HAMMOND | Hammond truck driver Thomas W. Piatek told a judge Monday he doesn't understand why he was charged alongside eight other alleged members of a Michigan-based extremist Christian militia accused of plotting to kill police officers and make war with the U.S. government.
"What they're alleging and what I've done are two different things," Piatek said in Hammond federal court.
Piatek, 46, of Hammond's Robertsdale neighborhood, was arrested Sunday in Clarendon Hills, Ill., in a multistate FBI-led operation targeting the Hutaree, a Detroit-area militant group whose members have armed themselves and trained for a prophesied battle with the Antichrist. Piatek, who attended Clark High School in Hammond, remains in Hammond City Jail pending a hearing Wednesday to determine whether he will be transferred to Michigan to face the charges.
Piatek and his eight co-defendants are charged in Detroit federal court with conspiring seditiously and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. Federal authorities claim Hutaree members hailing from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana planned a homicidal trap in which militia members would murder a police officer, then ambush police attending that officer's funeral with makeshift bombs.
Militia members expected that attack would provoke war with the government, prosecutors claim. The FBI staged the raids over the weekend because agents learned of a potentially violent "reconnaissance operation" planned for April, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, of Michigan's Eastern District.
Piatek, sporting work boots, blue jeans, a light blue polo shirt and graying mullet-style hair, sounded annoyed and confused in Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry's Hammond courtroom Monday. He responded to several of Cherry's questions with loud, troubled sighs.
Cherry's main job Monday was to determine whether the man before him was the Thomas W. Piatek charged in the Michigan indictment. Had Piatek agreed that he is the indicted man, Cherry would have ordered him transferred to Michigan, but Piatek was reluctant to answer Cherry's questions. Piatek confirmed in court that his name does correspond to the name in the indictment, but he said he didn't understand the accusations against him.
"I am not the same one charged with what they're saying," Piatek said.
"I don't understand this," he said.
Cherry continued Piatek's hearing until Wednesday, when Piatek will be represented by a lawyer. Piatek asked Cherry to appoint him a publicly funded lawyer, but Cherry found that Piatek, who said he is a fully employed homeowner who owns a 2003 pickup truck and an aging Corvette, doesn't qualify for a subsidized attorney. Because of practical questions about Piatek's ability to hire a lawyer before Wednesday, Cherry said he would take the "unusual" step of hiring Piatek a lawyer.
During Cherry's probe into his finances, Piatek complained that he had been "raped" by property taxes at his home in the 1900 block of Calumet Avenue.
Piatek is charged in three of the indictment's five counts. He is charged with seditious conspiracy, attempting to use weapons of mass destruction and carrying a gun in relation to a crime of violence. The weapons of mass destruction charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Piatek's neighbor Jason Hetzel said he had seen Piatek outside with his German shepherds or taking out his trash. Hetzel described him as "very quiet." Another neighbor, who declined to be identified, said he knew Piatek as a child. The man said the charges don't reflect the boy he knew.
"It's surprising to me, if it's true," he said.
City directories indicate the home has been in the Piatek family since the 1950s.
Piatek has worked as a truck driver for Meyer Industrial Container in Chicago's West Chatham neighborhood. General Manager Bob Conway said Piatek has worked for Meyer for about 20 years. No one ever has come to Conway with any concerns about Piatek's behavior, Conway said. Conway said he does not know Piatek.
Piatek's arrest in the west Chicago suburb followed a raid on Piatek's home Saturday night that shocked neighbors. Laurie Yager and her husband were leaving their Calumet Avenue home for a card game about 5:30 p.m. when, she said, the area was swarmed by law enforcement agents. Yager said she stepped outside to see what was going on and was told to get back in her house.
"I think there was like 20 or 30 cop cars, and they had the whole street blocked off and they had the alley blocked," she said.
The Porter County Sheriff's Department Bomb Squad helped with Saturday's raid, Sheriff David Lain said. Hammond officers closed Calumet Avenue and protected the raid site, Police Chief Brian Miller said.
Andrew Arena, head of the FBI's field office in Detroit, called the Hutaree "an example of radical and extremist fringe groups which can be found throughout our society. The FBI takes such extremist groups seriously, especially those who would target innocent citizens and the law enforcement officers who protect the citizens of the United States."
The arrests have dealt "a severe blow to a dangerous organization that today stands accused of conspiring to levy war against the United States," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
Times staff writers Jeff Burton and Bowdeya Tweh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Charged in connection with the alleged police-killing plot are: Thomas W. Piatek , 46, of Hammond; David Brian Stone, 45, his wife, Tina Stone, 44, his son Joshua Matthew Stone, 21, all of Clayton, Mich., and another son, David Brian Stone Jr., 19, of Adrian, Mich.; Joshua Clough, 28, of Blissfield, Mich.; Michael Meeks, 40, of Manchester, Mich.; Kristopher Sickles, 27, of Sandusky, Ohio, and Jacob Ward, 33, of Huron, Ohio. All nine suspects have been arrested by the FBI.