NEW YORK (AP) — A former US Army private from Kentucky who was devoted to a violent extremist group seeking to erode or destroy Western civilization was sentenced to the maximum 45 years in prison Friday for plotting a murderous terrorist attack on his paratrooper unit.
Ethan Melzer’s hands trembled as the judge said he deserved the maximum because of the lasting harm he caused by sharing US military secrets with other followers of a radical violent group known as the Order of Nine Angles, or 09A, and other terrorist groups.
US District Judge Gregory H. Woods rejected the 24-year-old’s claim to be a remorseful, reformed man, saying it was more likely he was “playing another role” in pursuit of leniency just as he had “played soldier” so he could conspire to try to murder fellow paratroopers.
Melzer’s lawyers had asked that he get no more than 15 years behind bars. He pleaded guilty last June to trying to murder service members, supporting terrorists and illegally transmitting defense information.
“I still regret everything I did,” Melzer told the judge before his sentence was announced. He said he wished “I could say I’m sorry to my platoon” and wanted to show he could still be a productive member of society.
Shackled at the ankles, Melzer, of Louisville, Kentucky, was later escorted from the courtroom by deputy US marshals.
Without a plea deal, Melzer could have faced a life prison term.
Calling Melzer a traitor, Assistant US Attorney Matthew Hellman said his actions constituted “one of the most stunning betrayals from within the ranks of the armed forces … ever to be prosecuted in a federal court.”
Capt. Joshua Kraus, a military intelligence officer, told the judge Melzer created a “psychological cancer” within his unit as the trust soldiers must put in their commanders and fellow service members was thrown into question with his May 30, 2020, arrest as his platoon was about to board buses to Italy.
The unit was heading to a military base where they were to guard an isolated and sensitive military installation.
Kraus said information Melzer shared online “with our sworn enemies” will never be able to be recovered and has caused allies to doubt whether they can share sensitive information with the United States.
“Our allies and enemies are very aware of this case,” Kraus said.
Capt. Jacob Ferris, the former head of Melzer’s unit, said the platoon known as “The Cowboys” was riding high when they were chosen from among 20 platoons for their sensitive mission, only to find that one of their own had “deceived and betrayed” them and left them “labeled as a platoon that had a terrorist.”
He said Melzer’s fellow paratroopers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team were left feeling angry as they contemplated “that one of their own had planned to kill them.”
He said the other soldiers faced questioning by investigators who wanted to know if they had seen signs that Melzer was betraying his oath to the United States, and it left them confronting what they might have missed.
One, Ferris said, told him: “I feel like out of 35 people, one of us should have seen the signs.”
Attorney Jonathan Marvinny, representing Melzer, requested leniency, saying his client had fallen beneath the spell of “a ridiculous cult,” and he urged the judge not to heed prosecutors who “paint him as if he’s a monster.”
Authorities said Melzer joined the military to infiltrate its ranks on behalf of a group espousing neo-Nazi, antisemitic and Satanic beliefs. They said the group tells members to subvert the military from within by infiltrating it to gain training, commit acts of violence and identify like-minded individuals.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Melzer planned to join co-conspirators he met online to carry out a “jihadi attack” that would cause a “mass casualty” event that would provoke the United States into engaging in a foreign war, “causing mass bloodshed and terrible harm to the very country he had sworn to protect.”