NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - A seemingly offhand remark in a high school lunchroom set off an investigation that uncovered an arsenal of weapons and a plot to attack a Muslim enclave in upstate New York, law enforcement officials said.
The comment was made by a 16-year-old student at Greece Odyssey Academy in Greece, New York.
Last Friday (Jan 18), he showed classmates a photo of someone and said that person looked like a potential school shooter, the authorities said.
The statement alarmed fellow students, who reported it to school officials. The local police became involved and started interviewing people at the school to determine whether there was a potential threat.
The threat, it turned out, came from the 16-year-old whose comments had triggered the investigation, the authorities said on Tuesday.
He and three young adults stockpiled 23 firearms and three homemade bombs as part of a plan to target the secluded Muslim enclave of Islamberg, a rural settlement about 240km north-west of New York City, the authorities said.
The men, Vincent Vetromile, 19, Brian Colaneri, 20, and Andrew Crysel, 18, all from suburban Rochester, New York, were arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon and conspiracy, according to court documents. They were expected to appear in court on Wednesday.
A fourth person was arrested and charged with the same offences as an adolescent offender, Greece's police chief Patrick Phelan said in a news conference on Tuesday. His name was not revealed because of his age.
No federal terrorism charges have been filed. But Monroe County's district attorney, Sandra Doorley, said on Tuesday that the US attorney's office is involved in the investigation and that federal charges were possible.
It was unclear how all four of those charged were linked or how they initially connected, though at least three of the four were Boy Scouts, Phelan said. Two of them, Vetromile and Crysel, were Eagle Scouts.
Phelan said the four suspects had been planning their attack for about a month. They communicated on Discord, a group chat app created for video gamers that later became popular among far-right activists.
Officials only discovered the planned attack through their investigation at the school, Phelan said.
Had students not come forward with their concerns, "people would have died", he said.
As part of the investigation, police recovered 23 legally owned shotguns and rifles from multiple locations, Phelan said.
Law enforcement officials also found three improvised explosive devices, homemade bombs that appeared to be filled with black powder and nails, Phelan said. It was unclear whether they were capable of being detonated, he said, but they were sent to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, for further examination.
Court documents described the devices as a large cylinder, a medium-sized cylinder and a Mason jar, all wrapped in duct tape.
Phelan said officials were not yet sure why the four suspects had chosen to target Islamberg, which is more than three hours from Greece by car. But he said officials were continuing to examine the men's electronic devices to determine a motive.
Islamberg, a rural hamlet in Delaware County, covers at least 24ha of rolling tree-covered hills, lakes and fields. Reaching it requires driving along country roads that wind through thick woods.
The community was settled in the 1980s by followers of a Pakistani cleric, Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani. The initial settlers were predominantly African-American Muslims who left New York City looking for a better place to practise their religion and raise their children.
It serves as the headquarters for an organisation called Muslims of America, which operates similar communities throughout the United States, according to a 2017 Associated Press story.
Over the past several years, Islamberg has been attacked by anti-Muslim groups and some right-wing conspiracy theorists, who have said the town is actually a terrorist training camp despite its peaceful history.
For the past three years, a group called "Bikers United Against Jihad" has organised a motorcycle protest against the community - though the bikers have been outnumbered by counterprotesters.
Islamberg has also previously faced threats of violence. In 2015, a man from Tennessee, Robert Doggart, was arrested and charged with plotting an attack on the community.
Prosecutors said he planned to recruit a militia to shoot Islamberg residents and blow up the mosque there. He was convicted and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison in 2017.
Muslims of America did not respond to requests for comment.