Crime & Courts

Man accused in Wichita airport bomb plot pleads guilty

Clean shaven and clad in a bright orange Sedgwick County Jail jumpsuit, Terry L. Loewen appeared before a federal judge on Monday and pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Loewen, 59, who has been in custody for a year and a half, was arrested in December 2013 after bringing a van filled with inert explosives onto the tarmac at what was then Mid-Continent Airport in an attempted suicide attack.

His arrest capped a months-long sting operation in which undercover FBI agents posed online as co-conspirators.

Loewen is a former Hawker Beechcraft avionics technician with a high school education.

During the plea hearing Monday, Loewen candidly told the court he is on a number of medications, and he assured the judge that he was of sound mind and making the plea on his own. He said he had depression and sleep paralysis, which required taking Zoloft.

By taking the plea agreement, Loewen gives up the right to a trial by jury, which would have to decide whether the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to commit a crime and that he had taken substantial steps to commit a crime.

A trial had been scheduled for this summer.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot is hearing the case. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 31, Belot said.

Under the plea agreement with the government, Loewen would face 20 years in federal prison without parole and the rest of his life under supervised release.

At the plea hearing Monday, Belot said he would almost certainly go along with the proposed sentence. If he doesn’t, he told Loewen at the hearing, then he would give Loewen the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea.

Loewen had also been charged with attempting to use an explosive device to damage property and attempting to give material support to al-Qaida. Those charges were dismissed as part of the agreement.

He previously pleaded not guilty to all three counts.

When asked by Belot whether he was satisfied with his attorney representation, Loewen said, “Absolutely.”

Loewen’s attorney refused to comment after the hearing.

“Protecting the American people from terrorism is our primary mission,” said U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom in a statement on behalf of the government. “It is vital that we disrupt attacks against our homeland and bring terrorists to justice.”

After the hearing, Loewen was handcuffed and escorted from the court. He slowly turned and smiled at those present in the courtroom.

In previous court filings, Loewen’s defense attorneys contended there is strong evidence of government entrapment and that the case should be thrown out before it goes to a jury.

Authorities said Loewen planned to pull the trigger on the explosives himself and to die in the explosion. Loewen was taken into custody when he tried to open a security access gate.

Loewen’s attorneys have previously called into question the government’s methodology for finding Loewen, citing concerns that agents may have come across Loewen before their investigation under “constitutionally questionable practices” by agencies of the federal government. The defense noted that programs such as the collection of massive amounts of metadata have been called into question on Fourth Amendment grounds of unreasonable search and seizure.

Earlier this year, the judge in the case ruled that the government does not have to disclose whether mass surveillance led investigators to Loewen. The possible existence of that evidence has been an issue in the terrorism case.

Redacted court filings do not indicate exactly how the government zeroed in on Loewen, but Belot noted that prosecutors have already turned over documents indicating the government monitored the defendant’s e-mail and Facebook postings.

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle