“He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?” the 16-year-old said, according to Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan.
For high schoolers coming of age amid regular television footage of blood-splashed classrooms and relentlessly drilled with the “see-something-say-something” mantra from adults, the statement ignited concern. A student told security, and an investigation was launched into both the 16-year-old who showed off the image and the boy pictured.
But investigators did not uncover a potential Parkland-style school shooting.
Instead, as Phelan recounted to reporters on Tuesday, investigators quickly were led to a scheme concocted by a group of young men to attack a Muslim settlement known as Islamberg located three hours away in New York state’s rural Delaware County. Police confiscated dozens of firearms from the men, as well as three improvised explosive devices.
Vincent Vetromile, 19, Andrew Crysel, 18, and Brian Colaneri, 20, are in custody and facing charges of first-degree criminal possession of a weapon and fourth-degree conspiracy. An unnamed 16-year-old — the Odyssey Academy student who unnerved classmates with the school shooter comment — has also been arrested in relation to the case. He has not been identified due to his age. The boy identified in the photo is not linked to the alleged conspiracy.
“If they had carried out this plot, which every indication is they were going to, people would have died,” Phelan told reporters. “The kid who initially said something to an adult saved people’s lives.”
Authorities did not explain the relationship between the four men, but Phelan did reveal three of the four men had been in the Boy Scouts of America together. Two rose to the rank of Eagle Scout, the organization’s highest honor.
The men have yet to enter pleas.
Islamberg, nestled in the remote western foothills of the Catskill Mountains, has been the target of both hyperventilating far-right conspiracy theories as well as violent plots in the past.
The community was started in the 1980s by a group of followers of the Pakistani cleric Sheikh Mubarik Gilani, the Associated Press reported in 2017. Trying to shake loose from the congestion and crime in New York City, families relocated to the rural area. Around 200 people now live at the site, which is run by the Muslims of America, a U.S.-based Islamic faith group that operates Muslim communities across North America.
But the community has not stayed off the radar. Alex Jones’s conspiracy website Infowars has regularly suggested Islamberg is a training camp for violent jihad, and the outlet sent two correspondents to “investigate” the claims in 2015.
In March 2015, authorities arrested a Tennessee man named Robert Doggart for plotting an Islamophobic attack on the compound. He was convicted in 2017 of solicitation to commit a civil rights violation and solicitation to commit arson of a building and sentenced to almost 20 years in prison.
Islamberg residents, however, say they disavow all violent forms of Islam.
“It’s a bunch of nonsense,” Hussein Adams, chief executive of the Muslims of America, told the AP in 2017. “For the last 30-plus years, we’ve been training for this jihad? So why hasn’t this jihad taken place?”
Local law enforcement has also dismissed the allegations.
“These folks that live here are American citizens. They’ve lived here for over 30 years. They built this community. They have ties within, outside of this community,” New York State Police Maj. James Barnes told the AP. “And there’s not a problem here.”
On Tuesday, authorities did not tell reporters why the four allegedly selected Islamberg as a target for assault.
According to Phelan’s account, after the complaint was made about the 16-year-old’s comment, investigators interviewed the student as well as the student in the cellphone image, who was later was released. The 16-year-old who first made the comment, however, became the focus of the investigation. Phelan said those interviews led police to the additional three suspects.
Five search warrants were executed as part of the investigation. The guns confiscated were rifles and shotguns, Phelan said.
“They had access to these weapons,” he added. “Some of them were their father’s, some were their grandfather’s, some of them I think they purchased themselves.”
All three of the explosive devices were found at the 16-year-old’s home. Citing court documents, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported one device was a large cylinder, one was medium-size, and the third was a Mason jar. All three contained gun powder, BBs and nails.
The devices “were homemade bombs,” Phelan told reporters. “They are being examined right now at the FBI lab in Quantico.”
As part of the search, authorities also confiscated multiple cellphones and computers. “I would say we did see some material that was disturbing and suspicious,” Phelan said.
The men allegedly communicated about the plot through Discord, a smartphone chat app favored by gamers that has also been popular among hate groups. Discord has since aggressively worked to remove hate speech from its platform, The Washington Post reported last year.
On Tuesday, authorities added that they are working with federal law enforcement to see if any additional charges could to be filed against the men. Phelan also did not rule out the possibility that the plot included more than the four people now in custody.
“We may find through more investigation that more people were involved,” he said.