Judge won't free man linked to extremists over virus risk

A federal magistrate judge has ruled the risk of exposure to coronavirus in jail doesn't warrant freeing a 19-year-old Maryland man while he awaits trial on criminal charges stemming from his membership in a violent white supremacist group

SILVER SPRING, Md. -- The risk of exposure to the coronavirus in jail does not warrant freeing a 19-year-old Maryland man while he awaits trial on criminal charges stemming from his membership in a violent white supremacist group, a federal magistrate judge ruled Friday.

William Garfield Bilbrough IV has diabetes and his medical condition leaves him particularly vulnerable if he is exposed to the coronavirus while he is detained at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C., his attorneys said in a court filing.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Sullivan said in Friday's order that there is no reason to believe Bilbrough is at increased risk of being infected with the virus just because he is confined in a pretrial detention facility.

"Although Mr. Bilbrough may still be at an increased health risk if he is infected with the virus, this factor alone does not outweigh the other factors that strongly favor detention. Mr. Bilbrough is simply too great a danger to be released," Sullivan wrote.

Bilbrough and two other men linked to a white supremacist group called The Base have been in federal custody since their arrests in January. Bilbrough is charged with helping transport and harbor a fellow Base member who was accused of illegally entering the U.S. from Canada.

Sullivan refused to set bond for Bilbrough on two previous occasions. The magistrate said during a March 4 hearing that his decision to keep Bilbrough in jail was a “very close call.” But he said he had reservations about releasing the defendant into his grandmother's custody.

Prosecutors said an “avalanche” of defendants undoubtedly would seek their release from jail if Sullivan agreed to free Bilbrough. “Each defendant would make the generic argument ... that he should be released to reduce contact with other persons and have greater access to healthcare in the community — notwithstanding the fact that, twice now, the court has detained the defendant to protect the community from him,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

The prospect of a coronavirus outbreak at the Washington jail is merely speculative, prosecutors said, noting that nobody detained at the facility had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. “It is even more speculative when discussing the defendant specifically, since he is housed within the facility’s medical infirmary,” they wrote.

Defense attorneys Robert Bonsib and Megan Coleman said “sorry won't cut it” if Bilbrough gets infected.

“This is a time of crisis. It is a time when the government is taking extraordinary steps to protect its people. It is also a time for the judicial system to recognize that the health of this young man should take priority,” they wrote.

Bilbrough, who worked as a pizza delivery driver and lived with his grandmother in Denton, Maryland, before his arrest, pleaded not guilty last month to charges including conspiracy to “transport and harbor certain aliens.”

Former Canadian Armed Forces reservist Patrik Mathews, 27; and Brian Mark Lemley Jr., 33, of Elkton, Maryland; separately pleaded not guilty to related charges including transporting a firearm and ammunition with the intent to commit a felony.

Sullivan has refused to set bond for Mathews. Lemley’s lawyer recently asked for a detention hearing for his client, but the magistrate has not ruled on that request.

In a court filing, Justice Department prosecutors said Lemley and Mathews discussed “the planning of violence” at a gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, in January. Bilbrough, the only defendant in the case who isn't facing firearms-related charges, participated in their early discussions about traveling to Richmond but had tried to distance himself from The Base shortly before his arrest, a prosecutor has said.

Bilbrough has participated in several training camps for The Base and appeared in a propaganda video for the group, according to prosecutors. They said Bilbrough had compared The Base favorably to al-Qaida and remarked to other Base members that the Islamic State group “doesn't compare to us.”

FBI agents arrested Mathews, Lemley and Bilbrough as part of a broader investigation of The Base. Authorities in Georgia and Wisconsin also arrested four other men linked to the group.