Chapter 62: Michael Reynolds

Michael Curtis Reynolds
Coffee in one hand and tobacco in the other, I sat down with my friend. "I'm ready, Holmes," I said. "Tell me all about Michael Reynolds."

"Michael Curtis Reynolds," said Sherlock Holmes, "is an American knucklehead who ran afoul of the law in a big and extremely stupid way. His tale begins with a now-defunct Internet site, a Yahoo! group named 'OBL Crew.' The initials, of course, are those of the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who has been among the FBI's most wanted for many years.

"Reynolds, a self-described computer wizard, found the site in 2005, logged in using his own name, and started posting messages in which he said he was looking for a partner with whom to wage jihad -- 'holy war' -- against the United States.

"One of his messages drew a reply from 'Hamza Ali Osman,' also known as 'Hani.' Hani suggested that they should communicate by private email instead of openly in the group's chat room. Reynolds agreed, and they began a long email correspondence.

"Over the next month or so, Reynolds presented Hani with elaborate plans to attack oil pipelines in the United States. Hani prompted Reynolds to collect relevant information, including instructions on how to make a bomb, and maps and photographs of the targets they had discussed. Reynolds, in turn, asked for money.

Shannen Rossmiller
"According to court documents, he wanted more than a hundred thousand dollars for the information, and to finance the plot, but Hani would only promise him forty thousand. Reynolds eventually agreed to work for the lower figure.

"When he had completed his 'assignment,' Hani told him he could collect his payment at a certain rest stop on an interstate highway in Idaho. But instead of picking up the forty thousand, Reynolds himself was picked up -- by federal officers.

"Much to the surprise of Michael Reynolds, 'Hani' was not an al Qaeda recruiter at all. She was actually Shannen Rossmiller, a municipal judge from Montana, who had been monitoring extremist websites for the FBI, just waiting for a knucklehead like Reynolds to come along and incriminate himself.

"And even though someone in the FBI apparently recognized Reynolds as mentally ill and judged him not to be a significant threat, he was tried and convicted on multiple counts, including attempting to provide material support to Al-Qaeda and attempting to damage pipelines using explosives, and sentenced to 30 years in prison."

"What a bizarre story!" I said.

"There are some very strange details in the background," replied the detective, "so in a sense, the story is even more bizarre than you think. And yet, it is not as uncommon as it first appears, since it contains many details the likes of which one encounters again and again in the study of modern domestic terrorism."

"How do you know all this?" I inquired. "Is there a connection between this case and your recent travels?"

"Indeed there is," said Holmes. "I have been staying at a small Yorkshire hotel, whose name I will never divulge, and consulting with a large American attorney, whose name I do not even know."

"Remarkable!" I said. "As I recall, you had a strong aversion to anonymous clients."

"I still do," he replied. "But in this instance, I have been assured of his credibility and appraised of his intentions by my brother, and I have chosen to respect his request. In lieu of a proper introduction, he has asked me to call him 'Fred.' And he has suggested that his surname might be 'Astaire' or 'Flintstone,' but in all other respects he seems quite serious."

I chuckled and Holmes continued. "Fred has been following the arrests, trials, and convictions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, and aspiring terrorists in the United States. He told me about the Michael Reynolds case and several others, and about the patterns that he has seen in these cases."

"It is quite a diversion from the Gareth Williams investigation," I said.

"So it seemed to me at first," replied my friend, "but the more I thought about it, and the more I listened to Fred, the less certain I became.

"Listen, Watson: Michael Reynolds had a history of prior convictions, including one of the strangest cases of arson ever. He tried to burn down his parents' home, while he was living with them! And when the firefighters arrived, he ran down the driveway, shouting that his mother and father were dead inside. But they were still alive."

"How grotesque!" I said. "His mind is obviously very damaged."

"When he was arrested," said Holmes, "he was living in a motel room, and had a net worth of about twenty-five dollars. Among his possessions was an unregistered hand grenade, which, according to his ex-wife, he had owned for many years. The grenade was apparently the only weapon found in his possession, and certainly the only illegal one. It found its way into the indictment, of course, and clearly led to his conviction."

"It doesn't sound as if his conviction was a matter of any doubt," I said. "With such ambitious attack plans, and so comprehensive a trail of incriminating evidence, what else could a jury think?"

"Reynolds claimed he was using the Internet to hunt for terrorists," said my friend, "just as Shannen Rossmiller was doing. But he was never in contact with any law enforcement officers about it, and this, combined with the fact that he owned a hand grenade, seemed to eliminate any doubt in the minds of the jurors.

"In general, it is difficult to know what juries are thinking," Holmes continued, "but in this case, as I understand it, the evidence was quite compelling."

"Does Fred think Reynolds was wrongly convicted?" I asked.

"He could hardly make such an argument," replied my friend. "But he pointed out some details of the Reynolds case that he says have shown themselves again and again in other cases -- far too many, by his count, to be coincidental.

"In particular: No one was injured and no infrastructure was damaged by the alleged terrorist, who was nearly homeless, quite destitute, and mentally ill. He had been offered a substantial reward by a government agent in return for what amounted to laying a trail of self-incriminating evidence. And the terror plot that was allegedly foiled was well beyond his means."

"It almost sounds like entrapment," I said.

"Entrapment is a fuzzy line to begin with," replied the detective, "but it seems exceptionally blurry at the edges of this story."

"And how does this all relate to Gareth Williams?" I asked.

"Remember that drop of water," replied my friend, "and bear with me for a little longer."