Mystery Shrouds Florida Doc Who Plotted Mosque Bombing
He had it all worked out on paper, meticulously planned down to the smallest detail.
The Glock, his favorite semiautomatic pistol, would be in a shoulder holster beneath his Kevlar vest. He’d keep the .38 in an ankle rig, just in case. He even made a note to himself to wipe down the rounds before loading them into the clip. He didn’t want to take a chance that a stray fingerprint on an ejected shell in the parking lot would lead authorities to him.
The truth was, he didn’t think he’d need the guns or the deadly combat knife that he also planned to carry. “Hand to hand combat is unlikely,” he wrote. The bombs would be enough. He had amassed enough C4, along with homemade explosives and kitchen-counter napalm, to bring the building to the ground in a ball of fire and smoke. He had even made sure that he’d remember to plant a bomb with a trip wire by the only exit so that any fleeing worshipers would be cut down.
The guns were just insurance, to make sure, as the pudgy podiatrist Robert J. Goldstein wrote in his notes, that his planned attack on the Islamic Education Center in Pinellas County, Fla., would have “maximum effect.”
“Kill all rags,” the 38-year-old podiatrist wrote, using a derogatory term for Muslims. “ZERO residual presence.”
It sounds like the fevered fantasies of an adolescent who’s spent too much time playing video games, or perhaps a page from a Tom Clancy novel. But it isn’t. It’s part of the federal court record in the case against Goldstein, a Jew — by all accounts a nominal one — who, along with his then-wife and a local dentist, planned to attack and destroy the Islamic center and, if necessary, he wrote, kill fleeing worshippers, or even cops, face to face.
On June 19, Goldstein was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in federal prison after pleading guilty in April to charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights, plotting to damage a religious facility and unlawful possession of firearms. A week earlier, his ex-wife Kristi, who now goes by her maiden name, Persinger, was sentenced to three years for possession of illegal bombs that her husband had hidden in the bedroom closet of their posh Seminole townhouse. The third accomplice, a dentist named Michael Hardee, 50, was sentenced in May to three years and five months for his part.
But though the bizarre case, which received little attention outside of Florida, has run its course in the federal court system, some following the case say nagging questions remain. Among them, what has led Goldstein, described by those who know him as an intermarried, assimilated Jew, to take up arms as a self-appointed avenger of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington? What made this peripheral member of an average Jewish community decide to plot what has been described as a terrorist attack aimed at making a statement “for his people”?
Even more troubling is this question: Was Goldstein a terrorist? And if so, was he treated differently than he would have been had he been an Arab or Muslim accused of a similar offense?
It certainly wasn’t any deep pool of radicalized Jewish sentiment in Central Florida that spawned Goldstein’s conspiracy, says geographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, who authored a 1999 demographic study of the local Jewish community. “I think it might be just one of those random things,” he said, an accident of nature.
The Jewish community in suburban Pinellas County, the coastal stretch between St. Petersburg and Tampa that Goldstein called home, is not a place where Jewish identity is particularly strong. It’s certainly not the kind of place one would expect breeds radicals. There is no unusually deep well of tradition. It’s a place where Christmas trees are not uncommon in Jewish households, where the intermarriage rate is slightly higher than the national average, where antisemitism is barely felt. It is, by nearly every measure, average, Sheskin says.
Perhaps so. Still, militant violence has shown up in central Florida before. It was in Jacksonville, a similarly assimilated community some 240 miles northeast, that an unemployed kosher butcher named Harry Shapiro was sentenced in 1997 to 10 years in prison for planting a bomb in a local Conservative synagogue where former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres was to speak. The bomb, which was a dud, was meant to protest Israel’s recognition of the Palestinians in the Oslo accords.
Most attempts to explain Shapiro’s crime have focused on his troubled interior life. That’s also the key to understanding Goldstein, says his attorney, Myles Malman.
The way Malman sees it, Goldstein’s motivation wasn’t as much religion or politics as it was madness, the product of a variety of maladies — “obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and depression,” for which Goldstein was taking a “cocktail” of psychiatric drugs — that led him to collect his arsenal of explosives. There is, Malman says, no question that Goldstein planned to destroy the mosque and community center — the “physical building,” as Malman puts it. But Malman said he is convinced that the rest of the plan, the detailed plot to gun down or knife victims as they ran for their lives, was all a fantasy. “He never actually planned to do that,” Malman insists.
Investigators, among them seasoned agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, had a very different impression when they searched Malman’s townhouse last August. According to court records, what they found was the equipment and documents needed for a significant terrorist operation. More than 15 bombs and the makings for more were found, along with enough firearms to equip a platoon of commandos. It was almost a fluke that the plot was uncovered at all, authorities concede.
