Three Palm Beach County men sentenced in terrorist plot

After admitting they were either “stupid,” “selfish” or delusional when they hatched a plan to join the Islamic State, three Palm Beach County men on Wednesday were sentenced in connection with the plot that was foiled by federal agents in July 2016 before one of the misguided conspirators boarded a plane for Syria.

Gregory Hubbard, 54, a Marine veteran and West Palm Beach artist who was arrested at Miami International Airport, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Dayne Christian, 33, of Lake Park, was handed an eight-year sentence. Darren Arness Jackson, 52, a Royal Palm Beach welder who traveled the country working on nuclear power plants, was given a four-year term.

The vast differences in the sentences — all at least a decade less than called for under federal sentencing guidelines — reflect the varying level of involvement each had in the failed plot to engage in violent jihad.

While each pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, as Jackson’s attorney Julie Vianale put it, “Everyone who has committed a terrorist offense isn’t a terrorist.”

All three said they had no real desire to join ISIS, but Jackson’s involvement in the plot was extremely limited, Vianale said. Traveling often for his job, he joined the other two at a shooting range one day in May 2016 and spent two weeks the next month discussing the plot and then drove Hubbard to the airport. Hubbard and Christian, in contrast, plotted to provide guns and other help to ISIS for more than year, federal agents said.

U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg struggled as she decided how best to punish Christian. Unlike the others, Christian had a prior felony. In 2009, he was arrested on a federal gun charge, so he also pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

But even Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert said that soon after his arrest, Christian provided information that spurred Hubbard to plead guilty and helped in other investigations. The government’s case also was hurt when the confidential informant they used to nab the three was convicted of fraud.

Rosenberg agreed Christian should be rewarded for his cooperation by receiving less than the 10 years Gilbert recommended. Likewise, she said Jackson should receive less than the six years Gilbert sought because his involvement was limited and because he was held at the Palm Beach County jail for months in solitary confinement. Further, Vianale said, Jackson’s conviction means he can no longer get lucrative jobs at nuclear plants where top-level security clearance is required.

All three acknowledged that even though no one was hurt, what they did was wrong.

During hours of conversations recorded by the FBI informant, they publicly decried Americans as “infidels,” and cheered mass shootings on U.S. soil. Christian talked of executing a man he saw at a gym, wearing a U.S. Marine shirt.

“I’m not a terrorist in any way, shape or form,” Christian told Rosenberg. “But I was radicalized and I did have radical views.”

He said he originally purchased various weapons to protect his wife and five children. “It was just a stupid decision to get those guns in the first place,” he said.

For his part, Hubbard said he was suffering from depression and anxiety and was in a very dark place. Once a successful artist, he said he was scammed out of his money by people he thought were his friends. He became homeless.

The constant barrage of media reports about unarmed black men being killed by cops, Muslims being punished for their religious views and homeless people being beaten and murdered, affected him deeply, he said.

“I felt I was a naked man being bathed in acid. It was unbearable for me,” he said. “I see how irrational I was in 20-20 hindsight.”

Jackson was also distraught, Vianale said. Reeling from a recent divorce, prompted in part by his decision to move his invalid father into his house, Jackson was desperate for friends. He foolishly embraced the plans crafted by the two men and the confidential informant he met at the Muslim Community of Palm Beach County, a mosque on Purdy Lane near West Palm Beach.

Jackson allowed the homeless Hubbard to move into his house and then fell under the charismatic artist’s influence, Vianale said. Federal agents seized Jackson’s high-powered weapons, insisting they were evidence of the plot, but Vianale said Jackson bought the guns years before as collector’s items. He never shot them until he joined his two friends for target practice, she said.

“I’m sorry for my prior selfish acts,” Jackson told Rosenberg. “I should have stood up for justice and said no to a situation that I knew was not right. … I stand for peace.”

Families of the three men attended the separate hearings and tearfully told Rosenberg that their loved ones’ involvement in such a scheme was unthinkable.

“The behavior described in this case is to out of character for Darren,” said Nicole Jackson, an attorney who divorced her husband of 25 years shortly before he became involved in the scheme. “He’s kind. He’s gentle. He’s soft-spoken and he’s very compassionate.”

Hubbard insisted that when he was arrested he simply wanted to go abroad to build a new life — to paint, to write and possibly to open a bakery. When he was arrested, his bags contained cookbooks and flour-stained family recipes, said his attorney Anthony Natale. Prosecutors said Hubbard was flying to Berlin, but had purchased a connecting flight to Syria.

“I’m not a violent person by nature or by history,” Hubbard said. “My disappointment at the flawed world we live in was wrong. I should have found another way to express myself.”

Christian expressed similar remorse. “I never knew that me saying certain things would be considered a crime or illegal,” he said. “Many things I said were cruel, evil and downright disgusting.”

Before sending Jackson away to begin serving his sentence, Rosenberg addressed his three daughters, one who recently graduated from college. Congratulating the recent graduate, she urged Jackson’s twin daughters to remain in school. She told the three young women to pick their friends wisely and not fall victim to peer pressure.

Jackson smiled. With his hands shackled, he leaned into a microphone. “They’re a lot like their mom so they don’t have to worry about that,” he said.

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