Justin Sullivan, a Morganton teenager accused of plotting to kill hundreds of people in support of the Islamic State, fits the profile of many of the Americans charged with working on behalf of the terrorist organization, according to a study released this month.
Except for this: His family noticed his apparent radicalization and sought help.
Sullivan, 19, is one of 56 U.S. citizens arrested on ISIS-related charges in 2015 – a record number stretching back to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to “ISIS in America,” a study by a George Washington University team on domestic converts to the radical Islamic group.
Sullivan has been jailed since his June arrest, charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, among other crimes.
Never miss a local story.
Seamus Hughes, co-author of the new study, says Sullivan shares many of the characteristics of other ISIS sympathizers in America:
He’s young – the average age of the 71 people arrested on ISIS-related charges in the United States since March 2014 is 26. As with 86 percent of the defendants, Sullivan is male. He is also a loner who appears to have found an online community to feed his Islamic fervor.
But there is a difference. Many of the ISIS suspects profiled in the study lived “compartmentalized” lives in which they hid their beliefs or plans for jihad from family, friends and co-workers, Hughes said.
In Sullivan’s case, his mother and stepfather appear to have become concerned enough about the changes in their son to say something about it. In fact, Rich and Eleanor Sullivan’s 911 call in April mentioned ISIS as a possible cause for their son’s violent outbursts and first put him on the FBI’s radar.
Sullivan was arrested two months later after spending several days online with an FBI agent who posed as an ISIS sympathizer. Court documents say the teen discussed plans to kill up to 1,000 people.
Sullivan’s name has surfaced this week in connection with the December 2014 shooting death of John Bailey Clark, 74, whose body was found in a shallow grave near his home on Rose Carswell Road. Clark, according to his autopsy, had been shot three times in the head. He lived on the same street as Sullivan.
Clark’s death had remained unsolved until the Burke County Sheriff’s Department issued a weekend press release saying it has “a suspect who is currently in custody on other charges.”
The statement did not name the suspect and no charges concerning Clark’s death have been filed. Burke Sheriff Steve Whisenant said by email Wednesday that he had no new details to release.
On Monday, when questioned about the department’s press release announcing a break in the Clark case, a spokeswoman for Whisenant said, “Call the FBI.”
The FBI normally would not be involved in a routine murder case. A bureau spokeswoman declined comment this week. So did the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting Sullivan on the terrorism charge. The teen’s attorney, Fredilyn Sison of Asheville, did not respond to requests seeking comment.
John Carswell, who lives on the same street as Sullivan and Clark, told WSOC-TV this week that at the time of Sullivan’s arrest, FBI agents asked him if he thought the teen could be responsible for Clark’s death several months earlier. “I just told them what I thought about it: The boy wasn’t right.”
Don Denton, who lives next door to the Sullivans, said he doubts Justin Sullivan shot Clark.
“I don’t think he had access to a weapon. You can’t kill nobody with a BB gun,” he said.
At the same time, Denton said he believes his reclusive, young neighbor “got tangled up in something he couldn’t get out of ... and had all the intentions in the world of doing what he wanted to do (for ISIS).”
According to an affidavit released with Sullivan’s arrest, the teen talked often with the undercover FBI agent about killing as many people as possible during their planned attacks, adding, “We can do minor assassinations before the big attack for training.”
“Our attack will probably be next week,” Sullivan wrote in a June 9 email. “I’ll be doing shootings of my own before then. I’m excited.” Later, he told the FBI that he had offered to pay the undercover agent to kill his parents.
Court records do not indicate when Sullivan’s alleged ISIS sympathies took root. In 2013, he withdrew from Patton High School in Morganton to attend St. Paul American School in the Philippines – his mother’s homeland and a hotspot for Islamic violence.
If Sullivan, as Hughes wrote in his report about ISIS sympathizers, intended “to make the leap from keyboard warrior to actual militancy,” his parents wrecked his plans.
On April 21, Rich Sullivan, a former Marine, called 911.
“I don’t know if it’s ISIS or what but (Justin) is destroying Buddhas and figurines,” he said.
The Sullivans have not returned calls for comment about the case.
A week after the arrest, Rich Sullivan told the Morganton News Herald that he took an oath to defend “against enemies foreign and domestic. I just didn’t know it would be this close to home.”
Doug Miller and researcher Maria David contributed