Justin Sullivan, a 20-year-old Morganton man accused of plotting a mass killing in support of the Islamic State, pleaded guilty Tuesday morning in federal court to a terrorism-related charge.
The formal offense: Attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries. Translation: Sullivan planned to kill, assault or maim one or more persons – crimes that would have affected interstate or foreign commerce.
According to new documents unsealed after the sentencing, Sullivan faces life in prison. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Sullivan entered his plea during an appearance in Asheville before U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger. Sullivan had previously pleaded not guilty to an array of federal charges related to his alleged plot to kill in behalf of the terrorist group known as Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
While Sullivan dreamed of killing hundreds at a local nightclub or concert in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions, his June 2015 plan to kill his parents or have someone else do it brought FBI agents speeding to his house, the documents indicate.
On June 19, Rich and Eleanor Sullivan had intercepted a homemade silencer sent to their son by an undercover FBI agent posing online as a jihadist. When Rich Sullivan pressed Justin to explain the contents of the package, the son “became aggressive,” documents say. Rich Sullivan called 911.
Minutes later, Justin Sullivan emailed the undercover agent. “If they don’t stop, I’ll probably have to do something about them then (escape to the Middle East),” documents say.
Two hours later, Sullivan emailed again, telling the undercover agent to be patient. “I’m gonna get rid of my problem. Can’t be having people calling the police on me.”
Later, according to documents, Sullivan asked the undercover agent to “get rid” of his parents for him a few days later while Rich and Eleanor were visiting a Buddhist friend.
The agent wrote: “is there another way? u couldn’t just leave them when they leave?”
“No,” Sullivan replied, according to documents.
He was arrested that night.
George Washington University political scientist Seamus Hughes says 112 Americans have been charged with ISIS-related crimes since March 2014. Sullivan is the only one facing the death penalty.
Sullivan remains charged with capital murder related to the December 2014 shooting death of John Bailey Clark, 74, an elderly recluse who lived near Sullivan and his parents.
In an unusual move, documents released Tuesday with Sullivan’s federal case provide new details into Clark’s killing while he slept in his home – a crime for which Sullivan has not been convicted.
His attorney in the murder trial, Victoria Jayne of Hickory, said she was “surprised and disturbed” that information about Clark’s death was included in the federal documents released Tuesday “when what Justin was pleading to has absolutely nothing to do with the charges in Burke County.”
“He was not charged with murder in federal court,” Jayne said Tuesday. “I am at a loss to understand why anything related to the state charges was included when those charges have not been resolved and he has not been convicted of any of them.”
Asked if Sullivan’s plea to the federal charge would have any impact on his upcoming murder trial, a spokesman for Sullivan’s prosecutor, District Attorney David Learner, said the office would not comment.
An unscrewed light bulb
On Dec. 17, 2014, a few months after prosecutors say Sullivan converted to Islam, he stole a .22-caliber rifle from his father’s locked gun cabinet, documents say. With his parents out of town, Sullivan pulled on a ski mask and made the five-minute walk to Clark’s home. At some point, documents say, Sullivan used a chair to unscrew a bulb in an overhead bedroom fixture that Clark left burning throughout the day
Inside Clark’s bedroom, Sullivan fired three point-blank shots into the sleeping man’s head, then dragged Clark’s body to the side of the house where he stripped it, then buried it in a 20-inch-deep grave, documents say.
In the resulting investigation, SBI agents interviewed Clark’s neighbors. Rich Sullivan told the agents that he and Eleanor had been out of town when Clark was killed. He did not tell them, however, that Justin Sullivan had been alone in the house over the same time period, documents say.
In their email exchanges leaving up to the big June 2015 attack, Sullivan pressed the undercover agent to prove his loyalty by killing a few people before he and Sullivan met.
“Our attack needs to be as big as possible,” he told the undercover FBI agent, seven months after Clark’s death. “We can do minor assassinations before the big attack for training.”
The undercover agent pushed back: “I’m pretty sure at the time I kill anyone I would be (martyred).”
“People kill people all the time and get away with it,” Sullivan responded. “... just shoot then leave. wear a mask and do it at night.”