A high school student at Odyssey Academy in Greece, New York, just eight miles from Rochester, overheard a troubling conversation in the school’s cafeteria last Friday. Another student was showing a photo to his peers and said something to the effect of “He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?”
The student told school administrators, who passed the tip along to the Greece Police Department.
The tip rapidly expanded into a full-blown investigation that involved the FBI, state police, and local law enforcement from other towns. The next day, after executing search warrants, police arrested the student who'd shown the photo, along with three men between the ages of 18 and 20. They’d stockpiled weapons and explosives, allegedly as part of a plan to bomb Islamberg, a small Muslim community 140 miles northwest of New York City.
“If they had carried out this plot, which every indication is that they were going to, people would have died," Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan told reporters Tuesday. "I don't know how many and who, but people would have died."
Phelan also told VICE News that the U.S. Attorney’s office is looking into whether the government should pursue federal charges against the suspects but added that the investigation is still in its early stages.
On Tuesday, Greece police announced the arrests of Brian Colaneri, 20; Vincent Vetromile, 19; and Andrew Crysel, 18, as well as the arrest of the 16-year-old student, whose name has not been made public. All four are facing weapons and conspiracy charges.
During the news conference, Phelan said that three of the four suspects had met through their participation in Boy Scouts of America. Two of them were Eagle Scouts.
“We were shocked and disturbed to learn about the allegations against these individuals,” Stephen Hoitt, CEO of the Boy Scouts of America’s Seneca Waterways Council, in a statement. "Upon learning of these reports, we took immediate action to prohibit these individuals from any future participation in the Boy Scouts of America.”
Like the 16-year-old suspect, 18-year-old Crysel also attended Odyssey Academy and in 2016 made the honor roll, according to local news reports at the time. Vetromile, who’s 19, attended Arcadia High School, in the same district, and made the honor roll numerous times. It’s not clear where Colaneri, 20, attended school.
What police found
After executing search warrants, police said they discovered 23 firearms — including long rifles and handguns — and three homemade explosive devices, linked to the four suspects. Police also said they found evidence that linked the stockpile to a plot to bomb Islamberg, a small Muslim enclave of about 200 people around 150 miles north of New York City.
Phelan told VICE News Wednesday that the U.S. Attorney’s office was looking into whether to pursue federal charges against the suspects. “We’re still looking through forensic evidence, and there’s an investigation to figure out if there was a bigger network of people here,” he said. “We’ve isolated the people we believe to be involved locally.”
But Phelan said it’s too early to tell whether the men belonged to a particular group and noted that “the amount of electronics we uncovered during the search warrants was pretty extensive,” which would take a long time to process forensically.
A history of threats
Extremists have targeted Islamberg, also the location of the Muslims of America organization, in the past. The city has been a regular focus for anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, who’ve repeatedly claimed that it’s a hotbed of terrorist activity and home to a Jihadi training camp. (There has never been any evidence to prove their claims.)
In 2017, a man from Tennessee was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for plotting an attack on the community. The previous year, a group of bikers rolled into Islamberg as part of a planned event called “The American Bikers United Against Jihad’s ‘Ride for National Security’ and encountered hundreds of peaceful protesters.
Even earlier in 2015, the FBI issued an alert after an armed man from Arizona who was affiliated with militia groups threatened to attack Islamberg in a video he posted to Facebook.
Cover image: In this Sept. 7, 2017 photo, a store that sells Muslim products is shown at Islamberg in Tompkins, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)