NEW YORK — An Army private charged with plotting to murder members of his unit overseas with help from a secretive violent anarchist group was planning a defense calling it all an internet fantasy before pleading guilty just before trial, court records show.
Plans for the defense of Ethan Phelan Melzer was revealed in court papers in the months before the Kentucky man abruptly pleaded guilty to charges Friday, eliminating the need for his July 5 trial in Manhattan federal court. Sentencing is set for Jan. 6. He could face up to 45 years in prison rather than the life sentence that a jury conviction could have brought.
Melzer, 24, was in Italy in October 2019 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team when he communicated online with others prior to plotting an attack against his Army unit once it was redeployed in 2020 to guard an isolated and sensitive military installation, prosecutors said.
But court papers reveal the individuals he was communicating with online weren't members of the Order of Nine Angles — or 09A — as he believed, but rather, government informants who helped build the case against him, defense lawyers said.
The Washington Post quoted a European security official in a June 2020 article as saying that the Nazi-Satanist group was established in Britain in the 1970s and has promoted extreme violence for decades.
The official who spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue told the newspaper that 09A membership ranges from a few dozen to about 2,000, targeting young people and sending supporters into groups to influence and recruit.
Prosecutors said the white-supremacist group espouses neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs and encourages members to infiltrate the military to gain training, commit acts of violence and identify like-minded individuals intent on subverting the military from within.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Friday that Melzer sought to “orchestrate a murderous ambush on his own unit by unlawfully disclosing its location, strength and armaments to 09A members online.”
“The defendant believed he could force the U.S. into prolonged armed conflict while causing the deaths of as many soldiers as possible. Melzer’s traitorous conduct was a betrayal of his storied unit and nothing short of an attack against the most essential American values,” he said in a news release.
Before Friday's plea, Melzer's lawyers were building a defense asserting he was merely indulging in fantasy chats similar to a New York City police officer dubbed the “cannibal cop” by tabloids when he was convicted in 2013 of kidnapping conspiracy in a plot to rape, kill and eat women. They said it was a case with “similar facts” as those facing Melzer.
Online, Officer Gilberto Valle had discussed the cannibalistic plot with others in grisly detail. But in throwing out the jury verdict, a judge wrote that while Valle's “misogynistic sexual fantasies” reflected a diseased mind, prosecutors failed to prove he'd taken steps to carry out any gruesome deeds.
As Melzer's lawyers wrote: “The charges in this case are sensational, the facts less so: No ‘jihadist ambush’ on Melzer’s unit happened, none was close to happening, and Melzer had no intention of seeing one happen. In post-arrest interviews with law enforcement he made clear that he never intended to see an attack occur and that he believed that his interlocutors were ‘jokers’ who similarly had no intentions or capabilities of orchestrating one.”
They said his online prose was “bluster — falsities designed to impress the people he was communicating with online.” And the lawyers wrote that while Melzer was curious about 09A, he thought it was “weird” and “pretty much a cult” and its beliefs were “polar opposite” of his own.
They said one government cooperator posing as an 09A sympathizer online claimed to be a former Canadian paratrooper injured in Iraq, but he was actually a mentally ill 15-year-old who had been hospitalized for psychiatric care months before he began communicating with Melzer.
“The government’s efforts to paint Melzer as an O9A-devotee committed to murdering his fellow soldiers are overblown,” defense lawyers wrote. They said three post-arrest interviews in 2020 with law enforcement “amounted to full-throated denials of the most serious charges against him.”
The guilty plea came after prosecutors clarified they'd built a case against Melzer that included evidence from his electronic devices and barracks — photographs, videos and documents — that could be characterized as “jihadist” and “09A” materials.
Also recovered were books titled “The Sinister Tradition” and “The Anarchist's Cookbook,” which prosecutors maintained had detailed instructions on how to manufacture and use explosives and weapons.
But the most potentially damaging evidence prosecutors said they planned to show the jury was proof Melzer sought to earn a self-initiation into 09A through violence as a street-level drug dealer after shooting a marijuana dealer in the arm in January 2017 near his Louisville, Kentucky, apartment. He joined the Army the following year.