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Militia leader pleads guilty in attempted cabin explosion

April 26, 2018
FILE - This undated file photo from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office shows William Keebler. Keebler has pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a federally owned cabin in Arizona in what prosecutors call a case of domestic terrorism. Keebler pleaded guilty to attempting to damage federal property Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Salt Lake County Sheriffs Office via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah militia group leader pleaded guilty Thursday to trying to blow up a federally owned cabin in Arizona in what prosecutors call a case of domestic terrorism.

William Keebler, 59, was angry about federal management of public lands and wanted to retaliate against the government, federal prosecutors said. He came under investigation after joining Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed 2014 standoff over grazing fees amid hot debate over federal control of public land in the West.

“We hope this prosecution would be an object lesson for any would-be terrorist who would attempt to use violence, either in the domestic or international context,” said Andrew Choate, assistant U.S. Attorney for Utah.

Keebler could face up to five years and 10 months in prison at a sentencing set for July.

Keebler led a small group of about seven people called the Patriots Defense Force in the desert about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Salt Lake City. Three of his followers were FBI agents who started investigating him after the Bundy standoff, according to testimony in the case.

Keebler’s friends have said he was set up by the agents who gave him the inert device he tried to detonate near Mt. Trumbull in June 2016. He took pains to make sure that no one was around when the device went off, defense attorneys said.

Prosecutors, though, say the violence would have escalated if he hadn’t been arrested. Keebler also cased mosques and military facilities before settling on the remote Bureau of Land Management cabin and was willing to shoot anyone who tried to catch him after he thought he detonated the explosive device, authorities said.

The cabin is used to house seasonal workers. A group of college students had been staying there shortly before the attempted explosion, Choate said. They were cleared out after the undercover agents sent word about Keebler’s plans, he said.

Keebler pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempted destruction of federal property. A gun charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement shortly before he was set for trial.

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