An Ohio man arrested Sunday for allegedly plotting a Fourth of July terror attack in Cleveland also planned to detonate a truckload of explosives on Labor Day in Philadelphia, according to court filings.
Demetrius N. Pitts, 48, of Maple Heights, described Philadelphia as his hometown and the city he knew best, according to an affidavit filed Monday charging him with attempting to provide material support to terrorists.
In meetings last week with an undercover FBI agent posing as an al-Qaeda operative, Pitts allegedly laid out a list of Philadelphia landmarks that he considered high-value targets for an attack, including City Hall and the William J. Green Federal Building at Sixth and Arch Streets, a location he dubbed the "goody spot" for an attack because it would "hit 'em in the gut."
"We gonna hit the Bicentennial City – Philadelphia," he told the undercover agent, according to court filings. "Now, that will really open their eyes."
Federal authorities declined to discuss Monday how far along they believed Pitts was in planning his purported terror strikes or whether they believed he had the capability to pull off attacks in Philadelphia or Cleveland.
FBI agents arrested him just days before a July Fourth attack he allegedly was planning on a downtown Cleveland park, the site of the city's annual fireworks display. He discussed potentially detonating a van packed with explosives or sending remote control cars packed with C-4 and shrapnel toward the children of U.S. military officers attending the city's Fourth of July parade.
"Just last week, this individual was walking around downtown Cleveland, taking reconnaissance for what he thought was a large-scale attack," said Justin Herdman, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, during a morning news conference announcing Pitts' arrest.
In Philadelphia, federal and local law enforcement officials said they were continuing to investigate whether any imminent threats remained.
"The details of Pitts' alleged plan of attack here are chilling," Michael Harpster, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia office, said in a statement. "He saw this city, his hometown, as an attractive symbol – and the perfect target."
According to his arrest affidavit, Pitts came to the FBI's attention last year through several violent posts he made on Facebook under the online moniker "Abdur Raheem Rahfeeq."
In one post, he allegedly threatened violence against U.S. military personnel who had killed Muslims in the Middle East. In another, he purportedly expressed a desire to join al-Qaeda and attend a foreign terror training camp.
But those vague threats became more concrete after investigators sent their undercover agent, posing as an al-Qaeda operative, to meet him in Ohio last month and recorded conversations they had over the next several weeks, investigators said.
Together, the pair allegedly discussed the best way to send a message through violence as well as specific tactics to dismember and dispose of bodies of U.S. service members and even President Trump.
"You take the person's head and his two hands, and they know right off the bat, 'Boy, these people aren't playing,' " Pitts said in one conversation quoted in the affidavit, in which he described the most effective way to dismember a terror target. "That's how I would send Donald Trump back. Head, hand, hand. I wouldn't leave no type of message or nothing."
But when it came to participating in an attack, Pitts purportedly told the agent he saw himself as more of a planner than a man who would detonate bombs himself.
Agents said Monday that they had surveilled Pitts conducting reconnaissance at various sites around Cleveland and recording video that he intended to send back to al-Qaeda. But he was eager, they said in court papers, to move on to planning for the Philadelphia attack.
"That one ain't gonna be hard," he is quoted in the documents as saying about Philadelphia. "Cuz, guess what, ain't nobody never tried to do nothing like that."
In a text message to the undercover agent Wednesday, Pitts allegedly added: "All I need … is some chicken eggs that go [explosion emojis]. I will put my life on the line. This will be done September Labor Day. Just help me get there."
Authorities on Monday described Pitts as a U.S. citizen who they believe was radicalized in the United States.
But details of his life before his arrest remain hazy, and it remains unclear how long he lived in Philadelphia or when he moved from Pennsylvania.
Although Pitts called Philadelphia his hometown in conversations with the undercover agent, public records suggest that he also spent significant time during the past decade in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, at various points listing homeless shelters in both cities among his addresses.
He registered to vote in both states, listing his address in Philadelphia in 2011 as an apartment on Domino Lane in Roxborough.
In a 2015 lawsuit he filed in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, he claimed he suffered a slip-and-fall injury while working in a cafeteria kitchen at Villanova University that left him unable to work.
During an appearance Monday in federal court in Cleveland — his first since his arrest — Pitts told the judge that he has an associate's degree from a culinary school but can no longer work because he is disabled.
He will remain in custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for Thursday. If convicted of terrorism charges, he could face up to 20 years in prison.