Federal agents arrested a man with southwest Ohio ties who they say wanted to carry out a bombing attack during downtown Cleveland’s Fourth of July celebrations, authorities announced Monday.
Demetrius N. Pitts, 48, faces one count of attempting to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, according to court documents. He was arrested Sunday morning by the Cleveland Joint Terrorism Task Force.
A background check shows Pitts has ties to Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. In May he moved to the Cleveland area.
“He talked about taking targets like St. John’s Cathedral off the map,” said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman. Pitts “wanted to strike at the values that are at the very core of our nation. He wanted us to be afraid to speak our minds. He also wanted us to be scared to gather in public places.”
Authorities did not “know, fully, quite honestly, whether he had all of these abilities” to carry out the planned attack, or whether Pitts had access to explosives, said FBI Cleveland Special Agent in Charge Steve Anthony.
“Law enforcement cannot sit back and wait for Mr. Pitts to commit a violent attack,” Anthony said.
Pitts, an American citizen who was radicalized in the U.S., is also known as Abdur Raheem Rafeeq and Salahadeen Osama Waleed, authorities said. He landed on the FBI’s radar in December 2015 when he sent a private Facebook message to a California-based political commentary show, according to court documents.
Pitts threatened violence against the U.S. on his social media account, commenting on photos believed to be from a jihad training camp and expressing a desire to recruit people to kill Americans who were against Muslims, according to court records.
Patrick Oliver, the former Cleveland police chief and now a Cedarville University professor, said people should feel comfortable going about Independence Day activities. But law enforcement, he said, will be on alert.
“They’re going to be extra vigilant based on this threat of an attempt,” Oliver said. “I generally recommend people continue whatever activities they had planned and not to cancel anything. … People should report anything that is suspicious to local, state or federal law enforcement agencies so they can follow up on it.”
Undercover agent recorded conversations
Cincinnati FBI agents investigated Pitts between September and April and determined that he was willing to conduct a U.S.-based attack and join a foreign terrorist organization, according to the records.
Court records show efforts to intercept Pitts intensified in recent weeks after Pitts moved to Cleveland.
An undercover agent, posing as an al Qaeda “brother,” met with Pitts on June 15. The agent recorded a conversation of Pitts talking about targeting members of the U.S. military and beheading victims.
“I can’t wait ‘til I get me the right machete … how I’m gonna clean it is cutting a person’s head off,” Pitts told the agent, according to an affidavit.
In a second recorded meeting on June 22, Pitts talked of launching an attack in Cleveland for al Qaeda on Independence Day during fireworks at Voinovich Park, near a U.S. Coast Guard Station and the Celebreeze Federal Building.
“What would hit them in the core? … Have a bomb to blow up at the 4th of July parade,” Pitts said, according to court records.
Pitts conducted surveillance of Cleveland landmarks — including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the U.S. Coast Guard Station — to determine the best place to plant explosives, according to the documents.
Mickey Dougherty, U.S. Coast Guard Commanding Officer at the Marine Safety Unity in Cleveland, told Cleveland.com the attack “very easily could have been in the water.”
Pitts pledged to provide logistics and planning support for “the brothers” who would carry out the attack. He also said he wanted to carry out a truck bomb attack in Philadelphia where he used to live, documents show.
When Pitts and an undercover agent met Sunday in Garfield Heights to discuss the Philadelphia attack, authorities said Pitts floated the specter of giving remote control cars packed with explosives to children of military personnel so they would unwittingly detonate the bombs. He was arrested at the end of the meeting.
Pitts kept southwest Ohio ties
A commercial background check ordered by this newspaper shows Pitts moved around Ohio and Pennsylvania over the past three decades, including an apparent stop in Dayton.
Pitts was associated with the 3849 Germantown Pike address in Dayton in October 1993, according to the background check. The address is the site of the Dayton Job Corps, an outpost of the federal Job Corps.
Dayton Jobs Corps officials at the Germantown address could not confirm if Pitts had ever been associated with the center. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the Job Corps, said the agency conducted a search of its enrollment database and did not find an entry for Pitts, though the data “only goes to the early 1990s,” she said.
Today’s Dayton Job Corps Center has a residential program that provides housing, meals, career training, basic medical care and a living allowance, according to the agency website. The Dayton center is located on the site of a former Veterans Administration facility and opened as part of the federal Job Corps program in 1977, according to the agency website.
Pitts’ criminal record extends back to at least the late 1980s, according to court records from Cincinnati.
Hamilton County court records show Pitts was sentenced to 3-15 years prison time on a robbery conviction in 1989, but was released on probation less than a year later.
In 2008, Pitts, living in Columbus, pleaded guilty to a felony theft charge in Franklin County, according to court records. He absconded from probation in July 2009, records show. A docket shows a warrant was issued in 2012 and returned in 2016.
The Franklin County court records also show that, in 2015, authorities in Pennsylvania issued a warrant for an alleged robbery charge out of Philadelphia.
Investigators owed ‘debt of gratitude’
Both of Ohio’s U.S. senators and Ohio Gov. John Kasich thanked the task force and its members for disrupting the plot.
Other federal officials, including U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, echoed similar thanks.
“Each one of us owes a debt of gratitude to the agents, analysts, and prosecutors who work day and night to identify those who would do this nation harm, including those committed to supporting violence in the name of foreign terrorist organizations,” Sessions said in a statement.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, in a statement, said the agency and its partners “disrupted plans to attack innocent citizens – including on July 4th, a day our citizens should be able to celebrate our freedom without fear of violence.”
“This arrest shows the determination of the men and women of the FBI and our partner agencies to protect our communities from harm,” he said. “I extend my thanks not just to those who worked on this case, but to all those who safeguard our nation every day.”
Contact these reporters at Laura.Bischoff@coxinc.com or Will.Garbe@coxinc.com.
The Cox Media Group National Content Desk and Breaking News Team members Michael Purves, Ismail Turay and Marshall Gorby contributed reporting.