SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The Adams man accused by the government of plotting a terror attack and providing material support to the Islamic State pleaded guilty to all charges in federal court on Monday afternoon.
Alexander Ciccolo, 25, admitted to supporting ISIS, planning a terror attack at an unnamed college campus outside Massachusetts, illegally possessing firearms and assaulting a nurse at the Franklin County Jail on the first night of his incarceration during a 50-minute hearing before Judge Mark G. Mastroianni.
According to a plea agreement negotiated between Ciccolo’s lawyers and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ciccolo would be sentenced to 20 years in prison and a lifetime of supervised release, according to a statement by an assistant U.S. Attorney during the hearing.
Mastroianni set a sentencing hearing for Sept. 5 at 2 p.m. to finalize the agreement.
Under the federal rules of criminal procedure, Mastroianni will have the option to throw out the plea at that time, but he will not be able to modify the sentence agreement reached between the U.S. Attorney and Ciccolo.
"When I was a young attorney, someone told me [an agreement] must be good if nobody’s happy," Ciccolo’s attorney, Northampton's David Hoose, said on the courthouse steps after the hearing. "I'm sure the government could make an argument that more time is warranted. We could make an argument that less time is warranted.
"But the fact is that this is an agreement that everyone has come together on. My goal at this point is just to get it over the finish line and get Alex on to the next phase of his life."
In answer to a reporter's question, Hoose said he was confident that Mastroianni will accept the full plea agreement. The alternative would be to change Ciccolo's plea back to his original plea of innocent and move toward a trial in the case.
Hoose also said it is likely that Ciccolo will receive some credit toward his 20-year prison sentence for the time he has spent in federal custody since his July 4, 2015, arrest.
Mastroianni conducted an extensive colloquy with Ciccolo before accepting his change of plea on Monday.
He asked in several different ways whether Ciccolo had read and understood the terms of the plea agreement and whether he was satisfied with his legal representation, which includes Hoose and New York attorney Ramzi Kassem, who did not attend Monday's hearing.
Mastroianni also stressed to Ciccolo that his change of plea was permanent and binding, giving him one more opportunity to change his mind or express any doubts right before Ciccolo stood and formally entered the guilty plea.
"Those [trial] rights don't come back," Mastroianni warned. "If, five years down the road, you reconsider your situation and say you want to challenge the case, you cannot come back.
"There’s finality to the case. The rights you are giving up, you're giving up forever. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Ciccolo replied.
At Mastroianni's request, Assistant U.S. Attorney Deepika Shukla recited the standards the government needed to meet for each count on the indictment as well as the facts that the government would have used at trial to prove each charge.
On the top count of the indictment, attempted material support to a foreign terrorist organization, Shukla cited pro-ISIS postings by Ciccolo on social media and downloads on his personal computers that included "recipes for explosives and homemade bombs." She also cited Ciccolo's conversations with a government witness about Ciccolo's intention to carry out a terror attack "before the end of Ramadan that year, which was July 31, 2015."
Shukla also cited a nearly two-hour interview with investigators after Ciccolo's arrest in which he expressed sympathy for the Islamic state. Recordings of parts of that interview were played at Ciccolo's initial detention hearing in the summer of 2015.
In support of Count No. 2, Shukla told the court that Ciccolo had purchased a pressure cooker and nails in an attempt to build a pressure cooker bomb and had begun constructing "three … Molotov cocktails."
Count 1 carried a maximum sentence of 20 years followed by a lifetime of supervised release. Count 2, for knowingly attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, had a maximum of life in prison. The gun possession charge had a maximum penalty of three years. And the fourth count, the assault causing bodily injury at the county jail, had a maximum of 20 years.
In answer to several dozen questions from Mastroianni, Ciccolo calmly and clearly answered the judge, affirming repeatedly that he understood the charges against him, admitted to the acts in question and accepted the consequences of a guilty plea.
"Are you pleading because you are in fact guilty or some other reason?" Mastroianni asked.
"Because I am guilty," Ciccolo replied.
The defendant's responses during the long interview satisfied the judge.
"It is the finding of this court in United States vs. Alexander Ciccolo that the defendant is fully competent and capable of entering into an informed plea," Mastroianni said. "He is aware of the nature of the charges and the consequences of his plea.
"I have had the opportunity to observe him … his demeanor, his tone, his affect and the answers to the questions I've asked of him. Nothing causes me any concern at all about his ability to understand what is going on here today."
Early in the colloquy, Mastroianni asked Ciccolo specifically whether he is currently being treated for any mental issues or has been, "seeing any therapists treating you for mental health issues."
"No, sir," Ciccolo replied.
Ciccolo smiled in the direction of family members in the gallery when he entered the courtroom promptly at 1 p.m. for the hearing. But at the hearing's end, he was observed to have an emotional moment with his mother and step-father.
"That's his mother and his stepfather, with whom he is very close," Hoose said. "Nobody signs a piece of paper saying, 'I'm going to go to prison for 20 years,' without some emotion attached to that."
Hoose said he wanted to reserve more comments about his client's state of mind until after the Sept. 5 sentencing hearing, but he did offer one insight into Ciccolo's current attitude.
"I can tell you that he no longer supports the group that calls itself ISIS,” Hoose said.