South Florida Sun-Sentinel, June 20, 2003
By Tanya Weinberg, Staff Writer
A Pinellas County podiatrist who amassed weapons and a list of 50 Islamic centers throughout Florida was sentenced on Thursday to 121/2 years for plotting to bomb a mosque in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks and ongoing suicide bombings in Israel.
In his plea agreement, Robert Goldstein, 38, acknowledged telling a co-conspirator he “wanted to do something for his people,” by which he meant Jews. In court on Thursday he tearfully apologized to the Muslim community, saying mental illness had left him “in a very dark place, and in pain in my mind and soul.”
U.S. District Judge James S. Moody gave the maximum term under federal sentencing guidelines, noting “the seriousness of the offense and fear it struck in the community.” He said he would recommend Goldstein serve his time at a federal mental hospital.
Goldstein was arrested in August after his then-wife became concerned he was acting unstable. At Goldstein’s home, Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies discovered light-armor rockets, hand grenades, machine guns, sniper rifles, more than 30 homemade bombs and 25,000 rounds of ammunition. Authorities soon found the list of mosques, a meticulous plan of attack and the stated objective: “Kill all `rags’ at this Islamic Education Center — ZERO residual presence — maximum effect.”
Goldstein and his primary co-conspirator entered plea agreements saying their goal was limited to causing property damage at the Islamic Center of Pinellas County in order to send a message to the Arab community. Documents recovered from Goldstein’s home say otherwise and have reinforced a sense in the Muslim community that the case was underinvestigated by law enforcement and underplayed in the media.
Although federal prosecutors and investigators claimed victory on Thursday in the heftiest of four convictions related to Goldstein’s plot, some Muslim observers criticized the sentence and the government for failing to charge Goldstein with terrorism. “This is unbelievable. This man was attempting murder of thousands and thousands of our people,” said Sofian Abdelaziz, director of the South-Florida based American Muslim Association of North America. “If a Muslim or Arab had done what Dr. Goldstein did, he would be in prison without even a right to a lawyer.”
Goldstein created a diagram with instructions to storm the main building and “shred” Muslims with a submachine gun, to detonate bombs to kill survivors, and to set trip wires to explode if anyone escaped to the parking lot. Other trip wires would deter arriving police cars.
Goldstein’s Hollywood attorney, Myles Malman, said his client was no terrorist. He called much of the recovered plan “fantasy” stemming from Goldstein’s bipolar, obsessive-compulsive and major depressive disorders. Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph F. Boyd hailed the successful prosecution as evidence that the United States will not tolerate violence targeting individuals based on their race, religion or national origin. No official linked Goldstein’s crimes to terrorism.
Khurrum Wahid, an attorney who consults with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the government could have easily classified Goldstein as a terrorist, as it did Hesham Hadayet, the Egyptian immigrant who opened fire on an Israeli airline ticket counter at the Los Angeles International airport in July.
“In that case, all the facts are very similar, because you have mentally imbalanced persons in both cases, you have a targeting of a particular ethnic or national group in each case, you have either the use of or planned use of extreme violence,” Wahid said. “But the defining factor ultimately came down to a political determination on the part of the Department of Justice.”
A spokesman said the Department of Justice does not discuss its internal deliberations, but he said prosecutors may weigh what charge will most likely secure a conviction and a harsher penalty. “Terrorism is kind of a technical term depending on what statutes you’re talking about. It’s kind of hard to generalize,” department spokesman Mark Corallosaid.
Had Goldstein been charged under terrorism statutes, sentencing guidelines could have more than doubled. That happened in the case of Imran Mandhai, a Hollywood man who pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up Florida Power & Light substations and a National Guard Armory in Hollywood as part of a Muslim holy war.
Mandhai, now 20, and a friend he recruited never got very far in the plot they developed in the company of FBI informants. When the two tried to purchase an AK-47 at a Fort Lauderdale gun show, the credit card of Shueyb Mossa Jokhan, charged as an accomplice, was declined.
In October, Mandhai was sentenced to 11 years and eight months, but federal prosecutors are appealing the sentence. They argue that because it was a terrorism case a judge did not have the right to reduce the sentence simply because the plot was never carried out. If the government wins the appeal, Mandhai’s sentence could be lengthened up to 191/2 years.
Prosecutors classified Mandhai’s crime as terrorism under a federal statute dealing with crimes designed to influence the actions of government. They said Mandhai planned to issue a list of demands after the bombings, hoping the attacks would unleash anarchy in South Florida.
Michael Hardee, a dentist who agreed to drive Goldstein’s getaway car, was charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights and damage religious property and received a 31/2 year sentence.
Goldstein’s ex-wife, Kristi Lea Persinger, was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of five illegal bombs found in her bedroom closet. A third man faces up to 27 months for supplying Goldstein with three machine guns and two silencers.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has complained that the plea deal eliminated a trial that could have shed light on a larger conspiracy behind the plot. Ahmed Bedier, who attends the Pinellas County mosque and whose son loves to climb the monkey bars in the playground Goldstein included in his diagram for attack, said the plot left his community terrorized.
“People go to the mosque or houses of worship to turn to God and for peace of mind,” he said. “It’s difficult to have those feelings when you have this in the back of your mind.”The Associated Press contributed to this report.