Emerson Begolly, a 21-year-old Penn State student who allegedly expressed pro-jihad and anti-Semitic sentiments, was arrested in the parking lot of a Burger King in Pennsylvania last week after he allegedly went for a gun in his pocket and then bit two FBI agents when they tried to question him about his online activities.But a closer look at Begolly’s case and his personal background suggests that the pro-jihad and anti-Semitic remarks which brought him to the attention of law enforcement may be the product of a troubled past. And while his personal political beliefs appear to have been radicalized following what his mother described as a “breakdown” last month, his lawyer argued that there’s no indication he had the intent — or the means — to wage any sort of attack.
Begolly, who posted photos of himself dressed up as a Nazi on his MySpace page and more recently uploaded a song praising a suicide bomber on a jihadist web forum, reportedly has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum characterized by difficulties with social interaction, according to his lawyer and members of his family. Joan Kowalski, Begolly’s mother, told FBI agents that Begolly had been off his medication for two years and that he suffered what she called a meltdown in December and withdrew from classes, an FBI agent testified. Since then, she said, he’s spent most of his time online and on chat sites but also took long walks with a firearm according to an FBI agent’s testimony.
Kowalski tried to have Begolly committed to psychiatric hospitals earlier last week, but the staff said that there was no room, an FBI agent testified. The defendant’s younger brother also allegedly told FBI agents his brother talked about wanting to die as a martyr and talked about obtaining virgins after he died, an FBI agent testified in court on Thursday.
Kowalski — who lured Begolly to the Burger King so that the FBI agents could talk to him by telling him that his grandmother was dying, a revelation that prompted her son to dub her “Judas” — is an alcoholic who is under psychiatric treatment for excessive compulsive disorder, a federal defender for Begolly alleged in court last week.
His mother told FBI agents that Begolly’s father (shown here) sparked her son’s interest in Nazism, encouraged him not to take his medication and stocked up on weapons, and FBI agent testified. Photos of Begolly in a Nazi uniform were taken by his father, Shawn Begolly, when the younger Begolly was approximately 11 or 12 years old, his mother allegedly told FBI agents.
Kowalski also told FBI agents that her son had a passport and expressed an interest in traveling to Chechnya to become a martyr and had an AK-47, according to an FBI agent. Begolly’s stepmother reportedly told the FBI that he wrote poems about causing harm to Jews.
Little information can be found on on Begolly’s past political activity or whether he has a long history of radicalism. What can be found is unremarkable: A Jan. 1, 2009 story by the Penn State newspaper says Begolly attended a peaceful pro-Palestinian rally at Penn State’s main campus in State College (pictured above).
His arrest unfolded on Tuesday morning when Begolly was sitting in a car in the Burger King parking lot in New Bethlehem, a city north of Pittsburgh. According to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday, Begolly was the subject of a criminal investigation and “agents had reason to believe he might be armed.”
Kowalski (who according to Begolly’s lawyer told her son she was getting an iced tea) went inside the restaurant as Begolly sat in the front passenger seat wearing a military flack jacket, an FBI agent testified (according to a court transcript of a proceeding on Thursday obtained by TPM).
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michael Christman testified that when two FBI agents opened both passenger side car doors and identified themselves, Begolly tried to reach in his pocket, which agents later found contained a gun. One of the FBI agents “physically entered the car with his back to the vehicle’s dashboard and, for lack of a better word proceeded to wrestle with the Defendant while to pin his right arm against his body to avoid access front jacket pocket,” Christman testified.
After handcuffing Begolly, the FBI agents patted him down and, in the pocket he was allegedly trying to access, found a fully loaded 9 millimeter Makarov handgun with the safety off according to the criminal complaint and testimony in court. They also discovered two fully loaded magazines in his pocket, the government said. The two FBI agents noticed they had bite wounds on their hands and were bleeding; they subsequently put Band-aids on their hands and received tetanus shots as a result of the bites, Christman testified.
Marketa Sims, a public defender appointed for Begolly, objected to the introduction of several pieces of evidence submitted into the record, including an militant chant allegedly authored by Begolly under the alleged alias Alshashedi (posted here). She argued that Begolly, who doesn’t have a driver’s license, has a “history of being an oddball” but is dependent upon the support of his father.
His father, who owns about 20 weapons that were seized by the FBI when they searched his home on his farm following Begolly’s arrest, testified on Thursday in favor of his son being released into his custody and said he would agree not to have weapons at the home if his son was there.
“I have mostly hunting rifles. I live in rural PA, ma’am, and we cling to Bibles and guns up there,” the elder Begolly, who said he teaches computer classes at Penn State’s continuing education division, testified.
“I have been hunting since I was 12 years old. So I have some shotguns, some rifles, and I also have some handguns,” Begolly said. “We have bear, coyotes, all kind of dangerous critters.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret E. Picking argued that Begolly should be detained because he “is similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — explosive one moment, and docile the next.
“Ms. Sims described the Defendant, Emerson Begolly, as just an oddball, an eccentric, a loner,” federal prosecutor Picking said in response. “Your Honor, on behalf of the Government, I am not prepared to stake my safety or the safety of the community on Ms. Sims’ representations to the Court that this Defendant is just an oddball, just a loner.”
The federal judge ruled Thursday that Begolly could be released on $25,000 bail on the condition he surrender his passport and stay at a halfway house in the city. But the government asked a judge not to release Begolly until Friday so they could file an appeal, and a judge agreed.
In a filing on Friday, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton requested that the district court “enter an emergency order staying the defendant’s release until the appeal of the release order can be considered by the District Court.”
The judge granted the government’s motion to hold him pending formal appeal of decision to release to halfway house on Friday.