RALEIGH — U.S. District Judge Earl Britt waited 15 minutes before interrupting the defendant accused of orchestrating a bizarre murder-for-hire plot against witnesses from his terror case.
Hysen Sherifi, 28, had been alternating between Arabic and English in the courtroom as he prayed, read from the Quran and voiced his religious view that “all judgment belongs only to Allah.”
Sherifi went on trial Monday in the Federal Building on accusations that he conspired with his brother and a Wake County special education teacher to have three government informants killed and beheaded. The informants had testified against Sherifi in an earlier trial in which he was convicted of conspiring to commit terror at home and abroad.
The bearded native Kosovan is representing himself, wearing the red prison-issued jumpsuit that gives the jury a visual reminder of the 45-year sentence he is serving for the prior conviction.
Britt looked down from the bench at Sherifi after the last of the seven-woman, five-man jury left the courtroom for the evening.
“I’ve tried to be tolerant with you to allow you to express whatever it is that you were trying to express – obviously about your religion,” Britt said. “Any further comments you make to the jury must be related to the facts of the case.”
“Does the Earth belong to you?” Sherifi retorted, adding that he was trying to warn the judge that he had “transgressed against the laws of Allah.”
“I’m willing to take my chances,” Britt responded.
Thus was the unusual beginning to one of the more peculiar cases to emerge from the Eastern District of North Carolina’s federal court docket in recent months. It is the latest in a series of government prosecutions stemming from the 2009 arrests of Daniel Patrick Boyd, a Johnston County drywaller, two of his sons and four other men who were accused of being a homegrown terror cell.
The murder-for-hire case could have brother testifying against brother, and a once well-regarded special education teacher offering her version of her involvement.
Matthew F. Blue, a trial attorney from the counterterrorism section of the U.S. Justice Department, offered jurors a quick outline of the prosecution’s case in an opening statement that preceded Sherifi’s unusual presentation.
The roots of the case lie in a trial that ended in October 2011 with Sherifi convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists; conspiring to murder, kidnap, maim and injure persons in a foreign country; two counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence; and conspiring to kill a federal officer or employee.
It was not long after that, prosecutors contend, that Sherifi began to plot revenge against some of the witnesses who had helped put him behind bars. Sherifi is one of the seven Triangle men who had been accused in the 2009 terror case. Prosecutors contend he wanted to have three confidential informants in that case killed to help his friend and perhaps himself on any appeals and possible retrials.
Blue said Sherifi wrote the names on a piece of paper and “put them on a hit list.”
“The problem is, he’s in jail,” Blue told jurors as he continued to weave together prosecutors’ contentions.
In that same New Hanover County jail, prosecutors contend, was an inmate named David Crummy, who was known widely as a prisoner with gang connections.
Crummy, who also was known to law enforcement officers as an informant, met with Sherifi, according to Blue, and a scheme began to emerge.
Crummy knew of a hit man named “Treetop,” but he would need money before carrying out any plans, according to prosecutors.
Sherifi then turned to his brother, Shkumbin Sherifi, who is six years younger and pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to help carry out a murder for hire. The two talked through jailhouse phones as a surveillance camera monitored their discussions.
In vague terms, prosecutors contend, the older brother told the younger one that he “had something he could do” that would help Anes Subasic, who was awaiting trial on the terror-related charges, and perhaps all of those who had already been sentenced.
When the younger brother asked about what that might be, the older Sherifi put his thumb to his throat, prosecutors contend, and slid it across as if to suggest that it would be slit.
Shkumbin Sherifi, though, did not have a lot of money, and the older Sherifi had been told one hit by Treetop would cost at least $5,000.
Nevine Elshiekh, 47, a special education teacher at a Triangle Montessori school who also pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to help with the murder-for-hire plot, had become interested in the Triangle terror case through the Muslim community. She had attended the trial in New Bern and had been writing to Hysen Sherifi to offer support and encouragement.
Their letter-writing, prosecutors contend, grew to include discussions about religion and eventually love.
Elshiekh, almost twice as old as Hysen Sherifi, was then pulled into the murder-for-hire plot, prosecutors contend, because she had access to more money.
By this time, federal investigators were keeping close watch on the three, monitoring their phone calls, letters and actions.
Hysen Sherifi, Blue said, insisted that a middle-man, or woman in this case, be brought into the mix to provide a buffer between any killer and his confidants.
Elshiekh and Shkumbin Sherifi each agreed to offer their testimony as part of plea arrangement in which prosecutors agreed to dismiss many of the charges against them.
Desiree Tate, or “Ms. D,” as they called the woman working with federal investigators, was involved with some of the exchanges in which there were discussions about intended targets and exchanges of money.
Elshiekh, according to prosecutors, ferried a note saying “hit confirmed” to the Sherifis, and she helped come up with money by selling jewelry to pawn shops.
By late January, according to prosecutors, investigators had doctored photos to make it look as if one of the terror case witnesses had been killed and beheaded, and passed them along to the imprisoned Sherifi.
Sherifi and Crummy met in the New Hanover County jail. Crummy told investigators that Sherifi raised the following complaint: “I wish you wouldn’t have wasted a bullet to have him killed,” Blue said Sherifi told Crummy. “I wish you would have chopped his head off first.”
The murder-for-hire case, as the terror case, highlights the FBI’s use of informants to build a slew of terror cases to emerge across the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Prosecutors plan to present tapes of phone calls and prison visits as they present evidence in a trial expected to last through the week.
It is unclear whether Hysen Sherifi will present any evidence in his defense.