By Jason Meisner, Luke Hammill and Frank S. Abderholden
The two friends from far north suburban Zion believed they were helping train and equip fighters for the Islamic State terrorist organization, federal prosecutors say.
Joseph Jones and Edward Schimenti worked out with one purported jihadist at a Zion gym to get him in combat shape and bought cellphones at a local store that they thought would be used as bomb detonators on the battlefield, according to prosecutors.
On Friday they dropped him off at O’Hare International Airport, believing he was traveling to the Middle East to kill “infidels” in the name of Islamic State.
“Drench that land with they, they blood,” Schimenti allegedly said as he and Jones saw the man off at the airport.
What Jones and Schimenti didn’t know was that the purported Islamic State fighter was actually an informant and that the FBI had been investigating them for nearly two years after red-flagging social media posts supporting terrorist activities, according to prosecutors.
Agents arrested Jones and Schimenti, both 35, at their homes at 5 a.m. Wednesday on a criminal complaint charging them with conspiring to provide material support and resources to Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Hours later, they appeared somber and shackled at the ankles in Chicago’s federal court as prosecutors announced that the charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
Jones, dressed in a red hooded sweatshirt and black Nike gym shoes, told U.S. Magistrate Judge David Weisman he worked in the kitchen at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America and attended college part time. Schimenti, dressed in a purple T-shirt and sporting a heavy beard, said he worked in customer service.
After court, Schimenti’s mother, Joni Schimenti, told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse that she and her son were sleeping at home when agents armed with rifles stormed in and made the arrest. She said her son “is no terrorist.”
“It’s ridiculous. … Eddie’s not like that,” she said.
Reached by phone Wednesday at their St. Louis-area home, Jones’ parents expressed shock over the charges, saying their son had been working as a dietary cook and took care of his family, including a wife and young son. They said they were aware their son, who was raised Christian, had converted to Islam but didn’t know “to what degree.”
“We didn’t know he was radicalized like that,” said his father, Wayne Jones. “We did not raise our children like that, and we don’t believe in that.”
Jones’ maternal grandmother, Earline McCullough, 72, of St. Louis, said Jones had been an Army “brat” in his youth — his father served in the Army for more than 16 years — and that the family lived in Europe and elsewhere during that time. Jones is one of three siblings, she said.
“I am surprised,” McCullough said. “Because I just saw Joe not too long ago, some months ago, when he came down to visit with his wife and his children, and I fixed dinner for them.”
According to the 77-page complaint unsealed Wednesday, Jones, also known as Yusuf Abdulhaqq, and Schimenti, who also went by the name Abdul Wali, pledged their allegiance to Islamic State and advocated on social media for violent extremism in support of the terrorist group.
In meetings with informants and undercover agents in Chicago and across the suburbs, the two were captured speaking in glowing terms about Islamic State-inspired events, including the 2015 attacks in Paris, where gunmen killed 128, as well as an incident last year when a terrorist drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12, according to the complaint.
At one point, Jones and Schimenti shared photographs of themselves wearing head coverings and holding the Islamic State flag at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, according to the complaint.
In recorded conversations, Schimenti also spoke wistfully of having Islamic State’s stark brand of Islamic law implemented in the U.S., saying he’d like to see homosexuals dropped from the top of Willis Tower and the ISIS flag “on top of the White House,” the complaint states.
Schimenti also had a penchant for Islamic State propaganda — from beheading videos to recordings of mass executions, according to the charges.
In one clip shown by Schimenti to an undercover informant, a young boy beheads a prisoner whose hands are tied behind his back, according to the complaint.
The investigation began in September 2015, when an undercover agent posing as a motorist arrested in a traffic-related incident approached Jones at the Zion Police Department, where Jones was being interviewed about the recent slaying of a friend, according to the charges.
That undercover agent in turn introduced Jones and Schimenti to others who were posing as Islamic State devotees, including the informant who they believed was going to travel to the Middle East to join Islamic State ranks, according to the charges.
In February, Schimenti took the informant to a gym in Zion to train for the battlefield, the complaint says. Remarking on his own weight problem, Schimenti said on an undercover recording from the gym that what mattered most in jihad was “hand-to-hand” combat skills, not physical fitness.
“Man, you know I’m all big, fat,” Schimenti. “But (God willing) the brothers will just have me be the one to cut the neck.”
Although the charges do not allege the two participated in any violence, Schimenti talked with the informant about future plans to attack Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, a short distance from his home, the complaint alleged.
Driving back from the gym one day in March, Schimenti told the informant he was “thinking one day (God willing)” of attacking the naval graduation that takes place on the base, according to the complaint. “So pray I get the faith.”
The recordings and social media postings detailed in the complaint made it clear that both Jones and Schimenti knew they were likely being watched by federal investigators but went along with the plot anyway.
As far back as 2014, Schimenti posted on a Facebook account he was affiliated with that he had spotted two “spies” trying to goad him into talking about his terrorism ties, the charges alleged.
“2 the CIA on Facebook, Muslims are a lil smarter,” he wrote, according to the complaint. “Just had convo’s w/2spies playing good cop/bad cop asking about my allegiance.”
Jones and Schimenti were known at one local mosque as having militant views of their religion. Junayd Latif, outreach coordinator for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in Zion, said that while neither was a member of his mosque, he knew them both from the community.
“We had discussions about philosophy of Islam, and they leaned toward a more militant form of Islam,” Latif said. “But I had no idea they would do anything like this. … I can’t say enough how sad it is that people are drawn to this type of action.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Lake County Black Lives Matter Movement recognized Schimenti from a belligerent rant he went on during a 2015 rally for Justus Howell, who was shot by Zion police.
“I remember him — we had to take the mike away from him because he was too radical,” Clyde McLemore said Wednesday. “In his speech he said ‘kill the police’ and he talked about blowing up the police station.”
McLemore said the group banned Schimenti from any future events.
“We protest peacefully,” he said.