A King Salmon weatherman and his British-born, stay-at-home wife, the first people to face a domestic terrorism case in Alaska, on Wednesday pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a jihadist hit list.
Red-bearded Paul Gene Rockwood Jr., 35, a convert to Islam and a follower of a radical, anti-American cleric, faces an eight-year prison sentence -- the maximum -- under his plea deal. Nadia Piroska Maria Rockwood, 36, a dual U.S. and British citizen, is set to get five years probation, which she will be allowed to serve in Great Britain.
The blue-eyed couple admitted in back-to-back hearings in U.S. District Court that they misled counter-terrorism agents in Anchorage about the source and nature of an assassination list containing the names of about 15 people in the Lower 48 they deemed enemies of Islam.
Charging documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's office said Paul Rockwood drew up the hit list based on websites he read while a federal employee in King Salmon and considered shooting his targets or sending them package bombs. On a visit to Anchorage in April, Nadia Rockwood delivered the list to an unnamed person, and it somehow found its way to the FBI. The couple was interrogated about the list on May 19, which is when they lied, according to charging documents and their admissions.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline set sentencing for Aug. 23. He withheld his decision about whether he will accept the plea deals. If he doesn't, or decides to send Nadia Rockwood to prison, the couple can withdraw their pleas and go to trial. Lying to a federal agent normally carries a maximum five-year penalty, but three years can be added if the lying concerned domestic terrorism.
Nadia Rockwood is five months pregnant with the couple's second child. Their 4-year-old boy came to court with his Batman backpack and a set of crayons and watched his parents enter their pleas from a back bench.
As the surprising case unfolded Wednesday, many questions were left unanswered. For instance, though officials knew about the hit list around the time that Nadia Rockwood brought it to Anchorage in April and they confronted the couple about it May 19, neither was ever taken into custody. After leaving King Salmon several months ago, they lived a relatively normal life in Anchorage until Paul Rockwood was led away to jail following his guilty plea Wednesday. Prosecutors agreed that Nadia Rockwood could remain free without having to post a cash bond.
At a news conference after the hearings, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler and the head of Anchorage FBI office, Kevin Fryslie, declined to say why neither was jailed during the previous months. Fryslie said steps were taken to protect the targets on the list but wouldn't go into details.
There was also no information about who was on the list, other than a statement in the charges that some might have been U.S. military personnel. The list might have included institutions -- at one place in Paul Rockwood's plea agreement, prosecutors said the list contained "names and entities."
Loeffler and Fryslie wouldn't elaborate on the identities.
As victims, the people on the list were given a telephone number to call into court to listen to the proceedings, and five did. The court clerk advised them not to provide their names because they could be heard in open court. As they announced they were on line, four sounded like men and one appeared to be a woman.
The plea agreement said that Paul Rockwood gave his wife the list in April to deliver it in Anchorage to another person "who Paul Rockwood believed shared his beliefs." Neither the documents, nor Loeffler and Frylie, said whether that person was an agent, informant or someone else. Also secret was how the list got from that person to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Anchorage.
Did either Rockwood take any actions to further an assassination plot other than to draw up a list and read about making bombs? Loeffler wouldn't say.
"Obviously the case went beyond simply going on the Web and looking at sites, because that is First Amendment (protected) speech," Loeffler said. "But when it got to handing out a target list and talking about taking action -- that's all that we have in the plea agreement, and I won't go beyond that."
Paul Rockwood is specifically charged with denying at the May 19 meeting that he created the list, denying the purpose of the list and denying ever having such a list of names. Nadia Rockwood denied delivering a hit list, telling the FBI it was only a book and an ordinary letter.
In court, both defendants spoke clearly and directly, though they declined the judge's offer to give any statements other than yes or no answers to his questions. Nadia Rockwood spoke with a distinct middle-class English accent.
According to the charging documents, Rockwood was living in Virginia when he converted to Islam in late 2001 or early 2002. He soon became an adherent of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a jihadist born in Las Cruces, N.M., and now believed to be hiding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki met with some of the 9/11 hijackers and has solicited jihadists for al-Qaeda over Internet sites.
In 2006, the Rockwoods moved to King Salmon, a fishing town thick with government workers in the Bristol Bay region, about 280 miles southwest of Anchorage. Jim Wendt, Nadia Rockwood's appointed attorney, said the National Weather Service paid for the move.
In King Salmon, population 380, Nadia Rockwood quickly found friends among other young mothers. The circle of friends gathered for crafting sessions and subsistence setnet fishing, knitting and berry picking, said Rebecca Hamon, who spent time with Nadia Rockwood several times a week and talked to her daily.
Early on, Nadia Rockwood told friends that she and Paul were Muslims, but the couple never went out of their way to talk religion or politics, Hamon said. "It was never a feeling that these were radical people at all."
The Rockwoods lived in government housing with other federal employees as neighbors, residents said. Nadia Rockwood sang in the community choir and taught ballet. The couple worked to start deliveries of fresh produce to remote town from farms in Washington state, Hamon said. When the fruit and vegetables arrived, the Rockwoods would leave their garage unlocked and produce club members would stop by to pick up their boxes.
Nadia Rockwood was one of the first to join a fledging theater group that started in the community about a year ago, Hamon said. Their first play was a comedy about the big bad wolf standing trial for harassing other fairy tale characters, she said. Nadia Rockwood played the fairy godmother.
"She really threw herself into everything that's available in a town like this," Hamon said. Others knew her as the lady selling cotton candy and hot chocolate to raise money for the theater at school functions.
Paul Rockwood, meantime, worked odd hours at the National Weather Service and wasn't as visible around town. Hamon said she didn't know who his close friends or hunting partners might be. He liked fishing and seemed to be a good husband, she said.
Sometimes the couple brought their maroon Chevy Suburban to Terry's Repair, where mechanic Terry Stichler would patch up the old vehicle. Paul Rockwood wasn't especially social -- he never showed up at the taverns, where alcohol is taboo for Muslims -- but seemed like a decent enough guy, Stichler said. "He sure didn't seem like a terrorist to me."
Until mid-May -- about the time that the FBI met with the couple -- Paul Rockwood worked as a Weather Service technician, said Debra Elliot, an official with the agency there. His job included observing the weather and writing short-term forecasts, she said.
"He was a good employee. I didn't have any problems with him," Elliott said.
Neither did the police. The only time the Bristol Bay Borough Police Department came into contact with the couple was when they once complained of a loose dog in their neighborhood, said Chief Rodney Enevoldsen.
But when it was time for the theater group to start rehearsing for its next performance in March, Nadia Rockwood had already told friends the couple was moving out of Alaska.
Paul Rockwood complained of health problems and needed treatment out of state, Hamon recalled. The couple said they planned to visit his parents on the East Coast and then move to England, where her mother lived.
"There were probably 30 people that came to the airport to see them off, and we were all crying," Hamon said.
Hamon said she's shocked by the charges against the couple. "I absolutely know nothing about these people that would ever have caused me to believe anything that I'm hearing now, and we only feel very sad about what we're hearing is happening in Anchorage."
Adal Raja, 25, said he met the Rockwoods in Anchorage and helped them with food. He and Paul Rockwood would pray together and talk, he said. Raja said he never heard Rockwood threaten anyone. They talked about everyday stuff, he said.