A 21-year-old Morganton man already sentenced to life in prison for plotting to unleash a terrorist attack in behalf of the Islamic State, pleaded guilty Monday morning to the murder of his elderly neighbor.
During a 10 a.m. court hearing in Burke County held under unusually tight security, Justin Sullivan admitted he shot and killed John Bailey Clark in December 2014 as the 74-year-old recluse slept in his bedroom. Federal court documents say Sullivan stole one of his father’s rifles, slipped into Clark’s home just down the street from his parents’ house, and fired three shots into Clark’s head. Clark’s body was found in a shallow grave beside his house.
In return for the plea, according to Sullivan’s attorney, Victoria Jayne of Hickory, Burke County prosecutors will no longer seek the death penalty against Sullivan, who had been charged with first-degree murder in connection with Clark’s death. District Attorney David Learner had announced he would try the case as a capital crime.
Under the agreement, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin of Morganton gave Sullivan another life sentence that would go into effect if he is ever released from federal prison on the ISIS-related charges.
In a statement after the hearing, District Attorney David Learner cited Sullivan’s lack of remorse and said Clark’s murder “was as cowardly an act as has ever happened in Burke County, as was Sullivan’s plan for mass murder.”
Last month, Sullivan became the second convicted ISIS conspirator in the United States to be sentenced to life imprisonment. He pleaded guilty to plotting to unleash an attack in western North Carolina in support of what he described as the “Islamic State of North Carolina.” According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, 128 persons have been arrested on ISIS charges in the United States since March 2014.
Federal prosecutors say that in online discussions with an undercover FBI agent, Sullivan said he hoped to kill hundreds in an attack on a concert or club. The federal judge who sentenced Sullivan last month described the plot as “cold and calculating.”
According to Jayne, her client continues to say that Clark’s murder was not part of that wider conspiracy. However, federal court documents say a former jail inmate told officials that Sullivan described the killing to him as “practice.” Jayne says Sullivan still denies ever talking with the inmate.
The murder weapon, a Marlin .22-caliber rifle, was found hidden in the crawl space of the Sullivan home during an FBI search after Sullivan’s June 2015 arrest.
According to Jayne, Sullivan is making the plea because “Justin just wants to get this over with,” before he is assigned a federal prison to begin serving his ISIS sentence.
Monday, Sullivan did not apologize to the members of Clark’s family who were sitting behind the prosecutors. But he did say that he was not “a bad person,” adding that he “didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”.
Jayne said she apologized to the victim’s loved ones in court and thanked them for the clemency they had shown her client.
She said he has not mentioned a motive for the Clark killing but says it took place before he had become an ISIS supporter.
“I can’t rationalize it. He certainly hasn’t rationalized it. He says he really didn’t feel converted to the ISIS extremism until after the shooting. He really doesn’t offer any insights,” she said.
In the meantime, Sullivan’s plea means his placement into a federal prison can proceed more quickly as will possible treatment for a condition doctors have described as “pre-schizophrenia,” Jayne said.
“He’s sort of anxious at this point of getting into the federal bureau of prisons. He’s very nervous about that,” she said. “He is socially awkward and he is socially immature.”
When he talk about one of only two ISIS conspirators to receive life sentences, “I can’t tell right now whether it upsets him or makes him feel special.”