BURKE COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Justin Sullivan, 20, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted terrorism in federal court Tuesday morning. He appeared in court at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Asheville.
Sullivan, who called himself The Mujahid in his contacts with the Islamic State, is accused of plotting a mass killing in support of ISIL.
"Sullivan was in contact and plotted with now-deceased Syria-based terrorist Junaid Hussain to execute acts of mass violence in the United States in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord said.
Sullivan admitted that he attempted to commit terrorist attacks against innocent people in North Carolina and Virginia, court documents state.
"Justin Sullivan planned to kill hundreds of innocent people. He pledged his support to ISIL and took calculated steps to commit a murderous rampage to prove his allegiance to the terrorist organization," Special Agent Charge Strong said.
Court documents show that Sullivan had been in contact with ISIS leaders in Syria and had proposed attacks that could "kill hundreds."
A gun show in Virginia was listed as a possible target but Sullivan also told undercover agents, according to documents, "that concerts would be good." US Attorney Jill Rose says Sullivan researched weapons, ammunition, possible targets, and "had every intention to carry this out."
In filed plea documents, Sullivan admitted that he took the following steps towards carrying out terrorist attacks in North Carolina and Virginia:
- Recruiting the UCE
- Obtaining a silencer from the UCE
- Procuring the money that would have enabled him to purchase the AR-15
- Trying to obtain a specific type of ammunition that he believed would be the most “deadly”
- Identifying separate gun shows where he and the UCE could purchase AR-15s
- Obtained coupons for the gun shows he planned for himself and the UCE to attend on June 20 or 21, 2015.
The agreement specifies a life sentence but court officials say the judge does have discretion in sentencing and will consider pre-sentence reports at a later hearing.
Sullivan told the court Tuesday that he is a Muslim and "still loves all my brothers and sisters." It was unclear what he referred to since he is an only child.
Sullivan reportedly started watching ISIL attacks online, such as beheadings and collected them on his laptop. Sullivan is accused of conspiring with Hussain and then discussing his attack plans on social media with an undercover FBI employee.
Sullivan had researched how to manufacture firearm silencers and asked the UCE to build silencers that they could use to carry out the planned attacks. Court documents show that "Sullivan told the UCE he planned to carry out his attack in the following few days at a concert, bar or club, where he believed as many as 1,000 people would be killed using the assault rifle and silencer."
Sullivan's mother opened the delivery package containing the silencer and questioned Sullivan about his motive. Sullivan then offered to pay for the UCE to kill his parents, out of worry that they would interfere with his attack, court documents say.
Sullivan came under federal investigation in April 2015 after his father called law enforcement about unusual behavior.
Rich Sullivan told WBTV news after his son was arrested that he had to do it. "I am an American."
In court Tuesday morning, he was seen hugging his wife and crying as his son pleaded guilty. Afterward, Sullivan had little to say except "It was good to see him."
Sullivan still faces capital murder charges in Burke County related to the 2014 shooting death of John Bailey Clark, 74, who lived near Sullivan and his parents. Those charges came after federal authorities found a weapon at the Sullivan home that ties into the murder.
The FBI says Sullivan shot and robbed Clark to get money to help him buy an assault rifle he planned to use to commit the mass murder. He used a rifle he stole from his dad's gun cabinet, which he hid in the crawl space.
Sullivan didn't admit to Clark's killing Tuesday.
Local District Attorney David Learner was at the Federal Courthouse Tuesday but said he could not comment on when the state case against Sullivan will be heard.
"We take it one step at a time," and added, "the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless he is convicted in a court of law."
Meanwhile, Rose said her message to the public is to be vigilant. "If you see something, say something." Rose says what Sullivan's father did by turning him in was extremely hard to do but that "It definitely saved lives."
"Our attack needs to be as big as possible," he told the undercover FBI agent, according to court documents obtained by the Charlotte Observer. "We can do minor assassinations before the big attack for training."
Sullivan was arrested in June 2015, shortly before he planned to buy an assault weapon at the Hickory gun show.
Sentencing is scheduled for a later date, but he faces between 360 months to life in prison.