NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. Army private assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade pleaded guilty Friday to charges that he plotted to murder members of his unit in an attack that he planned to carry out in 2020 on behalf of a group that promotes extreme violence to bring about the demise of Western civilization, authorities said.
Ethan Phelan Melzer, 24, of Louisville, Kentucky, entered the plea in Manhattan federal court. Sentencing was set for Jan. 6, when he could face up to 45 years in prison after pleading guilty to trying to murder U.S. military service members, seeking to support terrorists and illegally transmitting national defense information.
In court papers, federal authorities say Melzer was already a member of a radical violent group known as the Order of Nine Angles, or 09A, before joining the Army in December 2018. According to a criminal complaint, the group is an anarchist group founded in the United Kingdom and now operating around the world, including in the U.S.
Authorities said he had sought to earn a self-initiation into 09A through violence as a street-level drug dealer after shooting a marijuana dealer in the arm in January 2017 near his Louisville apartment.
In one defense court filing, attorneys wrote that Melzer denies belonging to the group and told law enforcement after his arrest that his online claims of membership in the group were “bluster — falsities designed to impress the people he was communicating with online.” The defense filing said that although Melzer had some curiosity about 09A, he believed it was “weird” and “pretty much a cult” and its beliefs were “polar opposite” of his own.
In a release Friday, authorities said he joined the military to infiltrate its ranks on behalf of the group that espouses neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs and encourages its members to infiltrate the military to gain training, commit acts of violence and identify like-minded individuals so they can try to subvert the military from within.
Although he had joined 09A in 2017 or earlier, he began consuming propaganda from multiple extremist groups including the Islamic State on encrypted online forums after he was deployed to Italy in October 2019 as a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, the release said.
It said his actions resulting in the charges occurred in part after the Army told him in early May 2020 that he would be reassigned to a unit that would be deployed overseas to guard an isolated and sensitive military installation.
After weeks of training including classified briefings in which he learned the importance and sensitivity of his new assignment, Melzer immediately began passing the information he learned to members of 09A as he proposed and planned a deadly attack on his fellow service members, authorities said.
They said Melzer planned to join co-conspirators to carry out a “jihadi attack” that would cause a “mass casualty” event and had told others that an attack would “essentially cripple” the unit’s “fire-teams.”
In his communications, Melzer told his co-conspirators that he was willing to die for terrorist goals, concluding that he “would’ve died successfully,” according to court documents.