WASHINGTON — The succession of shootings occurred in the middle of the night, each targeting Washington-area military buildings like the Pentagon and Marine Corps museum. No one was hurt, but the sporadic reports of fired shots nearly two years ago startled a Washington community constantly on edge about terrorism.
The FBI made a public appeal for the suspect's surrender, but the big break didn't come until June 2011, when Yonathan Melaku was caught trespassing after dark in Arlington National Cemetery. The investigation is one of several investigations into terrorism or hate crimes that are being honored Monday night at the annual Shield Award ceremony for the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats bigotry and anti-Semitism.
Melaku, a Marine Corps reservist, had ammonium nitrate, a common bomb-making material, in his backpack, a notebook containing references to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and spent shell casings that were the same brand as those used in the shootings. He pleaded guilty to the military target shootings and is awaiting sentencing as lawyers debate his mental health.
"If you go back to the five or six incidents, we knew we had an individual who had, based on historical events, the potential to escalate his involvement," said James McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office.
Other cases being noted by the ADL include the convictions of Antonio Martinez, who was arrested by the FBI in 2010 after trying to detonate what he thought was a car bomb outside a National Guard recruiting station in suburban Baltimore; Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death who is serving a 25-year prison sentence; and the successful prosecution of a man convicted of tire-slashing vandalism in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood of Montgomery County, Md. Authorities who prosecuted a North Carolina terrorism ring are also being honored.
In the vandalism case, prosecutors secured a conviction against Steven Armstrong, who they said was motivated by bigotry against Hispanics in puncturing or slashing the tires of about 18 victims over a four-year period.
"The victims in this case are singled out for something they can't change — essentially the color of their skin," said Curtis Zeager, an assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case.
Zeager said he and others went door-to-door to try to encourage apparently wary victims to come forward and assist with the investigation.
"When we get crimes such as this in our neighborhoods, it works to divide our neighborhoods rather than bring them together. We've taken a horrible incident and turned it around," said Montgomery County police Capt. John Damskey.
"This turned into the catalyst to bring a community closer together. We got neighbors who hadn't communicated with each other before. They now know each other. They now talk."