Cleveland won't renew Occupy group's permit

May 2, 2012 - 4:40 PM
APTOPIX Cleveland Arrests

Photos provided by the FBI show five men arrested Monday, April 30, 2012, and accused of plotting to blow up a bridge near Cleveland, Ohio, the FBI announced Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Top row, from left, are Douglas Wright, Brandon Baxter and Anthony Hayne. Bottom row, from left, are Joshua Stafford and Connor Stevens. There was no danger to the public because the explosives were inoperable and were controlled by an undercover FBI employee, the agency said Tuesday in announcing the men's arrests. The target of the plot was a bridge that carries a four-lane state highway over part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the Brecksville area, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland, the FBI said. (AP Photo/FBI)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Occupy protesters must ask serious questions about their open-arms policy in light of charges brought against five members accused of trying to blow up an Ohio bridge, a top Cleveland official said Wednesday.

The city declined to renew the group's downtown encampment permit on Wednesday, a denial planned before the bridge plot arrests were announced Monday, said Ken Silliman, chief of staff to Mayor Frank Jackson. The group can still gather at a spot across the street day or night.

The decision was made with the allegations as a backdrop, Silliman added.

"I think a fair question to ask of Occupy Cleveland, is, if you have portrayed your organization up till now as welcome to all-comers — the tent will accommodate anyone and everyone — how does that change when something like the events of yesterday happen?" Silliman said.

"How does that change when some of the people you've welcomed into your decision-making are now accused of such serious felonies?"

That question must be asked even if the city accepts the organization's statements that it is nonviolent and was distancing itself from those charged in the plot, Silliman said.

Occupy members planned to sit in protest of the tent's dismantling by police, but don't plan to be arrested, said Occupy Cleveland spokesman Joseph Zitt.

Silliman's statements are something the group must discuss, he said.

"When things like this happen, we discover there might be factors that we had not necessarily thought of before," Zitt said. "Questions arise, they get discussed in assembly, we come to consensus on it. We're learning."

The group, which numbered as many as 100 at its height but dwindled to a few overnight participants and a few dozen at different events, received its encampment permit in October.

Its representatives have said the five men charged in the bomb plot didn't represent Occupy Cleveland and were not acting on its behalf.

The five were charged Tuesday with plotting to bomb a bridge linking two wealthy Cleveland suburbs by placing what they thought were real explosives at the site and repeatedly trying to detonate them using text messages from cellphones, according to the FBI affidavit.

On Wednesday, an attorney representing one of the defendants questioned the role of an undercover informant, saying the ex-con hired by the FBI appeared to have played an active role in the plot.

Cleveland defense lawyer John Pyle said the case could be one of "the tail wagging the dog." He said his client, Brandon Baxter, will plead not guilty in the case, which is set for a preliminary hearing next week.

Much of a 22-page FBI affidavit outlining the charges was based on the work of the undercover operative, who has drug, robbery and bad check convictions.

"We need to get the discovery and put the case under a microscope," Pyle said. "But just on the basis on the filing in the court, there's some indicators that this informant was playing a really active role."

An attorney for a second defendant, Douglas Wright, said his client also will plead not guilty.

The attorney for a third defendant, Anthony Hayne, said his only information came from the affidavit.

"I have no idea who it is at this point," Michael O'Shea said Wednesday of the informant. "I imagine they will work pretty hard to keep that from us as long as they can."

Federal authorities described the men as anarchists who are angry with corporate America and the government and unknowingly worked with an FBI informant for months as they crafted and carried out their plan.

The FBI said the suspects bought the explosives — actually fake — from an undercover employee and put them at the base of a highway bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland, on Monday. After leaving the park, they tried to initiate the explosives using a text-message detonation code, and they called the person who provided the bombs to check the code when it failed, according to the FBI affidavit.

The affidavit also discussed the suspects' desire to destroy signs on banks as a protest against corporate America but said they didn't want to be seen as terrorists.

The suspects "would want to blow up the bridge at night or possibly pretend to be a construction crew and drop orange cones off at each end of the bridge to stop traffic before blowing up the bridge, thus limiting the number of casualties and the potential for killing possible supporters," the affidavit said.

Court documents detail conversations the FBI secretly recorded in which its informant discussed bomb plans with some of the suspects. In one, Baxter, 20, of Lakewood, allegedly said, "Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the ... corporate big wigs a lot of money" because it would cause structural damage and prevent people from going to work.

The alleged conversations depict Wright, 26, of Indianapolis, as a sort of group leader who recruited others, scouted out the bridge site and participated in buying the fake explosives.

The other suspects were identified as Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland, and Connor Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea.

Stafford served a six-month prison sentence in 2007 for an assault conviction, and Hayne served prison sentences in 2001 and again in 2007 and 2008 for receiving stolen property, forgery and theft and attempted domestic violence, according to Ohio prison records.

All five are charged with conspiracy and trying to bomb property used in interstate commerce. They appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court and were ordered jailed without bond pending a hearing Monday.

The charges carry possible penalties of more than 20 years in prison.

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Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Kantele Franko and Barbara Rodriguez in Columbus contributed to this report.