Youngest of four alleged Ford County terrorist group members pleads guilty

Youngest of four alleged Ford County terrorist group members pleads guilty

URBANA — The youngest of four Ford County men charged with crimes committed as part of a homegrown terrorist organization, including converting assault rifles into machine guns and committing robberies to finance their operation, has pleaded guilty.

Ellis "E.J." Mack, 18, of Clarence faces up to 20 years in prison for the more serious of his offenses — conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence. The Clarence man also pleaded guilty Tuesday to unlawful possession of a machine gun before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long in Urbana. He faces up to 10 years in prison for that.

Long set Mack's sentencing for Jan. 9 before U.S. District Court Judge Sara Darrow in Urbana.

As part of his plea agreement, Mack has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their cases against the alleged leader of the Patriot Freedom Fighters, Michael Hari, 47; as well as alleged fellow militia members Michael McWhorter, 29, who is Mack's stepfather; and Joe Morris, 23.

They are tentatively set to be tried on similar charges in Urbana in November.

The older three men, all from Clarence, are also charged with attempted arson for allegedly trying to firebomb Women's Health Practice, 2125 S. Neil St., C, on Nov. 7, 2017; and arson in an Aug. 5, 2017, bombing at a mosque in Bloomington, Minn. Hari alone is also charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon.

Prosecutors said the mosque bombing — the subject of a separate criminal case in Minnesota federal court — happened before Mack's active participation in the group, and they do not think he was involved in the attempted bombing at Women's Health Practice.

In a hearing that lasted about 45 minutes, Mack told the judge his highest level of education was a junior in high school.

Consulting frequently with his Urbana attorney, Larry Solava, Mack said he understood what he was accused of and that if he backed out of his agreement to cooperate with the government, he might not reap any benefits from his guilty plea.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller laid out for Long the details of the conspiracy among the four, who also called themselves the "White Rabbits."

Miller said Hari was the leader of the group and that he enlisted the others to commit acts of criminal violence, which he referred to as "jobs," to finance their work.

To assist in their work, Miller said, Hari obtained and put together four shotguns and four assault rifles.

The government said around October 2017, after Mack joined the group, he accompanied the other three men to Hari's parents' garage in Clarence, where the group modified some of the assault rifles so that they could shoot fully automatically.

Once converted, the guns were taken to a field outside Paxton and fired, so Mack was aware that they now operated like a "machine gun," Miller said.

Those guns and other armament were stored in a locked safe in the militia group's "office" in Clarence.

Details of 'jobs' emerge

Miller outlined some of the "jobs" done by the group in furtherance of the conspiracy:

— Dec. 4, 2017: Morris robbed a cashier at the Watseka Walmart at gunpoint of $1,500. Mack was not present.

— Dec. 16, 2017: The four drove to Ambia, Ind., and posed as law enforcement officers serving a search warrant to force their way into the home of a man they believed to be a drug dealer. Mack had a 12-gauge shotgun while the other three had assault rifles, including machine guns. They handcuffed and zip-tied the residents but left without cash or drugs.

— Dec. 17, 2017: Mack was one of the group members who unsuccessfully tried to rob the Mount Vernon Walmart.

— Jan. 17, 2018: Hari, McWhorter and Morris tried to sabotage Canadian National Railway tracks near Effingham by means of an incendiary device. Hari then sent the railroad a demand for $190,000 in cryptocurrency to keep from inflicting more damage. Mack was not present.

— Feb. 18, 2018: Hari, McWhorter and Morris planted bomb-making materials at the home of a Clarence resident in an attempt to get that man in trouble with law enforcement in Ford County prior to a hearing in which Hari faced charges that he assaulted the man in June 2017.

Describing the last act as a furtherance of the conspiracy, Miller said Mack was not present when it happened.

Up to $250,000 in fines

After local and federal agents discovered and seized the materials on the man's property, the militia group members became concerned that the FBI might search their office in Clarence and seize their weapons, including the machine guns.

— Feb. 20, 2018: Hari and McWhorter moved the weapons, including a machine gun, to another home in Clarence.

— Feb. 27, 2018: Federal agents found four shotguns and four assault rifles in the Clarence home along with a hard gun case, a plate carrier with soft armor and a bandoleer with 12-gauge bullets. Three of the four seized assault rifles were tested and found to meet the definition of a machine gun.

Miller said on the same day the agents seized the weapons, Hari, McWhorter, Morris and Mack went into hiding and while on the run made a video "where they wore masks and espoused their 'White Rabbit' philosophy."

On March 10, Mack admitted to federal agents that he had shot the automatic weapons outside Paxton so he could see how it felt and admitted that he took part in the Ambia, Ind., home invasion while armed with a shotgun.

In addition to prison time, Long told Mack he faces fines up to $250,000 and an unknown amount of restitution to the victims.

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