brice acknowledged to FBI agents that his posts could make him look like a terrorist supporter.
“I was just toying with them. I drink beer every day,” he said according to court records. “I do, I do everything opposite of whatever it looks like. This is going to look so bad!”
During his interview with the FBI, Brice also downplayed his praise of McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 after he was convicted of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
“The defendant went so far as to create and post a dedication video about McVeigh on YouTube,” court records state. “The defendant also stated, ‘(McVeigh’s) characteristics are nearly the same as myself, physically/politically.’ ”
On Tuesday, Brice pleaded guilty to manufacturing an unregistered firearm, but the charge actually relates to the bomb that Brice built and detonated on April 18, 2010, that almost killed him. That charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The second count of attempting to provide material assistance to a terrorist – which appears to relate to his online chat with the undercover agent on May 8 – carries a maximum 15-year sentence and the same maximum fine.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Smoot indicated to Judge Suko that prosecutors had agreed to recommend the two sentences run at the same time, meaning the most Brice could face is about 15 years.
As part of the plea agreement, Smoot agreed to drop a separate count charging Brice with distribution relating to bombs or weapons of mass destruction. That charge could have added a maximum of another 20 years to the sentence.
Campbell, the defense attorney, said he reserves the right to appeal whatever sentence Suko hands down. Smoot also told Suko that he expects the sentencing will include a full day of arguments on both sides.
Suko set that hearing for Jan. 9.