The Decatur man accused of trying to bomb the Paul Findley Federal Building knew police were interested in him, according to an e-mail he sent to U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Rock Island, more than nine months ago. People who know Michael C. Finton also said he was a frequent critic of America and often turned conversations to the subject of Islam and the Muslim world.

The Decatur man accused of trying to bomb the Paul Findley Federal Building knew police were interested in him, according to an e-mail he sent to U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Rock Island, more than nine months ago.


In the e-mail, Michael C. Finton, who also uses the name Talib Islam, complained that his phone had been tapped for two years, that the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the FBI and members of local law enforcement agencies, had taken books and documents from him for no reason and that police had raided his home “on an obviously bogus warrant.”


Finton asked Hare for help and advice.


“I love my religion just like I love my country,” Finton wrote in the e-mail, according to a copy he subsequently posted on the Internet. “Every few months here come the police. Every few months another federal agency and yet more harassment.”


Tim Schlittner, Hare’s spokesman, said the congressman’s office told Finton he should seek legal counsel. There was no reason to notify law enforcement because the e-mail contained no threats, Schlittner said.


If Finton loved America, he was also a frequent critic, according to Marcus Smith, a former layout editor at The Communicatur, a student newspaper at Richland Community College in Decatur. While Finton was not enrolled in journalism classes, he was involved with the newspaper and had a few articles published.


“I got into some conversations with him,” Smith said. “At one point in time, I got to thinking, ‘Why does this person even choose to live in this country if he thinks we’re so evil?’ That’s the spin he put on everything: This is all America’s fault.”


Smith and Linda Boles, who was adviser to the newspaper, said Finton, whose MySpace page is decorated with a photo of a mosque, always wanted to talk about Islam.


“Every conversation, every staff meeting, turned into how Muslims are misunderstood,” Boles said. “Trying to teach them (students) about responsible news writing was very difficult – he tried to put a Muslim slant on everything. … The students were very open to his ideas, but he never followed through on anything.”


Conviction for robbery


On Myspace, Finton lists his hometown as Visalia, Calif., and says he went to high school in Warren, Mich. On classmates.com, he says he was expelled for fighting with a teacher and eventually moved to Illinois, where he wound up in prison with a 16-year sentence.


Actually, it was 12 years, according to Illinois Department of Corrections records, which show that Finton was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated battery in Richland County, about 160 miles southeast of Springfield, in 1999.


Finton was released in 2006, but was returned to prison after less than 16 months. In court papers, Trevor Stalets, a Decatur police detective assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, said Finton had moved without properly notifying his parole officer. He was released again after four months.


Charles Fasano, director of the prisons and jails program for the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform group, said it is unusual for someone to be returned to prison if the only problem is failure to report an address change.


In a sworn affidavit, Stalets said Finton drew attention to himself after telling his parole officer he had converted to Islam while in prison and that he had moved to Decatur to attend a mosque. In an interview, acting U.S. attorney Jeffrey Lang would not say whether there was anything else that caused police to focus on Finton.


Finton, who worked at a Decatur restaurant, hinted at his criminal past while at Richland Community College, Boles said.


“He alluded to some criminal activity he was involved in,” Boles said. “We didn’t give it a lot of credibility. He was a bit of a blowhard.”


After Finton’s arrest on Aug. 15, 2007, parole agents searched his vehicle and found a notebook containing an undated letter that said, “Death is a blessing for the Mu’min (Arabic for ‘believer’). Insha Allah (God willing), we all dream of being the Shahid (martyr). Live like we will die tomorrow, work like we will never die,” Stalets said in his affidavit.


In another letter, Finton wrote, “I am awaiting a return letter from John Walker Lindh,” Stalets said. Lindh, an American, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to fighting for the Taliban.


Lang would not say what Finton wrote in any letter to Lindh, nor would he say if Lindh replied.


After Finton was freed, he went to the Decatur Police Department to retrieve his documents, and Stalets and an FBI agent interviewed him, according to the affidavit. Finton told them he idolized Lindh, Stalets said.


Saudi Arabia trip


In March of 2008, Finton received $1,375 from a man in Saudi Arabia and immediately sent a like amount to a travel agency, Stalets said. The following month, he flew to Saudi Arabia and stayed for a month, according to the affidavit.


In his email to Hare, Finton complained about the U.S. government sending word to Jordanian officials to have his bags searched while traveling from Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian city.  He told the congressman he was on a pilgrimage to Mecca.


Stalets said Finton told a police informant that a sheik had paid for the trip and that the sheik wanted his daughter to marry Finton. Lang would not say whether that story checked out, or what, if anything, authorities have done to confirm whether Finton knew people overseas who might want to harm the United States.


In his affidavit, Stalets said Finton told the informant in January that he planned to contact “an unidentified person in Egypt” so he could get to Gaza. Stalets also said investigators were concerned that Finton would embark “on a course of action through contacts in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.”


Like Finton, the informant had converted to Islam while in prison, according to the affidavit.  Stalets said the informant expected money in exchange for helping police, but payments have been suspended because authorities believe he may have been dealing drugs during the investigation against Finton.


Self-discovery


On the Internet, Finton wrote about being raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, his desire to move to Saudi Arabia, his time in prison and self-discovery.


“There was a time when looking inside of myself only brought forth darkness,” Finton wrote on Myspace in January 2007. “Everybody liked me, yet I hated myself. People thought I was smart, and reasonably good-looking, but to me, I was a moron, and a freak.”


He acknowledged past drug use and said he once went to church every day. Christian denominations, he wrote, “didn’t satisfy me.” He said he studied numerous religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Moorish Science Temple (a religion founded in America about a century ago), House of Yaweh (a religion based in Texas), even Aztec philosophy, with similar results.


“The more of it I studied, the less sense it made,” Finton wrote.


On muxlim.com, a Web site devoted to Islamic issues, Finton quoted George Bernard Shaw, Malcolm X and various Muslim authors and theologians. He also wrote that his plans for trucking school had fallen through and about his desire to start a business in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, he wrote, he could join a labor union and make $20 an hour.


“I am a Muslim by the grade of Allahu Ta’ala,” Finton wrote. “I realize that we have a lot of work to do, and very little time to do it in.”


Boles said she figured Finton, like many young people freshly converted to a cause, was on the radical side, but that he would eventually swing back to center.


“I thought maybe he would, but I guess he didn’t,” Boles said. “I hate to see something like this happen to someone who’s young.”


Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542 or bruce.rushton@sj-r.com. Brian Mackey, Dean Olsen and Deana Poole contributed to this report.