ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Two Illinois men who pleaded guilty to a 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque testified that the group’s alleged ringleader recruited them for an unspecified job and didn’t fill them in on his plan until they neared their target.
Michael McWhorter, 31, and Joe Morris, 25, testified that Michael Hari hated Muslims, and they said they participated in the attack at Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center at Hari’s instruction.
But Hari’s trial was stopped abruptly Friday after a juror’s spouse tested positive for COVID-19. The Star Tribune reported that the trial will be in recess while tests are done to determine if the jury was exposed. It will resume late next week at the earliest.
Hari, 49, of Clarence, Illinois, has pleaded not guilty to five federal charges, including civil rights and hate crimes, stemming from the Aug. 5, 2017, attack on the Islamic center in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. No one was injured in the blast, but the building was damaged.
McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty to their roles in the bombing. Hari’s attorney, James Becker, told jurors that McWhorter and Morris have changed their stories and were testifying to try to get reduced sentences. They both face mandatory minimum sentences of 35 years in prison.
McWhorter testified Thursday that he was in financial trouble in the summer of 2017 when Hari offered him work in “security” for his company, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. McWhorter said that on Aug. 4, Hari told him to leave his cellphone at home and pack enough clothes for a month, and that “we were going to work.”
McWhorter said Hari packed the car with assault rifles, a sledgehammer, masks, gloves and equipment to jam cellphones or police radio signals. McWhorter testified that he, Hari and Morris drove about 500 miles (800 kilometers) to Minnesota using paper maps and avoiding toll roads to avoid being tracked.
Hari told the men that they were going to bomb a mosque when they were about an hour from their destination. McWhorter said that when they stopped for gas, Hari filled a plastic bottle with diesel fuel and gasoline.
Morris testified Friday that Hari, whom he saw as a father figure, also recruited him for work that he said “wouldn’t be exactly legal” and that they would “harass the untouchables,” which Hari told Morris included the Islamic State group.
Hari told Morris he was taking orders from a CIA agent and that the assignment “was ‘need to know,’” Morris testified.
He told the jury he’s known Hari since he was a child and that when he was 12 or 13 years old, Morris’ parents sent him to live in an Amish farming community with no electricity in Kentucky — at Hari’s advice — to “correct my behavior.” Morris testified that on the farm, he started to hear voices in his head, which Hari told him to ignore.
Morris also traveled to Mexico twice with Hari and others, where they worked on a watermelon farm and tried to start a community, he said. Morris, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, said Hari accepted him when others didn’t.
Morris has admitted that he threw the container into the mosque after smashing a window. McWhorter said he lit the fuse on the pipe bomb and threw it inside. Prosecutors say the device contained about 10 pounds of black gunpowder and shook the building’s cinder block walls.
McWhorter said Hari chose Dar Al Farooq because he thought investigators would not suspect someone from Illinois and Hari believed it was a “terrorist training school.” Some young people from Minnesota who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group had worshipped at Dar al-Farooq, but mosque leaders were never accused of any wrongdoing.
Morris said that the three men heard a report of a possible explosion and fire at the mosque as they were driving away and “we all high-fived each other.”
It took seven months for the FBI to find the men. During that time, McWhorter said, Hari named their group the “White Rabbits” and recruited others.