What began as a routine school investigation into seemingly idle teenage chatter turned into a major police investigation that uncovered a suspected plot to attack a Muslim enclave in upstate New York with a cache of guns and improvised explosive devices.
Four men have been arrested in connection with the plot, and are accused of an alleged conspiracy to set off the explosives in the town of Islamberg, a rural settlement along New York's Pennsylvania border founded by a group known as the Muslims of America in the 1980s. Police said that the group stockpiled 23 firearms and three IEDs and intended to use the weapons in what authorities called a “serious plot” against the town.
“Through our investigation we uncovered what we allege in our felony complaints — a plot to attack an Islamic community in Delaware County,” Patrick Phelan, the police chief in Greece, New York, said at a press conference Tuesday. “There was a plan to attack this community with weapons.”
The attack, which police said was planned via the app Discord — a platform popular with video gamers and, more recently, the far right — had been in the works for at least a month, Phelan said. Charging documents date the start of the conspiracy as Nov. 9, 2018.
Investigators declined to provide further details and had not yet determined why the suspects had targeted Islamberg, which is located about 200 miles southeast of Greece, a Rochester suburb where the alleged plot was uncovered.
Founded by a Pakistani Sufi cleric and a group of black Muslim Americans, Islamberg has been the target of anti-Islam conspiracy theories and harassment in recent years, including a 2015 InfoWars "investigation" claiming the town was a "terrorist compound," and an annual motorcycle ride through Islamberg organized by a group calling itself American Bikers United Against Jihad. In 2017, a Tennessee man, Robert Doggart, was sentenced for planning what federal investigators described as an armed assault against the town of about 200.
The Muslims of America issued a statement Tuesday, saying that they were made aware of the arrests and thanking law enforcement and the governor's office for their work, as well as applauding the "young student who saved scores of American lives by reporting that something was wrong."
"The fear and utter dismay that sent shockwaves throughout the children and adults in our community over the past several days is not unlike the panic and unease which our community endured after learning that Robert Doggart and his co-conspirators were planning a similar massacre in 2015," the statement read.
It went on to say, "It is beyond tragic that our nation continues to fester with Islamophobia, hate and religious intolerance."
But while the motives behind the alleged plot remain unclear, authorities did say that they believe the suspects intended to carry out the planned attack.
“I don’t know that they had a specific date,” Phelan said. “I know that they had a plan in place.”
“If they had carried out this plot — and every indication was that they were going to,” he added, “people would have died. I don’t know how many and who but people would have died.”
Three of the men — Vincent Vetromile, 19, Andrew Crysel, 18, and Brian Colaneri, 20 — each face three felony weapons charges and one count of conspiracy. A fourth, who police have not identified because he is 16, faces the same charges and is being prosecuted as a juvenile offender.
It was the 16-year-old suspect who tipped authorities off — apparently inadvertently— to the alleged attack plan Friday, after he showed classmates at Greece’s Odyssey Academy a photo of another student, remarking something to the effect of “this looks like the next school shooter,” according to police. The comment alarmed a classmate, who informed an adult at the school, prompting school security officers — and subsequently the Greece Police Department — to question both the 16-year-old who made the comment and the student in the photo.
Through those interviews, police identified a third person of interest — one of the men eventually arrested — and subsequently unraveled the alleged plot, Phelan said. The student in the photo, who was interviewed Friday, is not a suspect in the case, he added.
Police executed search warrants at five homes — including the homes of all four men arrested — and discovered the cache of weapons. The guns were all purchased legally, Phelan said, and firearms were found at each location. All three of the IEDs were located at the home of the 16-year-old student, according to Phelan.
In charging documents, the explosives are described as two cylinders and a mason jar, each wrapped in duct tape. Police said the jars had black powder inside along with projectiles like ball bearings and nails.
The guns — an assortment of rifles and shotguns — appeared to be owned by the suspects and their immediate relatives, Phelan said.
“The suspects had access to the weapons,” he added. “Some of them were their fathers', some of them were their grandfathers', some of them I think they bought themselves. So I think as far as ownership, I think that every spectrum is hit.”
Police also seized at least a dozen electronic devices, including laptops and cellphones, Phelan said. Though law enforcement officials are still analyzing devices, he said, “we did see some material that was disturbing and suspicious.”
“I think further investigation, further examination of their electronic items might tell you the why,” the police chief added.
No federal charges have been filed in the case, but Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said Tuesday that her office is working with the US Attorney on the investigation and that additional charges, both state and federal, may be filed.
A spokesperson for Monroe Community College confirmed that all three adult suspects attended the school, though none were enrolled at the time of the arrests.
“In regards to Vincent R. Vetromile, Andrew C. Crysel and Brian F. Colaneri, I can tell you that none are enrolled at MCC in the Spring 2019 semester,” MCC spokesperson Cynthia Mapes told BuzzFeed News. “Their dates of last enrollment are Summer 2017, Spring 2018, and Fall 2017, respectively.”
It was not clear what their individual roles were in the planning the alleged attack. Police confirmed that at least three were members of the Boy Scouts of America.
“There were people in the conspiracy that had probably a bigger role than the others — I’ll let the prosecutors decide if there was a ringleader,” Phelan said. “But I would say that there was varying degrees of involvement, varying degrees of who was coming up with the ideas and who was agreeing to them.”
Besides the 16-year-old, at least one other suspect, Vetromile, attended Greece Central Schools but was removed after facing disciplinary action in 2015, so it is not clear if he and the younger boy would have overlapped.
“As a school district and as a community we are deeply saddened and upset by what this investigation has revealed,” the superintendent of Greece Central School District, Kathleen Graupman, said Tuesday, emphasizing later that there is no evidence that the safety of the district’s students was ever at risk.
Police have not yet ruled out the involvement of other suspects, Phelan said, adding that the investigation is still ongoing.
“Although arrests have been made, we are still very early on in the investigation,” he said, adding, “there very well may be” other people. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
He said that the New York State Police troop that has jurisdiction over Islamberg had been warned about the plot and informed of the arrests over the weekend.
Police said the attack was planned via the app Discord. An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the app.