WASHINGTON — Michael Curtis Reynolds, headed to trial for an alleged plot to blow up the Alaska pipeline, said he was actually a patriotic American trolling for terrorists on the Internet.
So was the Montana soccer mom whose cyber-spy moonlighting led to Reynolds' arrest two years ago during a clandestine money drop at a deserted highway rest area outside Pocatello, Idaho.
Their online meetings in October 2005 sparked an elaborate FBI sting that will culminate in Reynolds' trial July 9 in a federal courtroom in Scranton, Pa. That's not far from Wilkes-Barre, where the 49-year-old jack-of-all-trades lived with his mother — and allegedly boasted of connections to al Qaida.
Reynolds' case is one of a series of alleged plots involving home-grown jihadists — some of questionable means and ability — since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But terrorism experts say they can't take anything for granted in cases like Reynolds'.
"You have to take every one of these seriously," said Neil Livingstone, a Washington-based security consultant who has studied the Alaska pipeline. "Some are just fantasists. Some are 'wanna-bes.' Most never get there. But the problem is you can have someone like the Unabomber," convicted Montana bomber Ted Kaczynski.
Reynolds' case, in particular, has brought renewed attention to the 800-mile-long Alaska pipeline, the target of several amateur attacks since it first started carrying North Slope oil 30 years ago this month.
It also underscores the stakes in the debate in Congress over energy security, efficiency and shoring up domestic production to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
Reynolds' mustachioed mug shot now provides a new face to the threat of domestic terrorism.
The risks of a post-9/11 world have been underscored in recent months by the arrests of four Muslims from the Caribbean charged in a plot to sabotage fuel supplies at New York's JFK airport, as well as six others arrested on charges of plotting to attack the Fort Dix army base in New Jersey. Those cases followed last year's arrests of seven men in Florida who allegedly planned to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago.
Reynolds' purported scheme, like many of the rest, never came close to being hatched.
Thomas Marino, U.S. attorney for the middle district of Pennsylvania, issued a statement praising the FBI for intervening early and stopping Reynolds from "following through" with his plans, which allegedly included sabotage of a number of U.S. energy installations besides the Alaska pipeline.
Reynolds, who has dismissed several court-appointed attorneys, is representing himself at his trial.
In a handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik this month, Reynolds accused Justice Department officials of fabricating evidence against him for political gain.
"Don't think for a minute that I would permit this court to railroad me for publicity," he wrote. "I won't be convicted no matter what laws you break. Give it up; send me home now. You yourself know for a fact that I will embarrass the FBI and I've already won."
Justice officials and Reynolds' court-appointed stand-in attorney, Joseph O'Brien, declined to comment, citing a gag order by the judge.
The case against Reynolds will rely in great part on the testimony of Shannen Rossmiller, a 38-year-old mother of three who turned out to be the online "al Qaida" contact who arranged to give Reynolds $40,000 at a rest stop on Idaho's Interstate 15.
Rossmiller, a former Montana municipal judge, has made a name for herself as an online chameleon trolling Muslim Web sites and Internet chat rooms — primarily in Arabic — at night for would-be terrorist plotters and schemers.
Federal law enforcement officials decline to discuss her publicly, but they have shown an interest in her work before.
She first came to light in 2004, when her testimony helped convict Spc. Ryan Anderson, a National Guardsman at Fort Lewis, Wash., whom she spotted on an Arabic Internet forum shortly before he was slated for deployment to Iraq.
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Rossmiller described herself as an all-American mother whose patriotism shifted into overdrive after 9/11.
"I felt the same emotion as many other Americans," she said. "I was always patriotic. But I didn't realize until 9/11 how important it was."
She devoted herself to learning Arabic and visiting jihadist Web sites. "It was just fascinating what I was looking at and reading," she said.
But it was on an English-language Yahoo chat group called OBLcrew (Osama Bin Laden Crew) that Rossmiller says she encountered Reynolds. He was using the moniker "Fritz Mueller."
Reynolds would later tell authorities he was doing the same thing as Rossmiller — trying to smoke out terrorists.
But a six-count federal indictment paints a different picture. Based partly on Reynolds' Internet communications with Rossmiller, federal officials charge that he tried to retrieve $40,000 "that he believed constituted payment from al Qaida in exchange for his services."
Those services allegedly included recruiting al Qaida "crews" to strike at gas pipelines in Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wyoming.
Part of Reynolds' motivation, according to one e-mail he sent to Rossmiller, was to undermine one of President Bush's frequent justifications for the war in Iraq: "The fuel is here, hes hanging on to the press backing him on the claim that since he waged war, no terrorist attacks have been successful, hence the war is just."
Reynolds was staying at the Thunderbird Hotel in Pocatello on Dec. 5, 2005, when he was arrested at the intended highway rendezvous outside of town. He's been in jail ever since.
Neither Rossmiller nor federal officials will say whether Reynolds ever got to Alaska. "That will come out in court," Rossmiller said.
There is evidence that he traveled to Thailand and Australia, though it's unclear why.
Richard Danise, Reynolds' ex-father in law, was once quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer calling him a "John Wayne wanna-be."
Rossmiller said it's not her job to assess whether Reynolds posed a threat.
"It's not my place to judge that, or I'd be acting like a vigilante — judge, jury and prosecutor," she said. "The guy might not have a full deck, but he's got the means available to him. He can act on his emotions."
Reynolds has a record of violence, including a 1978 conviction for attempted arson, allegedly as part of a feud with his parents. Also among the pending charges against him: illegal possession of hand grenades.
Despite questions about his mental health, he was found competent to stand trial this year.
Meanwhile, Alaska pipeline officials remain on guard, mindful of an unsolved intentional explosion in 1978 near Fairbanks, as well as a 2001 incident in which a drunken gunman shot a hole into the pipeline near Livengood.
"We are aware that we are a major energy infrastructure," said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates and maintains the pipeline. "We work closely with all the homeland security agencies."