Three of the ‘Newburgh Four’ who plotted to blow up Riverdale temples have been released

Rabbi from Riverdale Temple thinks it was the right thing for the judge to do 11 years later


Three of the men sentenced to 25 years for plotting to blow up two Riverdale synagogues in 2009 and shoot down military planes at a Newburgh airport as part of an FBI sting are being released by the same judge who issued the original sentence in 2011.

Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court ordered the 25-year sentences of David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen be reduced to time served plus 90 days. The three had served 11 years along with their co-defendant James Cromitie, who did not ask for his sentence to be thrown out. They were known as the Newburgh Four when they were arrested.

Rabbi Thomas Gardner of Riverdale Temple, one of the synagogues targeted in the plot, said that while he was nervous at first when he heard the news he realized they weren’t terrorists seeking to attack Jews. He noted he was not a rabbi at the temple at the time of the incident.

“The guys were small-time crooks who were talked into making some money,” Gardner said. “It was really something where the government entrapped them. I am glad they are out. I’m sure they suffered enough.”

Gardner’s point of view followed Judge McMahon’s reasoning for the order.

“The government — in its understandable zeal to identify and capture individuals who would do harm to the United States — used an unscrupulous operative tin inveigle four impoverished men (principally promising them money) into agreeing to commit serious terrorism offenses that they never dreamed up on their own,” McMahon wrote.

“It then manipulated the facts of the offense so that the men had to be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison. There can be no doubt — in my mind there never has been the slightest doubt — that the Government’s purpose in adding to the conspiracy the plot to shoot ‘stinger missiles’ at military aircraft at Stewart Air Force Base was to make sure the defendants had to be sentenced to at least 25 years imprisonment.”

The judge granted their release under “compassionate release,” which provides that a district court may reduce the term of imprisonment where it finds extraordinary and compelling circumstances, according to the July 27 order. McMahon also wrote that the court would notify probation immediately so that the necessary plans could be made for the release.

While the Williamses cited rehabilitation during their prison terms and the danger of Covid-19 as reasons for the compassionate release, Payen’s case was different. It was determined he suffered from serious mental health issues.

In the case of Payen, she ordered that he should not be released from custody without being immediately transferred to some sort of supportive housing in order to deal with his mental health issues.

The case stems back to the FBI’s use of a confidential informant known as Shaheed Hussain, who was involved with such crimes as bankruptcy fraud, tax evasion, immigration fraud, perjury and mail fraud. The task he was given by the FBI as part of the sting operation was to infiltrate upstate mosques and identify potential terrorists.

He met Cromitie, a small-time grifter and petty drug dealer with no history of violence, who befriended Hussain with stories about being a wealthy Pakistani businessman. According to the court order, those were lies.

Over eight months, Hussain enticed Cromitie with promises of as much as $250,000 to plan and participate in a jihadist mission. That was when Cromitie sought out the services of the Williamses and Payen.

Under Hussain’s direction, Cromitie planted “bombs” manufactured by the FBI at Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center, the order said. The bombs were fake, according to the order.

“On May 20 (2009) Hussain drove the four men to Riverdale (they had no way to drive themselves): ‘armed’ the ‘bomb’ (because the hapless Cromitie, despite his training, could not figure out how to do it) and told Cromitie how to place the device while David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen performed lookout duty.

“As soon as the fake device was left by the community center door, law enforcement arrested the four men,” the order stated.

While Rabbi Gardner has not had a chance to bring up the judge’s decision to his congregation, he made sure to have a conversation with his security guard. He also mentioned the synagogue, like many throughout the country after the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue some years ago, has taken advantage of federal funds.

“There are some funds from the federal government, and we are using it for security,” Gardner said.

Riverdale Temple, Riverdale Jewish Center, Rabbi Thomas Gardner, compassionate release, Newburgh Four, Judge Colleen McMahon, David Williams, Onta Williams, Leguerre Payen, James Cromitie, bomb, Stewart Air Force Base