An Alexandria, Va., man admitted in federal court Thursday that he fired live rounds into the Pentagon and three other government buildings and planned to desecrate graves at Arlington National Cemetery in support of Islamic militants overseas.
Yonathan Melaku pleaded guilty to damaging government property, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, and attempting to damage a veterans’ memorial.
Under the terms of a plea agreement, prosecutors will request a 25-year prison sentence. In addition, Mr. Melaku faces up to $750,000 in fines and restitution of $111,215.98 for the damage he caused to buildings and windows.
US District Judge Bruce Lee accepted Melaku’s plea and set sentencing for April 27 in federal court in Alexandria.
The shootings in the fall of 2010 attracted the attention of the national media and created a perplexing mystery as federal agents attempted to discover who was carrying out the late-night/early morning shootings. No one was injured, but the buildings sustained damage.
In a statement of facts accepted by the court, Melaku acknowledged using a 9mm semi-automatic handgun to carry out the attacks.
On Oct. 17, 2010, he fired ten rounds from the handgun at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va. The shots were fired out his car window as he drove past the building on Interstate 95. Bullet holes were later discovered in several windows and the base of the building.
Two nights later, Melaku fired several shots at the Pentagon from his car while in the vicinity of Interstate 395. The bullets hit the south side of the structure and penetrated the outer layer of the protective windows on the third and fourth floor.
On Oct. 29, he returned to the Marine Corps Museum and again fired his pistol from his car while traveling on I-95. This time, he recorded the attack on a video camera.
Federal agents later recovered the tape.
It is narrated by Melaku: “That’s a military building and that’s the building I’m going to be targeting.… Last time I hit them, they turned off the lights for like … four or five days.… Punks!”
He added: “Now here we go again. This time I’m gonna turn it off permanently. Alright. Alright. Next time I turn on this video I’m going to be shooting them.”
The video captures the shooting, including how Melaku ended the assault, by declaring: “Allahu Akbar,” several times.
The break in the case came eight months later, at 1:30 a.m. on June 17, 2011, when law enforcement officers arrested Melaku near Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. Shortly before his arrest he dropped a backpack.
Inside the pack, officials found a significant quantity of spent shell casings, four plastic bags each with five pounds of ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient in homemade bombs), black spray paint, and a notebook with Arabic statements referring to Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and “The Path to Jihad.”
Investigators later discovered in Melaku’s home a list of materials to build a triggering device for a bomb. Four of the nine listed items were crossed off.
Forensic technicians were able to verify that bullets and bullet fragments recovered at each of the five shootings had been fired from Melaku’s semi-automatic pistol.
“Yonathan Melaku pled guilty to carrying out a calculated, destructive campaign to instill terror throughout our community,” said US Attorney Neil MacBride, in a statement. “The video he filmed during one drive-by shooting is a chilling portrayal of his intent and the escalating danger he posed.”