Might the Reform Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, N.Y., have any interest a weapon that could annihilate Israel’s enemies? Such was the pitch to a synagogue staffer in the building one day around Passover last year. According to the rabbi, Matthew Cutler, the staffer said the synagogue didn’t have the resources to support the proposed “gift” and suggested the man talk to the local Jewish Federation. The man left. Police were called. The B-movie sci-fi scenario seems surreal and, Cutler and his staff thought, just a passing comment. But according to court documents, the man, Glendon Scott Crawford, and an associate, Eric J. Feight, really were trying to build a remote-controlled, truck-mounted ray gun that could send invisible doses of deadly radiation into local Muslim targets.
Crawford allegedly called the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, which in turn also called police, who looped in the FBI, who began a year-plus-long sting operation as Crawford, apparently a Tea Party member, then tried to peddle his wares to the Ku Klux Klan—where a high-ranking representative was alarmed enough to turn FBI informant.
A 67-page court filing, posted online by the Albany Times-Union, which broke the story, describes the investigation in painstaking detail. The document makes clear that Crawford wanted to kill Muslims. In it, he is quoted as spouting vitriol against President Barack Obama. And yet, Crawford, by all accounts, was a devoted churchgoer and suburban father of three, who worked as an industrial mechanic at the General Electric facility in Schenectady.
The case represents a rare confluence of domestic terrorism oddities, according to Mark Pitcavage, director of Investigative Research for the Anti-Defamation League. Among other points, there’s the radiation device, the breadth of the undercover operation, and the bizarre nature of a self-proclaimed Klansman seeking support from a Jewish organization. Signs point to Crawford finding the enemy of his enemy to be his friend.
“This is a very unusual case,” Pitcavage said. But was it dangerous?
Schenectady is a schizophrenic city. Major atomic and engineering research and development chugs along in the General Electric compound on the city’s edge and just up the road at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in neighboring suburban Niskayuna. But the city that once served as a shining beacon of upstate New York now has the highest crime rate in the state outside of New York City (according to 2011 data). The city population hovered around 66,000 in 2010, down from almost 100,000 in the 1930s, a heyday that also lingered in the Hollywood imagination. (In an odd parallel to this week’s events, generators from Schenectady power sound-wave weaponry that saves the world in the 1956 film Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.)
In photographs, Crawford looks surprisingly clean-cut for the alleged “mastermind” of a deadly radioactive terror plot. Cutler thought so, too. The rabbi knew him—not well, but enough to recognize him from running into each other around town. Cutler described Crawford as “quirky but cordial.” He would never have expected the man to try to sell a weapon of mass destruction to a shul.
According to court documents and the Times-Union, Crawford approached the synagogue and the Jewish Federation in April 2012, and by mid-month the FBI had become involved. In August he allegedly met with the Klan in North Carolina. One of those members turned confidential informant for the feds. This winter, Crawford reportedly acquired equipment for his planned device with help from still unnamed sources at GE and possibly at a local coffee shop. Last month, an undercover agent met with Crawford in Albany, and on June 18 a meeting meant to show off part of the device ended with arrests. Crawford stands accused of developing and selling the weapon, while Feight allegedly worked to build a remote detonation trigger.
Despite the federal resources devoted to nabbing Crawford, for members of Gates of Heaven Synagogue the story was one to jokingly share on Facebook. Still, Theresa Tolokonsky, who lives in Schenectady, saw some cause for concern over the man’s very ordinariness. “He could be one of those people that I may have crossed on Union Street while I’m walking to the farmer’s market on the weekend and I never noticed him,” she said. But she found the whole caper more fantastical than fearful, likening the plot to a movie script.
But even as the prospect of a stranger pitching local Jewish organizations on a “gift” of a deadly invisible-ray gun seems mockable, local Jewish leaders say it hits home for them that domestic terrorism can strike anywhere, including against Jews, or on their behalf against Muslims.
“What makes it unsettling is that I wrote this off as goofy and bizarre but really there was a possibility,” Cutler said. “I had this false sense of security because I thought I knew technology—I mean, ray guns, seriously?—but that coupled with hatred is alarming.”
“Violence is violence, as bizarre as it sounds,” said Shelly Shapiro, director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern New York. “I have a weapon that will destroy your enemies—that’s a security issue to everyone, not Jews versus somebody else.”
For Pitcavage at the ADL, it’s the Klan angle that gives him the most pause—how does a white supremacist end up seeking help from Jews? There are no recorded Klan chapters in New York state, he said. If Crawford joined a Klan chapter via email, he may not have been fully indoctrinated.
“Some white supremacists have some very weird views about Jews,” Pitcavage said. “As a side-effect of some of their anti-Semitism, they tend to think Jews have more power than they do, and they are all connected to Islam. You could see someone thinking, ‘Jews have money and they are connected to Israel, maybe if I tell them it’s for protecting Israel they will give me money.’ ”
Pitcavage noted other rarities with this case. “Extremists tend to stick to what they know,” he said, which means bombs and guns over science and radiation. Also, Ku Klux Klan members usually loathe the FBI. The fact that one cooperated with the investigation as a confidential informant, as noted in the case file, “they clearly saw something bad going on here.”
Realistically, the odds of the weaponry succeeding are slim. And as for the rabbi, he doesn’t plan to discuss the case with his congregation. After Crawford’s visit last year, the synagogue beefed up security, and changed schedules to ensure that no staff member would ever be alone in the building. Cutler doesn’t want to create panic. “The Jewish people of Schenectady are not under threat from the greater masses,” he said.
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