The former manager of a Bridgeport gas station testified Tuesday that Brian Church, one of the NATO 3, came to his station trying to fill an empty milk jug with gasoline the day before Church and two others were arrested on terrorism charges in 2012.
The testimony of Abdullah Norat was important for prosecutors as they work to rebut defense claims that Church, 22, Jared Chase, 29, Brent Betterly, 25, were drunken, bumbling braggarts pushed to build four Molotov cocktails by two undercover Chicago police officers desperate to justify the millions spent on security for the 2012 NATO summit.
Norat said he refused Church’s request for gas, which he said he needed for his lawn mower, because the milk jug wasn’t a proper container. Under questioning by defense lawyers, Norat admitted he didn’t tell authorities about his encounter with Church until he was interviewed by prosecutors earlier this month. Any security camera footage of the attempted gas purchase had long been erased.
He had also posted sometimes erroneous comments about his involvement in the case on Reddit, where Norat told jurors he would pose as various characters in an effort to gain points for his user profile.
“One day I can be a doctor, another I can be a female. I can be a black guy,” he testified.
“You have a fantasy life that you live out on the Internet?” asked Michael Deutsch, one of Church’s attorneys.
Norat agreed he does but said that doesn’t mean he can’t separate fantasy from reality. “Not everything is a lie,” he said of his Reddit posts on the case.Days before the NATO summit began, the three out-of-state men were arrested after pouring gasoline into empty beer bottles and stuffing sections of a cut-up black bandanna in the tops. The explosives were put together on the wooden back porch of a Bridgeport three-flat with two undercover Chicago police officers present.
Jurors saw security-camera footage from the BP gas station where Norat worked, located across the street from the Deering District police station, that captured Chase walking up with one of the undercover officers on May 16, 2012 and setting a red plastic container near one of the pumps. This was a day after Norat said Church unsuccessfully attempted to buy gas.
As the officer stood outside with his hands in his pockets, Chase went inside and paid $3.75 in cash for less than a gallon of gas. He went back outside, filled the container and handed it to the undercover officer as they walked away.
Under questioning by Chase’s attorney, Illinois State Police chemist Alan Osoba said the explosives made by the three men were more combustible and therefore more dangerous for the user than the typical Molotov mixture of motor oil and kerosene.
“If we’re talking about amateurs, we’re talking about gasoline in a bottle, isn’t that right?” asked Tom Durkin, Chase’s attorney, who sought to bring out how “stupid” his clients were about making the explosives.
When questioned by prosecutors, Osoba testified that all Molotov cocktails are dangerous.
Testimony by Osoba and others shows the lengths authorities went to in building what became the first state terrorism case tried by Cook County prosecutors. Osoba said he spent 17 days testing evidence before concluded that the Molotov cocktails taken from the Bridgeport three-flat indeed contained gasoline and that PVC pipes recovered from the building had residue that may have come from bottle rockets.
After jurors were sent home Tuesday, Judge Thaddeus Wilson said he was considering sanctions against Durkin for statements the defense attorney made during his opening statement last week that raised the issue of why the case was being tried in state rather than federal court.
“That was a direct violation of the court’s order,” Wilson said, clearly angry. “I’m not happy about that. You know better than that.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Yvette Loizon had raised the issue, saying defense attorneys had violated Wilson’s pre-trial orders when they raised questions about Chicago police’s scrutiny of gatherings at book stores, restaurants, coffee shops and concerts in the months before the NATO summit.
Loizon said the conduct by defense attorneys —which included questioning witnesses about why police were listening to conversations at places like the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park — was “very prejudicial to the state” because it gave jurors an incomplete and misleading picture of police activity.
“I want the police to be looking for violent anarchists,” she said. “It’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Wilson declined to give curative instructions to jurors during the trial but said he would amend the instructions read to jurors at the end of the trial to address Durkin’s statements. He said he will consider later what action to take, if any, on the state’s concern about the issue of police scrutiny and the First Amendment.