A recently concluded criminal case in Nevada details how a teenager and aspiring U.S. Marine amassed an arsenal of weapons, built bombs, talked about shooting school kids, disparaged women and formed a militia cell.
Steven Matthew Fernandes, 19, was sentenced yesterday in Las Vegas to 15 months in prison for possessing an illegal firearm – a homemade bomb – as part of a plea bargain that saw prosecutors dismiss two other charges. The teen avoided an “exceptional sentence” and what could have been several years in prison.
In entering his guilty plea two months ago, Fernandes confessed to transporting and exploding his homemade bombs in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
His attorney, Crystal Eller, argued in court filings that Fernandes was “brainwashed” while attending a military preparedness school, D.O.A. Tactical, based in St. George, Utah, about 120 miles from Las Vegas.
But the owner of the business, Brent Roberts, told Hatewatch those arguments are “outrageous falsehoods.”
“This young man was heading down this road long before he and his mother enrolled in our courses,” Roberts said. “This kid’s problems rest in the family setting.”
“At no time did we abuse him or brainwash him,” Roberts said. “We now know that he was under criminal investigation when he enrolled in our courses. This is 100 percent unfair and unjustified.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas D. Dickinson called it a “difficult case.”
Fernandes’ illegal conduct combined with his “bizarre behavior and troubling statements presents an individual who appears to be a danger to the community,” the federal prosecutor said in a sentencing memorandum for the court.
U.S. District Judge Andrew P. Gordon went along with the terms of the plea deal in imposing the 15-month prison term and three years of supervised release. Fernandes will be subject to mental health and substance abuse treatment during the supervised release period.
Fernandes claimed he was a member of the Southern Nevada Militia when he was arrested by the FBI in September 2012 on charges of possessing an unregistered firearm, illegally making firearms and transportation of explosive material.
He struck a plea bargain last September, pleading guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm. He confessed to making bombs at his house in Las Vegas and transporting them to remote locations in Nevada, Utah and Arizona where he detonated them.
The FBI recovered five rifles, four handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and bomb-building materials and instructions from his bedroom, where his mother had installed a deadbolt on the room of the family’s home in Las Vegas to keep the suspect’s two younger sisters away from the arsenal.
Eller, Fernandes’ attorney, said her client “considers himself a patriot” and was intending to join the U.S. Marine Corps when he enrolled in a private training program operated by D.O.A. Tactical.
“Unfortunately, as it turned out, the trainers and owners of D.O.A. were more like opportunistic oddities than skilled survival and self-defense instructors,” the defense attorney told the court. “Their talent was much more honed toward taking advantage of worried mothers than they were at teaching combat preparedness.”
Her client is an “especially gullible and loyal young man” who “came from a broken home with a series of physically and emotionally abusive step-fathers and mother’s boyfriends,” and “his only positive male role model” was his grandfather, a Korean War veteran who had recently died, Eller said in the court document.
“The operators of D.O.A. were exploitative, selfish, and unaware of the impact their position could have on a young man like Steven reaching out for a father figure,” the defense attorney said. To make him “feel like one of the guys,” they engaged in “inappropriate humor degrading women, making crude jokes and sexual innuendos.”
“It also included a running theme of jokes called ‘dead baby jokes,’” the defense attorney said without further explanation.
The company’s “brain washing techniques (included) spraying him directly in the eyes with both mace and paper spray combined, then requiring him to attempt to complete a series of tasks while water was poured on his face causing the burning toxic chemicals to run down his chest and into his pants.”
In spite of the abuse, the attorney said her client “wanted nothing more than to be a good soldier,” so he began researching how to make explosive devices, made Internet postings claiming to be a militia leader and made “disturbing comments” about women, babies and mass shootings such as Columbine, Colo.”
“The owners/trainers of D.O.A. Tactical created the proverbial Frankenstein’s Monster, and when they worried that they couldn’t control him, they called the FBI, and asked the Federal Government to take responsibility for the ‘problem’ they had created,” Eller said. “Then these D.O.A. instructors volunteered to become confidential informants in the case and recorded conversations with Steven wherein they solicited the majority of the offensive statements.”
Her client “was misguided into the dangerous, flawed thinking that lead him to make disturbing statements, build explosive devices and post outrageous claims on the Internet by the very same people who became the prosecution’s primary witnesses,” Eller said.
Sharp disagreement came from the owner of the tactical training company, Roberts, who said he didn’t personally contact or cooperate with the FBI and severed contact with Fernandes and his family when the teenager began making sexually inappropriate comments.
“When they catch the kid before something really bad happens, like here, they want to blame everyone else,” Roberts told Hatewatch. “If this kid had actually done these things, they would have blamed the parents.”
“We were trying to help this kid get into the military because we didn’t see that he had many other options,” Roberts said. “Steven had a fascination with firearms before he came to us. We met him and his mother at gun show. In no way would I teach anyone how to build an explosive device. Never.”
In other court documents, federal authorities said Fernandes’ familiarity with firearms stemmed from his involvement with a Boy Scout law enforcement “Explorer Post.” Fernandes made at least 69 pipe bombs and talked about building poisonous chlorine gas bombs, using a “special purchasing code” from his high school to buy restricted chemicals from suppliers, the documents say.