Crime & Courts

Morganton teen accused in federal court of planning killings for ISIS

Neighbors talk about Justin Sullivan

Federal authorities have arrested a Morganton teenager, saying he planned to kill a large number of Americans in support of Islamic terrorists. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI identified the suspect as Justin Nojan Sullivan, 19.
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Federal authorities have arrested a Morganton teenager, saying he planned to kill a large number of Americans in support of Islamic terrorists. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI identified the suspect as Justin Nojan Sullivan, 19.

Federal authorities have arrested a Morganton teenager, saying he planned to support Islamic terrorists by killing 1,000 Americans.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI identified the suspect as Justin Nojan Sullivan, 19. Federal authorities say he planned to buy a semi-automatic rifle last week at the Hickory Gun Show so he could kill on behalf of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. He is charged with supporting a terrorist organization and related weapons charges. If convicted, he faces up to 40 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

According to a criminal complaint released Monday, Sullivan told an undercover FBI agent that he considered himself a Muslim convert and a jihadist, or holy war soldier for Islam.

In a series of emails to the agent, Sullivan talked of assassinating up to 1,000 Americans with a combination of guns, bombs and chemical weapons, documents say. He also promised to send the agent money to kill his parents and to recruit others to the “Islamic State of North America.”

Borrowing a page from ISIS, the documents say Sullivan planned to make a video of some of the killings, which he hoped to send to the terrorist group.

At his initial hearing in federal court, the tall slender teen with tousled brown hair looked younger than his age. When he walked into the courtroom, he turned to look at his parents – the same couple federal authorities say Sullivan wanted to have killed. Rich and Eleanor Sullivan stared back, then held hands throughout the 15-minute hearing.

Afterward, the couple spoke little. “We’re shocked,” Rich Sullivan said moments after he left the courtroom.

Outside the federal courthouse, Sullivan said he had not been allowed to see his son. Asked if he wanted to, Sullivan replied, “Anyone would.” Then he and his wife hurried away through a tunnel of cameras that led them to Mint Street.

Second mass killing plot

Sullivan’s arrest marks the second high-profile plot for mass killings in the Carolinas in less than a week. On Thursday, authorities charged Dylann Roof, 21, with the slaughter of nine prayer group members at a historic African-American church in Charleston the night before.

Roof, according to investigators, hoped to start a race war.

Sullivan, according to court documents filed Monday, wanted to join a holy war. In the coming weeks, he said he planned to start randomly killing people, then build from there.

“Our attacks needs to be as big as possible,” Sullivan wrote in an email to the undercover agent, the documents say. “We can do minor assassinations before the big attack for training.”

Sullivan talked about building bombs and coating bullets with cyanide, documents say, and of dying as a martyr. First he needed a gun – an “AR-15 .223 with split core ammo ... deadly” – that he hoped to buy during last weekend’s gun show in Hickory.

He also wanted a silencer, which the undercover agent agreed to build and mail to Sullivan’s home outside Morganton. Documents say the FBI recovered the silencer on Friday during the bureau’s raid on Sullivan’s home.

“Justin Sullivan intended to commit violent acts against innocent people in the U.S. to support the terrorist organization,” said FBI Special Agent John Strong, who heads the agency’s operations in North Carolina.

At his hearing Monday, Sullivan talked briefly with his court-appointed attorney, then answered a series of questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler with the same reply: “Yes, sir.” When he left the room, he exchanged another long glance with his parents.

Rich Sullivan brought his son to the attention of federal authorities earlier this year. The court documents say that on April 15, he asked police for help because Justin Sullivan had poured gasoline on his family’s religious items to destroy them.

“I don’t know if it is ISIS or what, but he is destroying Buddhas and figurines and stuff,” Rich Sullivan said in his 911 call, according to the court documents. “I mean, we are scared to leave the house.”

The documents say Justin Sullivan could be heard in the background repeatedly asking, “Why are you trying to say I am a terrorist? ... They are not going to put me in jail. They are going to kill me.”

Neighbors witness guns

No one answered the door Monday afternoon at the family’s neatly kept brick ranch home trimmed with potted flowers.

Neighbors say Eleanor Sullivan, a native of the Philippines, is Justin’s mother and that Rich Sullivan, a retired Marine, is the teen’s stepfather. The family of three moved to Rose Carswell Road about three years ago. The Sullivans are considered outgoing, sharing vegetables from their garden and talking often with neighbors.

Justin Sullivan, though, was described as a socially awkward loner, who stayed inside except to walk the family’s beagle. Neighbors said he often wore hooded sweatshirts even during the worst of the summer heat.

Residents also spoke of several recent incidents in which the teenager appeared to be practicing with guns. Keith Walker, who lives across the road, said Sullivan was standing in the front yard of the family home with a pistol when Walker drove up around 8:30 p.m. Friday.

“About 15 minutes later when I was getting the grill ready, I heard gunfire from what sounded like a high-caliber pistol, five or six shots,” Walker said. “He emptied whatever he had.”

A few minutes after that, he said, law enforcement cars with blue lights flashing pulled up.

A month or two ago, next-door neighbor Don Denton said he saw Justin Sullivan shooting a BB pistol at targets in the backyard while quickly changing his stance. It looked like a training exercise, Denton said.

“For a 12-year-old I could understand, but for a 19-year-old to be doing that seemed a little strange,” he said.

Sullivan is charged with three offenses: attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization; receipt of a silencer in interstate commerce with intent to commit a felony; and receipt and possession of an unregistered silencer, unidentified by a serial number.

He will be back in court Wednesday morning in Asheville. Researcher Maria David and Sarah Chaney contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095

Henderson: 704-358-5051;

Twitter: @bhender

Recent cases of Americans supporting ISIS

FBI Director James Comey says his agency is investigating radicalized Americans “in all 50 states.” Some of them reportedly support ISIS or claimed to.

▪ On May 27, a Georgia man pleaded guilty to plotting to join ISIS forces in Syria. Leon Davis, 37, said he had been planning his move for more than a year and had bought a one-way ticket to Turkey. Arrested at the Atlanta airport, Davis faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

▪ In April, a Topeka, Kansas, man was charged with attempting to set off a suicide bomb near the Fort Riley Army base. John T. Booker Jr., 20, planned to attack U.S. military personnel in support of ISIS, authorities said.

▪ On March 25, a member of the Army National Guard and his cousin were arrested in Illinois on charges of fighting for ISIS and planning an attack against a U.S. military facility. Spc. Hasan Edmonds, 22, was arrested at a Chicago airport. Authorities say he planned to fly to Egypt.

▪ A Tennessee man whom authorities say was a known troublemaker was arrested in October after he claimed to be an ISIS member and threatened to decapitate the arresting officer. Terry Wayne McCullough claimed his next target was Nashville, authorities said.

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