June 3rd, 2011
02:37 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – A man arrested on charges of making terrorist threats against a Dearborn, Michigan mosque will argue that he is a Muslim convert and that it makes little sense for him to attack a Muslim house of worship, his lawyer says.
Roger Stockham, 63, of Imperial Beach,California, was charged with one count of false report or threat of terrorism and one count of explosives - possession of bombs with unlawful intent.
He was arrested in January in the parking lot ofDearborn’s Islamic Center of America. Police say Stockham had fireworks in his car at the time of his arrest and that he planned to use them in an attack.
Stockham has been held in a Wayne County, Michigan jail on $500,000 bond since his arrest. Jury selection for his trial was scheduled to begin last month but was postponed when a judge ordered a competency hearing for Stockham, who has a history of mental illness.
In a recent interview, Stockham’s court-appointed lawyer, Matt Evans, said his client converted to Islam while working as a commercial helicopter pilot in Indonesiain the 1970s after having served in Vietnam.
Evans says his client never intended to attack the Dearborn mosque with explosives. Instead, the lawyer says, Stockham planned to paint an anti-Iraq war message across the mosque’s exterior wall to bring attention to Muslim casualties in Iraq.
Stockham had seen video footage of an American helicopter shooting at people in Iraq, Evans said. Evans said the video, from around two years ago, disturbed Stockham and resonated with him largely because he’s a pilot.
“It was about Muslim casualties in Iraq,” Evans said of his client’s intentions. “This is the largest mosque in North America so this was going to be a symbol to all Muslims that this is going on and that it’s wrong.”
Evans says Stockham’s religion will be part of his defense. The attorney said he did not have names of any friends or imams who could talk about Stockham’s religious commitment.
“He’s not a strict adherent,” the lawyer said, noting that Stockham drinks alcohol, which observant Muslims avoid. “He says his prayers and he knows prayers in Arabic and I know he says them, but I don’t believe he’s really that observant.”
The conservative media-focused website NewsBusters, which says it is devoted to “exposing and combating liberal media bias,” highlighted the omission of Stockham’s religious affiliation in a March CNN.com story about the growing sense of alienation among many Muslims in Dearborn - one of the nation’s largest Muslim enclaves.
The article told of Stockham’s arrest and described fears the incident provoked among local Muslims, who worried about their faith community being targeted.
None of the officials CNN interviewed at the time, which included representatives from the Dearborn Police Department, the Islamic Center of America and other community leaders, mentioned Stockham’s religion.
Asked about it later, some put little stock in Stockham identifying as a Muslim. “Based on what we know, he was here to create an explosion,” said Kassem Allie, the mosque’s executive administrator. “You don’t go into a bank and point a gun at the teller if you’re just going to borrow money.”
Evans, Stockham’s lawyer, denies the fireworks found in Evans’ car were intended for an attack: “He didn’t have matches or a lighter, so this is more about him wanting to make a statement.”
Evans took the case after Stockham requested a new lawyer in January, complaining that his court-appointed counsel was a Shiite Muslim and a patron of the Islamic Center of America. That’s when Evans began representing him.
Evans did not return subsequent calls seeking comment on whether Stockham is a Sunni Muslim. Sunnis and Shiites constitute the two main branches of Islam.
At a February 11 preliminary hearing, a restaurant manager said he heard Stockham threatening to attack the mosque in January. The manager, Joseph Nahhas, testified that Stockham referred to himself as a “mujahedeen,” an Arabic word for Muslim fighter.
According to a court transcript, Nahhas said Stockham told him that “he is going to make history and the history he’s going to make is [a] big explosion.”
“I asked him where [is] the explosion?” Nahhas said. “He said, ‘Here, big explosion tonight.’ I wanted to know where is here, and he said, ‘Here, there and the mosque.’”
Nahhas said he deduced that Stockham was referring to the Islamic Center of America, located a few blocks from the restaurant. Nahhas said he called the threat into law enforcement. Dearborn police arrested Stockham in the mosque’s parking lot later that day.
Evans said Nahhas misheard his client at the restaurant.
Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor's office, said she couldn’t comment on the case, including whether Stockham’s faith would be a factor.
Stockham has a criminal record and a history of struggling with mental health.
In 1986, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for planting a pipe bomb at the Reno Cannon International Airport, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The pipe bomb was safely disarmed, the paper reported.
Stockham was released in 1991 on parole, though his parole was revoked at least once, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
In 2003, Stockham was charged in federal court with eight counts of making threats - some of which allegedly involved explosives - against a veterans’ center employee and the U.S.president, though it’s unclear which president he allegedly threatened.
In a plea deal, Stockham was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to a hospital for mental health treatment, according to records from the U.S. District Court in Vermont, where he was charged.
In 2005, Stockham was released from a medical facility for federal prisoners in Missouri on the condition that he reside in transitional housing, take medication prescribed by a psychiatrist and refrain from using illegal drugs and alcohol, among other criteria.
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