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U.S. district court document image of Patrik Mathews, left, and Brian Lemley leaving a store in Delaware after purchasing approximately 150 rounds of 5.56mm ammunition and paper shooting targets.AEly/Courtesy of manufacturer

The ex-Canadian Armed Forces reservist convicted of gun charges linked to what the FBI called a neo-Nazi plot to attack a gun-rights rally in Virginia is facing up to 25 years behind bars, a judge decided Monday.

Patrik Mathews, 28, of Beausejour, Man., showed little emotion when U.S. District Court Justice Theodore Chuang agreed to the prosecution’s request for a “terrorism enhancement” at sentencing later this week.

Mr. Mathews’ co-defendant, U.S. army veteran Brian Mark Lemley Jr., slumped his shoulders and later slouched out of the courtroom after Justice Chuang decided that the pair’s crimes fit the criteria of “promoting” a federal terrorism offence.

Mr. Mathews, sporting long brown hair that reached past his shoulders and a scruffy, unkempt beard underneath his face mask, looked fully engaged throughout the daylong hearing, but had no visible reaction to Justice Chuang’s ruling.

Since their arrest in January, 2020, court has heard ample evidence of the pair talking in stark terms about killing federal officials, derailing trains and poisoning water supplies as part of a violent, disruptive scheme to exploit political and social tensions and trigger a race war in the United States.

At the centre of the plot was a massive rally by gun-rights activists at the state capitol in Richmond., Va., where the two – both members of the white supremacist group The Base – were counting on clashes between police and tens of thousands of heavily armed protesters angry about proposed gun control measures.

Their conversations, text exchanges and planning – much of it captured through FBI wiretaps, so-called “sneak-and-peek” warrants and the use of undercover officers – comprised much more than just the “wishes and hopes and far-flung fantasies” of a pair of “wide-eyed neophytes,” Justice Chuang said.

Rather, they were “specific, serious and calculating in the actions they intended to perpetuate,” he said.

“This was not just talk. There was intent to move forward with this type of terrorist activity.”

Both men pleaded guilty in June to charges that included illegally transporting a firearm and obstruction of justice. A third co-defendant, William Garfield Bilbrough IV, pleaded guilty in December to helping Mr. Mathews enter the U.S. illegally. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Earlier in the day, their lawyers did their best to dismiss the scheme, which they conceded was hate-filled and disturbing, as little more than the idle chatter and braggadocio of a pair of deeply troubled and alienated young men with twisted beliefs and an affinity for guns.

Mr. Mathews’ lawyer, Joseph Balter, drew direct parallels with the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill when he told court the world is a very different place than it was two years ago.

“The rhetoric and hyperbole has been ramped up,” Mr. Balter said. “It doesn’t look as exceptional as it did when I first picked up this case two years ago.”

Similar cases where the enhancement has been applied were comprised exclusively of “people being punished for what they did,” he added, “not what they said.”

Mr. Lemley’s lawyer Ned Smock cited the government’s own transcripts of conversations with an undercover operative to argue the pair were already backing away from the idea before they were arrested, planning instead to attend a Base gathering in a different part of the country.

“What you see in these conversations is there is not an intent to be in Virginia, and in fact they are going to Michigan to be at this Base event,” Mr. Smock said.

The Virginia rally has “been the essence of the government’s theory from the beginning of this case, and we now know it’s not accurate.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom dismissed that argument, pointing to the physical evidence that was recovered by investigators from the pair’s Delaware apartment.

He walked FBI Special Agent Rachid Harrison through the collection, including two assault-style rifles – one a “ghost gun” assembled from aftermarket parts to make it impossible to trace.

Other items included long-distance rifle scopes, thermal optics and night-vision equipment, as well as ammunition, military rations and a variety of camouflage garments, many sporting the Base’s logo.

The evidence “shows it’s more than idle talk there’s a core purpose,” Windom said.

“It defies common sense to suggest we shouldn’t believe they intended to go and commit federal crimes of terrorism they’re not going to Michigan for the weekend with three to five months of food.”

He quoted from text messages and transcripts to show Mathews firmly believed in the principles of white supremacy, describing “affirmative action” as a policy designed “to subjugate white people.”

“‘We’re the bad guys already to them,”' Windom quoted Mathews as saying. “‘I think it’s time we became the bad guys. They think we’re white-supremacist terrorists – let’s give them what they want, give them what they deserve.”’

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