NEW YORK (AP) — A former U.S. Army private from Kentucky who was devoted to a violent extremist group seeking to erode or destroy Western civilization was sentenced to the maximum 45 years in prison Friday for plotting to arrange a murderous terrorist attack on his paratrooper unit.
U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods said the maximum sentence was appropriate for 24-year-old Ethan Phelan Melzer because of the lasting harm he caused by sharing U.S. military secrets with other followers of a radical violent group known as the Order of Nine Angles, or 09A, and other terrorist groups online.
The judge rejected defense depictions of Melzer as a reformed man and Melzer’s claims of remorse, saying it was more likely that Melzer was “playing another role” in pursuit of leniency at sentencing just as he had “played soldier” so that he could conspire to try to murder his fellow paratroopers three years ago.
Melzer’s hands trembled as he heard Woods reject his lawyers’ request that he spend 15 years behind bars and instead give him a prison sentence three times longer after he pleaded last June to charges that he tried to murder his fellow service members, supported terrorists and illegally transmitted defense information.
Earlier, he had told the judge: “I still regret everything I did.” Melzer also said he wished “I could say I’m sorry to my platoon” and that he wanted to show he could still be a productive member of society.
Shackled at the ankles, Melzer, of Louisville, Kentucky, was later escorted from the courtroom by deputy U.S. marshals.
Without a plea deal, Melzer could have faced a life prison term.
Calling Melzer a traitor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hellman said his actions constituted “one of the most stunning betrayals from within the ranks of the armed forces … ever to be prosecuted in a federal court.”
Capt. Joshua Kraus, a military intelligence officer, told the judge that Melzer had created a “psychological cancer” within his unit as the trust soldiers must put in their commanders and fellow service members was thrown into question with his May 30, 2020, arrest as his platoon was about to board buses to Italy.
The unit was heading to a military base where they were to guard an isolated and sensitive military installation.
Kraus said information Melzer shared online “with our sworn enemies” will never be able to be recovered and has caused allies to doubt whether they can share sensitive information with the United States.
“Our allies and enemies are very aware of this case,” Kraus said.
Capt. Jacob Ferris, the former head of Melzer’s unit, said the platoon known as “The Cowboys” was riding high when they were chosen from among 20 platoons for their sensitive mission, only to find that one of their own had “deceived and betrayed” them and left them “labeled as a platoon that had a terrorist.”
He said Melzer’s fellow paratroopers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team were left feeling angry as they contemplated “that one of their own had planned to kill them.”
He said the other soldiers faced questioning by investigators who wanted to know if they had seen signs that Melzer was betraying his oath to the United States, and it left them confronting what they might have missed.
One, Ferris said, told him: “I feel like out of 35 people, one of us should have seen the signs.”
Attorney Jonathan Marvinny, representing Melzer, requested leniency, saying his client had fallen beneath the spell of “a ridiculous cult,” and he urged the judge not to heed prosecutors who “paint him as if he’s a monster.”
Authorities said Melzer joined the military to infiltrate its ranks on behalf of a group espousing neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs. They said the group tells members to subvert the military from within by infiltrating it to gain training, commit acts of violence and identify like-minded individuals.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Melzer planned to join co-conspirators he met online to carry out a “jihadi attack” that would cause a “mass casualty” event that would provoke the United States into engaging in a foreign war, “causing mass bloodshed and terrible harm to the very country he had sworn to protect.”