Goldstein’s scheme was discovered on Aug. 22, 2002, when, according to the federal complaint in the case, police were summoned to the Goldstein home on a report of domestic violence. When authorities arrived, they found Kristi Goldstein outside. She claimed her husband had threatened to kill her and that he had a cache of weapons and explosives. It took local police and federal authorities more than a half-hour to persuade Goldstein to leave the house. What they found inside after obtaining permission to search the place, in addition to the bombs, was automatic weapons, hand grenades, armor-piercing rockets, a 50-caliber sniper rifle, 25,000 rounds of ammunition and homemade napalm.
They also found a list of 50 mosques in the central Florida area, along with the document that would come to be known as “the template”: the detailed, moment-by-moment plan of how Goldstein, with Hardee as his driver, allegedly proposed not only to level the building, but to slaughter anyone who survived or anyone who tried to interfere.
But despite the weapons and documents, federal authorities decided not to level terrorism charges against Goldstein and his accomplices, including his now-estranged wife, who insisted she had no idea of Goldstein’s plans and pleaded guilty only to bomb possession. And that had sparked a new controversy in Florida. In the end, he was allowed to plead guilty only to civil-rights charges and conspiracy and weapons allegations.
Ahmed Bedier, a spokesman for the local chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations and a regular worshipper at the targeted mosque, says he wonders whether federal prosecutors would have been more inclined to prosecute Goldstein and his accomplices under terrorism statutes — a move that would have doubled their sentences — if they had been Muslim. “That’s the question we’ve been asking all along,” said Bedier. “His acts fit the definition of terrorism regardless of who’s committing it.”
In fact, Bedier contends, many in Florida’s Muslim community see a marked difference between the way federal prosecutors handled the Goldstein case and the way they handled another alleged ethnically motivated plot, the case of 20-year-old Imran Mandhai of Hollywood, Fla. He was charged last year under terrorism statutes for plotting to blow up a National Guard armory and a power station as part of what he intended as the start of a Muslim holy war. Last October, Mandhai was sentenced to 11 years and eight months in prison. Federal prosecutors, who had hoped to use the sentencing guidelines contained in the terrorism statute to send Mandhai to prison for up to 191 years, have vowed to appeal the sentence.
Even terrorism experts like Harvey Kushner of Long Island University concede that it’s possible a double standard of some sort is at play. There is a vast difference, Kushner argues, between a possibly deranged lone wolf like Goldstein and a member of an organized terror cell, or even a lone Islamic extremist who is influenced by hoping to capitalize on the work of radical jihadists already at war with America. The case of Heshem Hadayet, the Egyptian immigrant who was killed last summer after he opened fire on an El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, is a case in point. Though the Hadayet case has since been reclassified as a terrorist incident, he says, it was initially investigated as a hate crime — a civil rights statute, of the sort under which Goldstein was charged.
The way Kushner sees it, Goldstein lacked an essential element a terrorist needs: the support, either implied or explicit, of the community he purported to represent. All the same, “if you’re saying if the shoe was on the other foot, if this was an Arab trying to blow up a synagogue then he would have [faced] the terrorist charge, you might be right about that.”
Others, like Steven Emerson, the author who has made a career out of tracking Islamic militant groups, insist there is no double standard. “I have no problem calling Goldstein a terrorist, absolutely,” he said. “But where’s the double standard?” In all likelihood, he argued, prosecutors decided they had a better shot at getting Goldstein off the street if they charged him under civil-rights statutes rather than by trying to navigate the uncharted waters of anti-terrorism statutes. What’s more, Emerson said, that’s a calculation that federal prosecutors have made in a number of cases, including cases involving Muslims with alleged links to terrorist groups. “There aren’t that many terrorism charges made. Most of the charges are made on lesser areas [of the law] because it’s easier to convict,” he said.
“If you look at people connected to 9-11, there are people convicted of perjury, of visa violations,” Emerson said. “A visa violation is not exactly a terrorism charge.”
Prosecutors in the Middle District of Florida insist they played no favorites, and did not cut Goldstein a break. He received no special treatment either because he was Jewish or because he was American-born, said Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa.
“We have said from the very beginning, based on the evidence, based on the facts of the case, the appropriate charges were leveled,” Cole said. “We wouldn’t have treated him any differently if he had been another religion, another race. The key thing is that this plot was foiled. Nobody got hurt, and everybody that was connected to it has been arrested and they’re being sent to federal prison.”