Crime & Courts

New indictment links teen ISIS suspect in Morganton to murder of elderly neighbor

Federal authorities say ISIS sympathizer Justin Sullivan, 19, of Morganton killed an elderly neighbor in 2014 and planned to use the money he stole to buy an assault weapon for a terrorist attack.
Federal authorities say ISIS sympathizer Justin Sullivan, 19, of Morganton killed an elderly neighbor in 2014 and planned to use the money he stole to buy an assault weapon for a terrorist attack. Davie Hinshaw

Suspected ISIS supporter Justin Sullivan robbed and murdered an elderly neighbor then planned to use the stolen money to buy an assault-style rifle to commit mass murder, a new federal indictment says.

Sullivan, 19, was arrested last June and is accused of plotting to kill up to 1,000 people in support of ISIS, an Islamic terrorist organization. A newly unsealed federal indictment against the Morganton man links him directly to the previously unsolved 2014 murder of John Bailey Clark, 74, a neighbor of Sullivan and his parents on Rose Carswell Road.

Clark was found in a shallow grave near his home. The indictment says Sullivan stole a gun from his stepfather, broke into his elderly neighbor’s home and shot him three times in the head in December 2014.

“Justin Sullivan had elaborate plans to kill hundreds of innocent people to show his support for the terrorist organization, ISIL,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge John Strong. “During the course of our investigation, evidence was uncovered linking Sullivan to John Bailey Clark’s murder six months earlier.”

According to court documents, federal authorities believe Clark’s murder came after Sullivan had converted to Islam and began watching beheadings and other violent ISIS acts on the Internet. Around that same time, ISIS sent out a worldwide call for attacks against citizens and soldiers of any country involved in the U.S.-led coalition targeting the Islamic group.

The investigation started Sullivan after a 911 call in April 2015 from his parents who said their son was pouring gasoline over their religious items. “I don’t know if it’s ISIS or what, but he is destroying Buddhas and figurines and stuff,” his stepfather said, according to earlier documents. “We’re afraid to leave the house.”

The investigation included using an undercover officer to connect with Sullivan and learn about his intent.

According to the new document, Sullivan referred to himself as “The Mujahid,” or a guerrilla warrior in defense of Allah and Islam.

On or about Dec. 17 and 18, 2014, Sullivan was in possession of a stolen .22 caliber Marlin Model 60W rifle. Sullivan used the stolen firearm that day to murder his neighbor, 74-year-old John Bailey Clark in Clark’s home, a few houses down ...

Federal indictment papers for Justin Sullivan

“Our attacks needs to be as big as possible,” he told the undercover agent, according to court documents. “We can do minor assassinations before the big attack for training.”

U.S. Attorney Jill Rose said Sullivan “pledged allegiance to ISIL, a designated foreign terrorist organization, and planned to carry out assassinations and mass shootings against innocent people.”

First, Sullivan needed an assault rifle, which he planned to buy at a Hickory gun show, using $689 he stole from Clark, documents say. In the days leading up to the gun show, investigators say, Sullivan conspired with the undercover agent about attacking a concert, restaurant or some other venue to kill up to 1,000 people.

He was arrested June 19, the day before the gun show.

According to the new indictment, Rich and Eleanor Sullivan confronted their son that day, when a silencer he had ordered from the undercover FBI agent for his terrorist attack arrived in the mail. He hid it in the crawl space next to the stolen rifle and other items. Soon afterward, he offered the undercover agent money to kill his parents out of fear that they would disrupt his plans.

Justin Sullivan’s parents could not be reached for comment on Monday.

After his arrest, FBI agents said they found a .22-caliber rifle, a black ski mask, muddy clothes and a lock pick kit in the crawl space of the Sullivan home. Documents indicate the FBI has seized a number of Sullivan’s personal items, including computers, a journal, the money believed stolen from Clark and 18 books related to warfare and weapons.

The new indictment charges Sullivan with supporting a terrorist organization and various weapons and interstate commerce violations, lying to the FBI and using interstate facilities to plan the murder of his parents.

The federal charges do not include Clark’s murder. That prosecution is being handled separately in state court. Burke County District Attorney David Learner told the Observer on Monday that Sullivan has now been indicted on a murder charge for Clark’s death. Learner said his office is working with the U.S. Attorney’s office on the case.

If convicted, Justin Sullivan could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the murder charge. The most serious federal charge – providing support for a foreign organization – could land him in prison for 20 years.

Sullivan 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 group.

News of the murder charges came as a surprise in the Sullivans’ neighborhood, but also as a relief because Clark’s suspected killer has been jailed.

Since the killing, neighbor Rob Denton told the Observer “everybody keeps their doors locked and their gun loaded.”

Denton, 65, who lives next door to the Sullivans, said Justin Sullivan and the man he is accused of killing weren’t chatty neighbors.

Clark didn’t have a driver’s license, Denton said, and would frequently walk down the street headed to the store.

Denton said he also saw a hoodie-clad Justin Sullivan walking the family’s dog down the street. But other activities gave him pause.

“He had a shooting range set up in the backyard and he had pie pans set up as targets,” said Denton, who said he’d occasionally watch Sullivan shoot from his rear window. “He took a BB gun and he’d move around to different positions and shoot (the pan) until he hit it, then he’d move and do it again. That disturbed me a lot.”

Still, Benton said, target practice wasn’t too uncommon for a Burke County teenager – Benton said he did it himself as a teen. And although Benton didn’t have have many conversations with the teen, he had no reason to distrust Justin Sullivan because his parents were nice people.

“I didn’t expect anything bad out of him,” he said. “If he had come to the front door, we would have let him in.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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