A Hollywood man accused of trying to blow up an Aventura synagogue pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday and now faces a potential prison sentence of up to 25 years.
James Gonzalo Medina, 41, was arrested in April of last year on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center during Passover services. Medina was also charged with a hate crime, attempting to damage religious property.
The actual bomb — sold to him in Hallandale Beach by an FBI undercover operative just before the planned terror attack — was a dummy, authorities said.
During Wednesday's hearing in Miami, Medina seemed reluctant to accept responsibility for the planned synagogue terror attack, suggesting he was “manipulated” by a federal confidential informant and an FBI undercover employee. But when questioned repeatedly by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola, Medina admitted he was guilty of plotting the bombing to kill innocent Jewish people — with the goal of publicizing the deadly attack to give credit to the terrorist group ISIS.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“Yes, I'm guilty, I'm guilty,” Medina told the judge, who then asked him again if he wanted to plead guilty. “Yes,” he said.
Medina, who has mental health problems but was found competent to stand trial, pleaded guilty to the two charges in his indictment. But in doing so, he avoided a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. Under the terms of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors Marc Anton and Michael Thakur and public defenders Hector Dopico and Eric Cohen jointly recommended a maximum prison term of 25 years.
Under a side agreement, prosecutors also said they would not oppose the defense's option to request that Medina be sentenced to a prison with a mental health facility for a life term so he could receive treatment for his schizophrenia and bipolar conditions. But after receiving that treatment, Medina could be transferred back to a regular prison and would only serve up to 25 years in total, according to the agreement.
His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 17 before Judge Scola.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Medina told the judge that he preferred the option of getting treatment in a prison with a mental health ward. “I do need to be sent to a mental institute,” he said. “I have been Baker-Acted before, so I'm willing to take the offer.”
During the undercover investigation in spring of last year, a federal confidential informant met with Medina and two of his associates and discussed the attack plan on the synagogue at 20400 NE 30th Ave. for the first time, according to a plea statement and a previous FBI affidavit. Medina initially wanted to execute the rampage with an AK-47 assault rifle but shifted to a bomb plot.
In April 2016, Medina talked about the timing of the assault with the FBI informant, suggesting it could be carried out on the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur — not realizing the upcoming holiday was Passover, the documents said.
“That’ll be a good day to go and bomb them,” said Medina, who was recorded by the informant.
Then, the conversation turned to who would claim responsibility for it. Medina said he liked the informant’s idea of using the name of a notorious terrorist group — ISIS — to assume responsibility. “Yeah, we can print up or something and make it look like it’s ISIS here in America,” he said.”Just like that.”
Medina, who told the informant he had converted to Islam four years ago, said the planned attack would inspire other Muslims. “It’s a war, man, and like it’s time to strike back here in America,” he said.
An FBI undercover employee introduced to Medina questioned him about his resolve to carry out the deadly plot. “You’re sure this is something you want to do?” the employee asked. Medina answered: “I feel like it’s my calling,” adding that he was “comfortable” with killing innocent women and children.
The employee sold Medina an “inert” bomb in a Hallandale Beach parking lot, and together they drove to the synagogue. Medina exited the car and carried what he believed to be an explosive device. He was arrested by FBI agents as he attempted to place it near the synagogue.