CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia man has pleaded guilty to a weapons charge after he was accused of selling machine gun conversion devices online to followers of a far-right extremist movement.
Timothy John Watson entered the plea Tuesday to possession of an unregistered firearm silencer in federal court in Martinsburg. Several other charges were dropped under a plea agreement.
Watson, 30, of Ranson, faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. No sentencing date was immediately announced. Prosecutors said they will seek a stiffer sentence due to the seriousness of Watson’s alleged conduct.
Watson was charged after he was arrested in early September for allegedly running a website claiming to sell wall hangers. Prosecutors said they plan to show at sentencing that the devices could be actually used to turn semi-automatic AR-15 rifles into fully automatic machine guns.
Authorities said the devices were sold to supporters of the anti-government “boogaloo” movement, the code word they use for their talk of a second civil war. Their prominence has grown during the pandemic as the gun-toting supporters, many dressed in Hawaiian shirts and camouflage garb, attended protests against government shutdowns.
As a part of the plea agreement, Watson will forfeit 3D printers and parts seized during a November search along with items that prosecutors allege are conversion devices.
Prosecutors had said Watson’s customers included an Air Force sergeant in California accused of fatally shooting a federal security officer and injuring several security personnel last May and June. Authorities said Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo had used a homemade AR-15-style rifle in two shootings and wore gear with references to the boogaloo movement.
Prosecutors also said Watson sold the devices to two men in Minnesota who allegedly attempted to aid a foreign terrorist organization and built firearm suppressors that they believed they sold to the Mideast militant group Hamas.
Watson’s attorney, Shawn McDermott, had denied in a court filing that Watson belonged to “any so-called Boogaloo movement,” and said his client “would reject any ideology that is based upon violence.” He said Watson operated his wall hanger business legally and that his products are not designed to create automatic machine guns any more than a clothes hanger made out of metal.
Investigators said they linked Watson and his online business to the movement through a cooperating defendant in Minnesota who told the FBI he learned about Watson’s website through Facebook boogaloo groups.
The social media giant has tried to crack down on the group by not recommending user groups associated with the term “boogaloo” to members of similar associations.
Prosecutors found cryptic comments on Watson’s social media accounts made by apparent sympathizers of the movement. One message between Watson’s wall hanger Instagram account and a user mentioned dead “redcoats,” an anti-government reference, according to court documents.