Steven Matthew Fernandes, a 19-year-old man who pleaded guilty to unlawfully possessing and making explosives at his Las Vegas home, was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon told Fernandes he would get credit for time served following his September 2012 arrest by federal anti-terrorism agents.
His time behind bars could be as little as three months, depending on the calculations of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Fernandes, a graduate of Clark County’s Northwest Career and Technical Academy, had exploded homemade bombs in the desert and made what authorities considered disturbing statements, including voicing support for the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shootings.
His defense lawyer, Crystal Eller, argued that his actions stemmed from being “brainwashed,” exploited and mistreated by the operators of a “tactical training program” in Utah he attended at his mother’s request to prepare for his induction into the U.S. Marine Corps.
Eller said in court papers earlier in the week that her client’s trainers turned him into the “proverbial Frankenstein,” and when they felt they could no longer control him they called the FBI and “asked the federal government to take responsibility for the problem they had created in the first place.”
At the time, Fernandes, having been in a broken home with a string of his mother’s abusive boyfriends, was searching for a father figure and susceptible to being manipulated by the survivalist group, Eller wrote.
In court Wednesday, Gordon ordered Fernandes to serve three years of supervised release when he gets out of federal custody and undergo mental health treatment.
“This is a serious offense,” Gordon told Fernandes, who declined an opportunity to address the judge. “Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”
Later, Gordon said he was confident Fernandes would turn away from the “dangerous nonsense” and become a productive member of society.
“Get back to the good stuff you were doing as a kid,” he told Fernandes.
Fernandes, who had claimed to be the leader of a small Nevada militia, pleaded guilty in September to one federal count of possession of an unregistered firearm, which in this case was a “destructive device” concocted in a two-liter Pepsi bottle.
Eller contended in her court papers that the FBI’s chief witnesses against Fernandes were the operators of the Utah tactical group.
She said they voluntarily solicited and secretly recorded for the FBI a series of “offensive” comments from Fernandes, including remarks appearing to support mass shootings.
“Steven was misguided into the dangerous, flawed thinking that led 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 wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson, who had sought the 18-month prison term for Fernandes, acknowledged in court papers that punishment in the case was a “difficult” call. He said the government had no evidence that Fernandes took a “substantial step to actually use any of the weapons that he possessed to harm others.”
“But his illegal conduct combined with his bizarre behavior and troubling statements presents an individual who appears to be a danger to the community.” Dickinson added.
In his plea agreement, Fernandes admitted that he stored explosive materials at his home and made destructive devices that weren’t registered with the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.
He also admitted he transported explosive materials in Nevada, Utah and Arizona and detonated destructive devices in the Arizona desert.
During a Sept. 13, 2012 raid, FBI agents assigned to the Southern Nevada Joint Terrorism Task Force found the bomb-making materials and devices in Fernandes’ bedroom, with a copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” according to court documents. The book explains how to manufacture explosives.
Agents also found a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 10 rounds of ammunition and more than 44 additional rounds of ammunition in his two-door Saturn coupe.
Authorities found an additional five rifles, four handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home.
In conversations with the FBI’s sources, Fernandes talked about the Aurora shootings, which killed 12 people and injured 58 others, and bragged, “I’ll beat that record.”
Prosecutors said last year that an FBI source provided an email from Fernandes in which he described himself as the commanding officer of the 327th Nevada Militia, an urban survivalist unit with six or seven members.
Eller, however, contended at the time that Fernandes was regarded as a “very responsible and grounded teenager” who was scheduled to ship out with the U.S. Marines two days before his arrest
“This is someone who sees himself as a fighter for this country, not a terrorist,” Eller said.