Foiled plot, or teenage fiction?

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010; B01

The arsenal in his bedroom. Attack plans mapped on a computer. A friend claiming the teenager was plotting to kill Barack Obama.

For investigators in Montgomery County, everything pointed to an obvious question: In an era of mass shooters, had they found one before it was too late?

"I suppose they thought I had mental issues. I certainly do not," said the teenager, Collin McKenzie-Gude, who is now 20, speaking at the Montgomery jail this past fall in his first interview since his arrest made national news in summer 2008.

Back then, he had just graduated with honors from St. John's College High School in Washington, where he was captain of the ROTC target-shooting team. He was four weeks from beginning classes at American University and had aspirations to join the State Department's police force to guard embassies overseas.

"I thought that that would be a really good way to protect my country," McKenzie-Gude said. "Being on the front lines of preventing terrorist attacks."

Now, as the case draws to a close with McKenzie-Gude's federal sentencing scheduled for Thursday, contrasts are sharpening.

McKenzie-Gude pleaded guilty to storing bomb-making materials in his bedroom closets. He also pleaded guilty to attempted carjacking, stemming from his actions July 29, 2008, after learning that police were about to search his room. He went to a shopping center, knocked to the ground a 78-year-old man who had two artificial hips and tried to steal his car. Police said the incident was part of a short-lived plan to flee the area.

Prosecutors plan to say in court that McKenzie-Gude was legitimately dangerous and that he should spend at least 6 1/2 more years behind bars, based in part on what they say motivated him to collect the bomb-making materials: a plot to kill Obama.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, prosecutors say, McKenzie-Gude had come to despise Obama's views on gun control and plotted to use homemade explosives to halt the candidate's convoy, possibly on Interstate 270, and take him out with a high-powered rifle he kept in a gun safe near his dresser.

He had the firepower to launch an attack. Police found hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including armor-piercing bullets, three semiautomatic rifles, more than 50 pounds of chemicals, switches, timers and a document with instructions on how to kill someone at 200 meters.

On order, but not delivered, was a two-pound shipment of the key reagent used to make PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), the same material carried by the suspect in the attempted Christmas bombing on a Detroit-bound plane, federal prosecutors said.

But McKenzie-Gude has never been charged with planning to shoot or kill anyone, and prosecutors say they don't know whether he would have carried out the plot.

The guns in the bedroom had been legally bought by his father. In recent court filings, McKenzie-Gude and his attorney have offered an explanation for the items seized by police:

The teenager wanted to shoot the kind of weapons he might use as a soldier or antiterrorism agent; he thought a knowledge of explosives would help in his career; he was given to fictitious, military role-playing on his computer -- mapping out not only how to assault a friend's house but also how to defend it.

To McKenzie-Gude and his supporters, the case shows how police and prosecutors got so bent on trying to identify the next teen killer that they stitched together a fanciful tale. A big part of that: They cut a deal with a close friend who had brought at least some of the chemicals into McKenzie-Gude's bedroom -- a fellow honors student who took federal agents into what he said were the pair's private conversations in exchange for immunity.

"We are more skittish," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and an expert on how police and society have reacted to tragedies such as the Washington sniper shootings and Virginia Tech massacre.

"Take the same kind of discussions among kids 20 years ago, we'd have thought it was pure fantasy. But there are two sides of it. Kids these days are more likely to do it."

Fascination with firearms

A review of previously undisclosed court records and interviews with McKenzie-Gude and his supporters, as well as sources close to the case, highlight contrasting portraits of McKenzie-Gude. It's easy to see why police took him so seriously, but it also reveals how the probe ran out of steam before authorities could bring conspiracy charges.

McKenzie-Gude lived in one house growing up, along Rockhurst Road, just outside the Capital Beltway in Bethesda. His father, Joseph Gude, is a former Air Force captain turned 17-year Treasury Department employee; his mother, Debra McKenzie-Gude, is a trained social worker. Both supported Obama publicly during the 2008 campaign.

As a kid, McKenzie-Gude was interested in the inner workings of things such as vacuum cleaners. At 8, after watching a National Geographic TV show on the search for giant squids, he sketched out an unmanned tracking device equipped with an onboard computer and dart-firing mechanism. When his mother saw the design, she called the squid expert, who worked at the Smithsonian Institution, and arranged for her son to show him the design in person.

Five years later, during the run-up to the Iraq war, McKenzie-Gude wrote President George W. Bush to express concerns over a news report that said the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons.

"In a world still haunted by the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he wrote, the strategy was preposterous.

"We can still easily crush Iraq with conventional weapons and minimal U.S. and Iraqi civilian casualties," wrote McKenzie-Gude, then a student at the Woods Academy in Bethesda. "Therefore please do not let this situation spin out of control. Instead go back to being the great man you were after 9/11."

About that time, McKenzie-Gude became interested in firearms, a fascination hatched while shooting a .22-caliber rifle with his father on a range at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va. Back in Montgomery, he and his parents enrolled in a gun safety class at an indoor shooting range.

His father also drew up a contract with his son governing the use of the semiautomatic rifles the father bought: Room clean, other chores completed, the guns could be fired only at the range. McKenzie-Gude began buying military gear, weighing himself down and wearing it around the house in a manner that his mother told the sentencing judge, Peter J. Messitte of U.S. District Court, that she accepted as role-playing for being a soldier.

