ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The lawyer for an ex-Marine Corps reservist accused of firing shots at the Pentagon and other military targets last year says his client is a loyal American and that a notebook found in his possession containing references to Osama bin Laden and jihad was merely part of his efforts to understand the enemy.
Yonathan Melaku, 23, of Alexandria, Va., made an initial appearance Wednesday in U.S. District Court to answer charges that while a reservist he conducted a series of overnight shootings in October and November 2010 at the Pentagon, Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, and other targets including a Marine recruiting station in Chantilly. Nobody was injured.
He was arrested and charged in June after he was spotted in Arlington National Cemetery after dark in an incident that sparked a massive security scare in and around the Pentagon, which is near the cemetery. A court affidavit says he was carrying a backpack with ammonium nitrate, which can be used in explosives, and a notebook containing references in Arabic to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and “the path to jihad,” which included a reference to “defeat coalition and allies and America.”
But the federal charges — two counts of damaging federal property plus two counts of using a firearm in a crime of violence — were on hold while he awaited trial in Loudoun County on unrelated larceny charges. These charges led to his dismissal from the Marine reserves a few days after his arrest for allegedly firing the shots at military buildings.
Earlier this month, Melaku, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Ethiopia, struck a plea deal on the state charges that resulted in a six-month jail term, including time served. When his jail term concluded Wednesday, he was picked up by U.S. Marshals and transferred to Alexandria to face the federal charges.
In a phone interview following Wednesday’s hearing, Melaku’s attorney, Gregory English, said his client volunteered to join the Marines and served honorably while enlisted.
As for the notebook references to bin Laden and al-Qaida, English said it’s a mistake to assume they denote a nefarious intent.
“We’re at war with al-Qaida,” English said. “The first thing they teach you as a soldier is `Know thy enemy.”‘
At Wednesday’s hearing, a magistrate ordered that Melaku remain in custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for Thursday.
Prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom told the judge that the government will seek to keep Melaku in jail pending trial and may present evidence at Thursday’s hearing that includes a videotape that Melaku purportedly made while firing shots at the Marine Corps museum. A court affidavit quotes Melaku on the tape saying, “That’s what they get. That’s my target. That’s the military building. It’s going to be attacked.”
If convicted on all four counts, Melaku would face a mandatory minimum of 35 years in prison and a possible life sentence.
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