Calling Justin Sullivan’s plot a “cold and calculated” conspiracy of ISIS-inspired terror, a federal judge in Asheville sent the 21-year-old Morganton man to prison for the rest of his life.
Sullivan showed no reaction as U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger handed down his sentence. He stood silently in a brown inmate jumpsuit, his left shoulder slouched.
According to documents from the two-year-old case, Sullivan planned to unveil his “Islamic State of North America” with an attack on a concert or club that would kill hundreds of people.
During rambling, muffled remarks to the judge, Sullivan told Reidinger he was not “a cold-blooded killer.”
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During a news conference afterward, U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose gave her response. “I believe the facts prove otherwise.”
Sullivan’s sentence was part of an agreement that led to his guilty plea last November to one count of planning a terrorist act transcending national borders.
As he left the courtroom, the pale, mustached defendant turned and cast a quick glance toward his parents, who sat a few rows behind him. Rich Sullivan, a retired Marine captain, responded with a small wave.
It was a Rich Sullivan phone call in the spring of 2015 that first alerted authorities to his son’s possible ties to the Islamic State, a worldwide terrorist group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL. A few months later, Justin Sullivan offered to pay an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS sympathizer to have his parents killed out of fear that they would thwart his plans.
Throughout the two-hour hearing, Rich and Eleanor Sullivan dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs as their son’s fate unfolded before them.
Afterward, Rich Sullivan discussed the difficulty of balancing blood and country.
“As parents, we’re not happy,”said Sullivan, wearing a Marine lapel pin on his dark blue suit, his eyes reddened by tears. “As Americans, we accept what just happened.”
Justin Sullivan still faces a trial for his life in Burke County in connection with the December 2014 shooting death of John Bailey Clarke, a 74-year-old recluse who lived near the Sullivan home on Rose Carswell Drive in Morganton, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Despite Sullivan’s life sentence, District Attorney David Learner said the capital murder charges remain, though no trial date has been selected. He declined other comment.
Federal prosecutors never charged Sullivan with Clarke’s killing. But explicit details of the elderly man’s violent death as he slept are highlighted through numerous court documents filed in Sullivan’s terrorism case.
In a victory for Sullivan’s defense team in the upcoming Burke County case, Reidinger did not include Clarke’s murder in his basis for the life sentence, saying that Sullivan’s role in the killing should be decided by the jury at the upcoming trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Savage argued that Clarke’s killing proved Sullivan was capable of “cold-blooded murder,” which should be reflected in the judge’s sentencing decision as well as the kind of prison where Sullivan will be assigned.
The prosecutor bristled at the comment by federal public defender Fredilyn Sison that Sullivan’s age made him particularly vulnerable to the type of inmates housed in higher-security facilities.
“He murdered Clarke for whatever reason, just because he could. That’s vulnerable,” Savage said, his voice rising. “Who could think that a 74-year-old man, sleeping in his bed, would be shot three times in the head, just because he lived next door to a man who was obsessed with death.”
Described by neighbors and attorneys as shy and socially awkward, Sullivan converted online to Islam in September 2014. Soon, according to court documents, he was watching ISIS beheadings and other execution videos on his bedroom computer.
On chat rooms fueled by allegiance to ISIS and hatred for the West, Sullivan became “The Mujahid,” a soldier in an Islamic holy war. Unlike many of his peers who dreamed of taking up arms in the Middle East, Sullivan planned to establish a front line at home.
“The war is here, ahki,” Sullivan told the undercover agent shortly before his June 2015 arrest.
Sison, a veteran federal public defender from Asheville, called one witness – a Durham psychologist who testified that Sullivan suffers from psychological problems that could spiral into full-fledged schizophrenia if does not receive adequate prison treatment or is housed with hardened inmates.
Under questioning by Savage, Dr. Jim Hilkey said that during his 15 visits with Sullivan, his patient remained ardent in his Islamic beliefs and had not expressed remorse.
As part of the sentencing, Reidinger ordered that Sullivan undergo a psychological assessment, with the findings to help determine where he should be held.
In the last three years, 125 persons have been arrested in the United States on charges of aiding ISIS. Sullivan becomes the second to receive a life sentence.
In April, Harlem Suarez became the first, following his conviction for buying a bomb to blow up a beach in the Florida Keys.
Given the chance to speak, Sullivan quickly rose to his feet, Sison beside him. He spoke in a mumbled rush that at times was hard to follow.
Sullivan said he was not a troublemaker, that things “just happened,” and that he hoped people did not judge him.
He said he used to be very shy, but had been working on that. He said a lot of people would like him if they got to know him.
RESEARCHER MARIA DAVID CONTRIBUTED.