May 3, 2007 -- It's the latest trend in domestic terror, and it's keeping the U.S. Marshals Service up nights: threats against judges.
Tuesday, an Ohio man and woman were each sentenced in federal court to 10 years for plotting to kill a judge and his family, after the judge sentenced the couple to a few days in jail for failing to file taxes.
The case highlights what the marshals service says is a growing and troubling problem: Threats against U.S. judges have quadrupled in the last decade. Last year there were more than 800 threats against sitting judges.
The Ohio plot, which was caught on tape and used as evidence against John Sands and his fiancee, Dawn Holin, was as meticulous as it was malicious.
"The kids are gonna die with him," Sands is heard saying on tape. "That's called victims of the situation he created. That's called street justice, man."
As the only judge in Painesville, Ohio, Michael Cicconetti has the final word. Whether he's ruling on a parking ticket, a domestic dispute or driving under the influence, "Judge Mike," as he is known, seems more like your favorite uncle than a stern disciplinarian. He's been known to mete out justice with a smile and some friendly advice.
But over the summer, this small-town judge got a big-city shock, when police detectives met him in a parking lot and pulled out a small audiotape recorder.
"They said, 'I want you to listen to this,'" Cicconetti said, "and I heard someone saying that they wanted to bomb my house. … They were going to come in and kill me and my family. I go, 'Whoa.'"
An Elaborate Plot
Police had uncovered an elaborate plot to kill not only Cicconetti, but also the mayor and the prosecutor. Sands and Holin, the alleged perpetrators, ran a small auto repair shop in town, Cicconetti was told. He barely remembered the couple.
"If you asked me to give a list of 30 or 40 people you think might do something to harm [me], they would not have been on that list," Cicconetti told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit . "They wouldn't have been close to the Top 100 on that list."
Howlers vs. Hunters
Security expert Frederick Calhoun, who has consulted for the U.S. Marshals and written several books on judicial security, says there are two distinct types of people who threaten judges: the howlers and the hunters.
"Howlers howl and hunters hunt. There are differences in behavior. Hunters engage in attack-related behaviors. Howlers do not. They simply howl. They communicate. These are people who get angry, start communicating with the judiciary, send threats. They try to disturb or frighten the judicial official, but they never go beyond that," he said.
Calhoun said that Sands, who plotted against Cicconetti, was far more dangerous. No howler -- he was a hunter.
"He was a hunter," Calhoun said. "He had a grievance. He feared that the judge and the mayor and the chief of police were going to go after him for municipal tax evasion. … He researched the targets' homes. He drove by the judge's house. He surveyed it. He found out where the mayor and the police chief lived. All with the idea of collecting information on how best to attack them."
In their blind drive for vengeance, though, Sands and Holin made a crucial mistake: They enlisted the help of a friend, who then informed police.
'Street Justice' Caught on Tape
For two weeks, police monitored the duo's every move. By day, hidden surveillance cameras caught Sands and the informant on tape as they shopped for bomb components at the hardware store. By night, police listened in as they drove by Cicconetti's home to scout exactly how they would throw the bomb into the house as Cicconetti and his family slept.
In conversations secretly recorded by the informant, Sands dispassionately referred to the judge's children as "casualties of war."
"The kids are gonna die with him," Sands said on tape. "That's called victims of the situation he created. That's called street justice, man."
"The coldness of that is still, to this day. … Is what stays with me," Cicconetti said. "Had this plan unfolded in the way that they intended it to be unfolded, then you would have had a whole family of deceased people, myself and my wife and my two boys."
Sands and Holin were arrested moments after they purchased the last element to complete the bomb: the fuse.
Justice Is Served
In January, Holin, Sands' fiancee, was sentenced to the maximum of 10 years in prison for her role in the plot to kill Cicconetti and the other Lake County public officials. Sands was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for conspiracy and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. That was just the beginning.
Tuesday, the gavel came down on federal charges.
Both Holin and Sands received the maximum sentence of 10 years each: Holin for being a felon in possession of firearms, and Sands for unlawful possession of a destructive device. Those sentences will run consecutively, after they have completed their previous prison time.
Moments before the sentencing, Sands denied being the driving force behind the plot and blamed it all on the informant, but the federal judge didn't buy it -- Cicconetti didn't either.
The man known as Judge Mike told ABC News that he was glad it was all over, but he admitted he had lost some of the small-town innocence he had once treasured.
"No question, it took a part of that away from me," he said. "Do I still do the things that I used to do? Yeah. Socially, do I still bowl with the guys that I bowled with for 36 years on Monday night? Yes, I still do. … Is there something more back there now? Um, yeah, there's a little bit of fear back there. I may be less than truthful if I didn't admit that to you."
"I was relieved, but even more relieved for my kids. Not too long ago at their original sentencing, my son Vinnie asked, 'Dad, how old will I be when they get out of jail?' I had to say he'd be 19 years old before the first one got out, and he was still uneasy with that. But tonight I can go home and tell him he'll be 29."
Cicconetti hopes new legislation will be introduced that will fund home security systems for judges, who are not currently covered by federal, state or local funds. As a result of the plot, Cicconetti spent hundreds of dollars to install cameras and alarms in his home.
"We live in a community where we face the defendants every day, so the possible threat is literally closer to home. … We shouldn't be in a position where we can't adequately provide for the safety of ourselves and, more importantly, our families."