'The all-American boy'

Also growing up in Montgomery, in the Gaithersburg area, was Patrick Yevsukov, the key witness in the federal government's case against McKenzie-Gude. He spent many weekends on his family's land in West Virginia with his father, Serafim, who as a Soviet dissident spent two years in a Siberian prison for defying the government.

In the West Virginia woods, Serafim taught his son how to shoot by his 11th birthday. "A 12-gauge shotgun," Patrick Yevsukov said in an interview last year. "We forgot targets that day, so my dad got a bottle of mustard and painted an X on a tree."

Yevsukov made his way to St. John's, a former military school. He joined the ROTC program and made the rifle team, befriending a student one year older who shared his interest in firearms.

"I wasn't able to relate to a lot of other kids. But Collin, since he was interested in that as well from a very early age, we kind of gravitated toward each other," Yevsukov said in an interview at a restaurant in Gaithersburg.

In other ways, the two were opposites: Yevsukov tall and reserved. McKenzie-Gude short, fresh-faced, confident -- more likely to make an impression on students and teachers.

"I had to tell him, half the time, 'Don't call me sir, you know, call me Mr. Cooper,' " St. John's religion teacher Kenneth Cooper said of McKenzie-Gude. "He was the all-American boy. . . . Something out of that stuff you grew up with in the 1950s. You know, God and country and family. . . . He was like an Eagle Scout."

McKenzie-Gude had never gotten in trouble with police. Nor had Yevsukov, who after his junior year at St. John's secured a summer internship with the county police department.

It was a surprise then, in summer 2008, when Yevsukov's aunt told police her concerns: McKenzie-Gude was talking to her nephew about guns, they had bottles of chemicals and her nephew had obtained a list of home addresses of St. John's teachers.

In late July, as McKenzie-Gude drove Yevsukov to his internship using his mother's white Honda Pilot, bearing an Obama bumper sticker, a team of officers pulled him over. They took the pair in for questioning.

"The following allegations are false," McKenzie-Gude wrote in a brief statement about accusations regarding guns and chemicals, "and have been made to discredit me."

Officers allowed him to leave, which he did by speeding off in the Pilot, they said. Yevsukov talked more, downplaying any possible threats.

But in McKenzie-Gude's bedroom two hours later, investigators found the weapons and a map of Maryland with marks along an I-270 overpass. They issued a warrant. McKenzie-Gude turned himself in the next day and by Aug. 1 was being held on $1 million bond.

Prosecutors brought in Yevsukov, who had been released to the custody of his parents, and through his attorney offered him an immunity deal. In discussions that stretched into early last year, Yevsukov, 17 when the case began, told local and federal agents that McKenzie-Gude had talked about killing Obama, bought the items to do so and wanted Yevsukov to be his sniper spotter, according to court filings.

Investigators tried to corroborate Yevsukov's statements. On a thumb-drive computer storage device seized from McKenzie-Gude's bedroom, they saw how McKenzie-Gude had used PowerPoint and Google Earth to plot what appeared to be an assault on Yevsukov's mother's house in Gaithersburg.

The plan used dashed lines, arrows and military lingo such as "Objective 1" and "Gold Team takes up overwatch" to show three two-man crews sneaking through the woods. The PowerPoint presentation also showed how the house could be defended from an assault, using roadblocks, firing positions, IED locations and spots for omni-directional, anti-personnel mines.

Bank records and other evidence showed that McKenzie-Gude had ordered household products rich in chemicals that could be used to make bombs, such as a stump-removal solution. From a crafts store in California, he had ordered five-inch copper plates, which authorities speculated could be used to build bombs strong enough to cut through steel.

Incident at shopping mall

But authorities never found evidence showing how far McKenzie-Gude was going to take things. And Yevsukov raised questions of credibility as a witness last year when, during a contentious custody battle between his parents, he told a court official that he was willing to kill his aunt.

Yevsukov has pleaded guilty to two counts of the manufacture or possession of a destructive device. He is to be sentenced soon.

McKenzie-Gude just entered his 18th month in jail. In the interview last year, he said he sees himself more closely aligned with correctional officers around him than inmates "who have very different values from my own."

He said that authorities overcooked the threat he posed. "Perhaps they should check their facts better," McKenzie-Gude said.

Not mentioned in any of the letters of support for McKenzie-Gude is what the then 18-year-old did after leaving the police station in July 2008 before the warrant was issued.

He got to the second level of a parking garage outside Bloomingdale's in the White Flint mall off Rockville Pike. He parked and approached Dermot Owens, 78, who had just gotten out of his Chevy Prizm and was trying to lock it.

McKenzie-Gude demanded his keys, Owens told police. When he refused, the teenager used his elbows to knock him to the ground. A witness said she heard Owens scream, and police said McKenzie-Gude continued to strike him while he was on the ground.

McKenzie-Gude couldn't get the car started and ran back to his Honda, leaving his cellphone behind. His attorney says that McKenzie-Gude struck Owens but that the incident was fueled by panic and wasn't the violent assault described by police.

It is unclear whether Owens, the only victim identified in the investigation, will testify in a separate sentencing hearing soon in Montgomery Circuit Court on the attempted carjacking charge.

This past fall, outside his home, it took him nearly a minute to walk to his car, parked on the street. He didn't want to discuss the case. "I am trying to forget it," Owens said.

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