At a school in upstate New York, one student reported a suspicious comment they heard at lunchtime. A day later, the authorities had arrested three men and a teenager, charging them with conspiracy to attack a Muslim community 200 miles away.
Vincent Vetromile, 19; Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and an unidentified 16-year-old male were all arrested in Greece, New York on Friday. They are all from the Rochester area, and the 16-year-old has been classified as an "adolescent offender" and so has not had his photo or name released to the public.
Each of them was accused of making homemade bombs in a plot to attack Islamberg in Delaware County, a community of several hundred Muslim Americans around a three-hour drive northwest of New York City. This is not the first plot against the Islamberg community. In 2017, a man was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for plotting to burn down a mosque and a school in the area.
Chief of Police Patrick Phelan praised the department for their swift work, and highlighted the incident as an example of how teaching children 'see something, say something' can work. During Tuesday's news conference, he said:
"The kid who initially said something to an adult saved people's lives. We tell kids this all the time, we say if you see something say something, you gotta report anything suspicious. The lesson is that it works and as a result nobody's dead.
"This was a nice job by everyone involved. The kids did what they were supposed to do, security did what they were supposed to do. They involved the police very quickly and everything worked. And as a result, nobody's dead. That's a good story, it really is."
The investigation began on Friday after the 16-year-old was seen showing a photo of another student and commenting, "he looks like the next school shooter, doesn't he?". This comment was reported, and school security interviewed the students involved in the conversation. Greece Police were also notified, expanding the investigation with the help of New York State Police and federal law enforcement.
Further interviews and several search warrants were soon issued, leading to authorities discovering 23 firearms and three "improvised explosive devices" associated with the accused. Along with the devices, which are now being analysed by the FBI in Virginia, the alleged plot to attack Islamberg was found. While the police would not give specific details about the plot, other than that it had been in the works for several weeks, they did confirm that they have each been charged with three felony counts of criminal possession of a weapon and one felony count of conspiracy.
The Muslims of America Inc., which is affiliated with the Islamberg community, said that the news spread "fear and utter dismay," while thanking the authorities for thwarting the scheme. In a news release, the organisation said:
"It is beyond tragic that our nation continues to fester with Islamophobia, hate and religious intolerance. To bring justice and properly deter similar terrorist plots against our community, we are calling for the individuals charged, as well as their accomplices, to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We will follow these proceedings closely."
Three of the four involved knew each other through their participation in the Boy Scouts, which prompted a statement to be made by the CEO of the Boy Scouts of America's Seneca Waterways Council. Stephen Hoitt said that they "were shocked and disturbed to learn about the allegations against these individuals" in a statement. "Upon learning of these reports we took immediate action to prohibit these individuals from any future participation in the Boy Scouts of America," he said.
The police investigation into this plot is still ongoing, with Phelan confirming that they still need to analyse phones and computers seized during the searches, which may lead to further charges. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.