The federal cases against two of three members of a rural Illinois militia accused of bombing a Bloomington mosque last year will be tried in Minnesota.
Michael Hari, Michael McWhorter and Joe Morris have been in federal custody since March on charges out of both Illinois and Minnesota. Charges against Morris and McWhorter were consolidated Tuesday and will be overseen by Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul.
Morris, 23, made his first appearance on the indictment — which includes federal hate crime charges added by a Minnesota grand jury in June — and pleaded not guilty before a federal magistrate judge Tuesday.
Morris’ brief appearance drew a larger audience than is typical for initial appearances as several members of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center sat just several feet away in the courtroom gallery.
“That was completely a different feeling,” Mohamed Omar, executive director of the mosque, said after Tuesday’s hearing. “I was having the realization that ... I was in the room, next room to the one that they bombed. It could be me who was dead today.”
Morris did not make eye contact with any spectators and his remarks were limited to short “yes” replies to questions from Magistrate Judge Steven Rau and to enter a not guilty plea.
Rau set a series of filing deadlines in the case and scheduled a Jan. 28 motions hearing back in the St. Paul federal courthouse. A trial date has not yet been scheduled.
McWhorter, 29, is also now in custody in Minnesota and is expected to make an initial appearance on Wednesday. It is unclear when Hari, 47, will appear in Minnesota.
The three men — who each lived in the small, rural town of Clarence, Ill. — allegedly carried out their Aug. 5, 2017, attack under the banner of a militia they called the “White Rabbits 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters.” According to charges, Hari allegedly built a pipe bomb and rented a pickup truck before driving McWhorter and Morris from Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to the Twin Cities. Morris allegedly broke a window of the Dar-Al Farooq imam’s office before McWhorter lit the bomb’s fuse and tossed it into the building.
No one was hurt in the blast, which set off a brief blaze that was extinguished by the building’s fire suppression system. The men have also been charged with federal weapons violations and in connection with a failed bombing of an Illinois women’s clinic in November 2017.
The three avoided suspicion until early 2018, when an informant tipped off law enforcement about their alleged involvement in the blast. After their arrests, McWhorter allegedly told FBI agents that the men did not intend to kill anyone but rather sought to “scare [Muslims] out of the country” and send a message that they were not “welcome here,” according to an earlier criminal complaint.
In June, a federal grand jury in Minnesota returned a new indictment charging the three with “intentionally defacing, damaging and destroying” a religious property “because of the religious character of that property.” They are also being charged with intentionally obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs, conspiring to commit federal felonies by means of fire and explosives, and using a destructive device during and in relation to crimes of violence. Hari faces an additional charge of possessing an unregistered destructive device.