NEW YORK — An army soldier accused of plotting to murder members of his unit overseas with the help of a violent, secretive anarchist group was planning a defense calling it all an internet fantasy before pleading guilty just before the trial, according to court records.
Plans for Ethan Phelan Melzer’s defense were revealed in court documents in the months before the Kentucky man abruptly pleaded guilty to the charges on Friday, eliminating the need for his July 5 trial before Manhattan Federal Court. The sentence is set for January 6. He could face up to 45 years in prison rather than the life sentence that a jury conviction could have brought.
Melzer, 24, was in Italy in October 2019 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team when he communicated online with others before planning an attack on his army unit once she was redeployed in 2020 to guard an isolated and sensitive military installation, prosecutors said.
But court documents reveal that the people he communicated with online were not members of the Order of Nine Angles – or 09A – as he believed, but rather government informants who helped build the case against him, defense attorneys said.
The Washington Post quoted a European security official in a June 2020 article as saying the Nazi-Satanist group was established in Britain in the 1970s and encouraged extreme violence for decades.
The official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue told the newspaper that 09A members range from a few dozen to around 2,000, targeting young people and sending supporters into groups to influence and recruit .
Prosecutors said the white supremacist group espouses neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs and encourages members to infiltrate the military to train, commit acts of violence and identify like-minded individuals who have l intent to subvert the Home Army.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Friday that Melzer sought to “orchestrate a deadly ambush against his own unit by unlawfully disclosing his location, strength and weaponry to 09A members online.”
“The defendant believed he could force the United States into a protracted armed conflict while causing the deaths of as many soldiers as possible. Melzer’s treacherous conduct was a betrayal of his legendary unit and nothing less than an attack on the most essential American values,” he said in a press release.
Ahead of Friday’s plea, Melzer’s attorneys were building a defense claiming he was simply engaging in fanciful talk similar to a New York police officer dubbed the “cannibal cop” by the tabloids when he was convicted in 2013 kidnapping plot in a plot to rape, kill and eat women. They said it was a case with “similar facts” to those faced by Melzer.
Online, Officer Gilberto Valle had discussed the cannibal plot with others in grisly detail. But in rejecting the jury’s verdict, a judge wrote that while Valle’s “misogynistic sexual fantasies” reflected a diseased mind, prosecutors failed to prove he took steps to commit horrific acts.
As Melzer’s lawyers wrote: “The charges in this case are sensational, the facts are less so: no ‘jihadist ambush’ against Melzer’s unit occurred, none was about to happen and Melzer had no intention of seeing one happen. In interviews with law enforcement after his arrest, he made it clear that he never intended to see an attack happen and that he thought his interlocutors were “pranksters” who nor had the intention or ability to orchestrate one. »
They said his online prose was “bragging – falsehoods designed to impress those with whom he communicated online”. And the lawyers wrote that while Melzer was curious about 09A, he thought it was “weird” and “pretty much a cult” and that his beliefs were “the polar opposite” of his.
They said a government aide posing as a 09A sympathizer online claimed to be a former Canadian paratrooper injured in Iraq, but was actually a mentally ill 15-year-old who had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment months before he began communicating with Melzer.
“The government’s efforts to portray Melzer as an O9A devotee committed to murdering his fellow soldiers are overblown,” the defense attorneys wrote. They said three post-arrest interviews in 2020 with law enforcement “constitute categorical denials of the most serious charges against him.”
The guilty plea came after prosecutors clarified they had built a case against Melzer that included evidence from his electronics and barracks — photographs, videos and documents — that could qualify as “jihadist” material and “09A”.
Also recovered were books titled “The Sinister Tradition” and “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” which prosecutors said contained detailed instructions on how to make and use explosives and weapons.
But prosecutors said they plan to show the jury the most potentially damaging evidence that Melzer sought to initiate himself into 09A through violence as a street-level drug dealer after shooting a marijuana dealer. at Arms in January 2017 near his Louisville, Kentucky, apartment. He joined the army the following year.