WICHITA, Kan. ― Three anti-Muslim domestic terrorists who plotted to blow up a Garden City apartment complex where many Somali Muslim immigrants lived were convicted on Wednesday on federal charges that could send them to prison for life. Five weeks into the trial, jurors deliberated for less than a full day before finding Kansas militiamen Patrick Stein, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright guilty on all charges.
But it wasn’t just the trio on trial.
So too was Dan Day, the FBI informant whose hours of recordings ― which featured vile discussions of planned violence against Muslims, who the men called “cockroaches” ― were the centerpiece of the federal government’s case against a group that dubbed themselves “The Crusaders.”
Day’s testimony was at the center of the trial. Federal prosecutors would not have had a case without him. Defense attorneys said the plot would never have moved forward were it not for Day pushing the group to action.
The two sides offered up competing portraits of the 49-year-old Day in court. The government portrayed him as an “everyday guy,” a patriot and a hero who risked his life and stepped up to prevent a looming attack that would have killed countless men, women and children because of their faith, race and national origin. Defense attorneys said Day was an unemployed wannabe who jumped at the chance to become an undercover FBI informant and was willing to do whatever the federal government needed for a check.
In an exclusive interview with HuffPost, Day said it’s a relief to put this experience behind him. “It’s just so hard to believe this actually happened,” he said. He’s glad “justice was served” in the case, and thinks divine intervention led to his involvement, he added.
“I felt like it was a calling from God, honestly,” Day said of taking the risk of becoming an informant. “I’m not an over-religious person, but I believe in God and I believe he put me there at the right time, the right place, if that makes any sense.”
The father of two high school-age children and the youngest of 14 kids, Day grew up in Garden City, Kansas, home to the apartment complex the defendants ultimately targeted. Up until a few years ago, he worked as a probation officer and in juvenile detention before that.
His path to becoming an informant for the FBI is completely unique.
It began in July of 2015 with a trip to the local library with his son. He saw what he considered an anti-Israel poster, which featured a Palestinian flag and described the situation in Israel as apartheid. He tore it down.
“They have the right to put that up, and I have the right to take that down, in my opinion, so I did,” Day said of the incident.
Then he passed along a photo of the poster to a friend who eventually posted about it on Facebook. The post went viral.
Day was soon invited to a cookout attended by a number of members of a militia group in Kansas. Somewhere along the line the story got mixed up, and people in the militia believed that Day had found an ISIS recruiting poster. That wasn’t the case at all.
But the FBI, which was looking into rumors of the ISIS poster, interviewed Day and ended up being interested in him because of his connection to the militia. It wasn’t long before Day was working on the bureau’s behalf, giving the federal government an inside look at the larger militia group.
Then Day met the defendants. The difference between them and the larger group, federal prosecutors said, was that the defendants weren’t just talking ― they were ready to take action.
Kansas-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Mattivi, who prosecuted the case alongside two prosecutors from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told jurors that Day was an “average guy” who stepped up at the right moment to stop men who wanted to “blow up a bomb, flatten the building and murder every single man, woman and child inside.”
Day could have walked away, like the other members of the larger militia group who knew a plan was in motion but did nothing to stop it, Mattivi said. “That guy’s a patriot. He’s a hero,” he added.
Defense attorneys saw it differently. They accused the federal government of overreaching and said the case wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for Day’s involvement. They frequently mentioned that Day was working for the FBI before he ever came into contact with the defendants.
“The FBI owns Dan Day and they own the words that he said,” argued Melody Brannon, the top federal public defender in Kansas who was representing Allen.
Day said the defense’s attacks on him were unfair and only happened because defense attorneys couldn’t dispute what the defendants said in the tapes he recorded. “They had to attack me, and they had to attack the FBI,” he said. “I put my whole life out there so they could knock me down.’”
But Day said he was also uncomfortable with the prosecution’s glowing depiction of his role. “I’m no hero, man, believe me,” he said. “I’m not a perfect person, but I’m truthful.”
Working in remote areas of Kansas, there was no backup team standing by when Day attended meetings with the militiamen. He had a phone that was constantly recording in the background that even he couldn’t turn off.
It was scary at times, Day said. He noted he was armed, and “would’ve did what [he] had to do” if he was discovered.
Being undercover, observing and participating as the men spewed Islamophobic rhetoric, Day said the defense attorneys and the media overplayed the influence that President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks had on the defendants. He called it a “Trump card” used as an excuse for the militia’s behavior.
“These guys had a hate in their heart towards all Muslims, long before Trump came along in the picture,” said Day, who described himself as “anti-Hillary” and said he would have voted for Trump had he not been preoccupied with the case right before the 2016 election.
Still, Day said he would have liked Trump to have toned down some of his more extreme rhetoric about Muslims.
“Trump should not have ever said those things. I don’t agree with him saying that, you know?” he said. “Regular Muslims, if they come over and they’re vetted, that’s our country, man. That’s a free country. That’s how my grandparents got here.”
Day, like a lot of Americans, said he personally hasn’t had much interaction with Muslims. He said he had concerns about radical Islam, but said he “never had a bad view” of Muslims as a whole.
It’s rare for the federal government to deploy informants and undercover officers in terrorism stings against non-Muslim defendants. The Intercept’s Trial and Terror project identified 310 terrorism sting operations that involved international terrorism, meaning groups like the self-described Islamic State.
Most of the high-profile cases typically involved young Muslim men who became the focus of FBI investigations because of what they’d written online. Those cases primarily resulted in material support charges unavailable in cases against domestic extremists.
Day said he doesn’t know what’s next for him. As defense attorneys noted, he’ll probably get a conviction bonus from the FBI for his work on the case, in addition to the more than $30,000 he has already received. He would’ve made more money working a regular job, he said, and he’ll start looking for one soon.
He said he found some of the defense’s comments in closing arguments to be laughable. Stein was compared to a “child playing at war” who had a “willingness to believe the fantastical” and an “inflated sense of self.” Wright was portrayed as someone who just wanted to fit in and thought Day was his friend.
Day said it was particularly ridiculous that Wright’s attorney brought up the defendant’s parents’ divorce more than 35 years ago, when Wright was 14.
“Come on, man,” Day said. “Give him a puppy, I don’t know.”
Day added that he doesn’t want to sound like he’s overly happy about what happened to the defendants and that he’s particularly conscious of the effect their convictions will have on their families. But he doesn’t have much sympathy for the defendants themselves, who he said had plenty of opportunities to back away from the plot.
“I’d tell them fuck off,” Day said. “They made their choices.”
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.
Additional reporting by Christopher Mathias. HuffPost’s full coverage of the trial is linked above and below.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.