The voice is by turns mumbling, inaudible, then just clear enough to be horrifying. Above the clatter and chatter of the visitor's room at the Riker's Island jail in New York City, the subject of a New York Police Department investigation can be heard trying to put out a contract for murder and more: a spectacular terrorist act. He wants New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly beheaded and the NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza, next to the Brooklyn Bridge, bombed.
The alleged plot never got past the talking stage, and probably never would have. And it would be a mistake for the public to worry too much about every loser and lunatic who talks of terrorism. But the dialogue between the suspect and the undercover cop recording it is riveting. It suggests, among other things, the way publicity about terrorist tactics and methodology can creep into the more conventional criminal culture of the United States. "I want people to feel my wrath and my rage," said the subject. "I want to be … like I'm a terrorist. I want them to feel like I am a motherf---ing terrorist, ya know?"
"Widespread information creates copycats," says Paul Browne, the police department's deputy commissioner for public information. The main concern is about homegrown terrorists who identify with Al Qaeda or similar extremist ideologies. Other police sources worry, for instance, that the use of chlorine gas by insurgents attacking civilians in Iraq could be imitated by groups here. Browne notes that a failed conspiracy to bomb the Herald Square subway station just before the 2004 Republican Party convention in New York copied techniques used by terrorists in Madrid only months before.
But the motives for terror can be wildly different even among killers copying each other's techniques. The horrendous 1995 bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, which cost 168 people their lives and injured more than 800, used a truck bomb similar to the one cobbled together by Muslim fanatics when they attacked the World Trade Center for the first time, killing six people, in 1993.
After the story of the alleged plan to murder Police Commissioner Kelly broke earlier this week (the New York Daily News headlined it PLOT TO KILL TOP COP) the family and lawyer of the defendant quickly raised doubts about his ability mentally, physically or financially to carry out such a scheme. David Brown Jr., identified by police as the "subject" on the recording, which has been heard by NEWSWEEK, is a 47-year-old 400-pound repeat offender with a rap sheet that includes 10 convictions, three of them on felony counts. The most recent was for attempted murder. But his lawyer, Justine Olderman, tells NEWSWEEK he is mentally ill and, at least as far as this alleged plot was concerned, harmless. "This is completely blown out of proportion," she says. "It's just words." At his arraignment yesterday, Brown was charged with nonviolent criminal solicitation of a felony.
The alleged motivation for the plot, according to the police, was Brown's rage over the much-publicized shooting last November of Sean Bell, a young man in Queens who, though unarmed and just wrapping up a bachelor party with his buddies on the eve of his wedding, died in a hail of 50 police bullets. That case is now before a grand jury.
Brown had no apparent connection to Bell apart from violent empathy with the victim and fury at Kelly as police commissioner. (Terrorists often have no direct link to the people they claim to defend or avenge. McVeigh, for instance, had no connection with the 79 people killed at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, when federal agents attacked it in 1993. Yet he identified their deaths as his source of rage.)
"What the deal is [is] that I need the Police Commissioner killed immediately," reads the transcript of Brown's conversation at Riker's Island. "You see, every second of every day that he's alive burns my soul."
The undercover cop, posing as a member of a criminal family able to carry out contract murders, wants to know who's going to pay for them. Brown claims "my financial backers support me … up to a million dollars that I could get from them." But the main one, says Brown, is "so low key that he does not want to get involved," adding, "I don't even have any money in my account right now."
In fact, Brown, as heard on the recording, is trying to buy murder and mayhem on credit: "They [his mysterious backers] said that when I get out on the street, everything will be taken care of, no matter what the price is." The cop with the hidden microphone plays along, but skeptically.
Subject [Brown]: Do you have access to explosives?
UC [Undercover]: To who?
The dialogue is similar when the subject comes back around to Kelly, allegedly blamed by Brown for being too soft on the police who shot Sean Bell:
They haggle over prices. Brown wants to pay $15,000 for Kelly's beheading, and $50,000 for the bombing of police headquarters. The undercover cop insists $150,000—"some serious f---ing money"—is a more suitable price.
In today's world of would-be terrorists, such are the wages of fear.