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SALT LAKE CITY — A man who authorities say led a Utah militia group pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to trying to blow up a remote Bureau of Land Management cabin.
William Keebler, 59, admitted to attempted destruction of federal property by use of an explosive in an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office. Prosecutors dropped a charge of carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. He could be sentenced to as much as 70 months in prison.
Keebler, of Stockton, acknowledged that between June 20-22, 2016, he traveled from Tooele County to Mount Trumbull in Arizona where he attempted to detonate an explosive device at a federal facility.
Assistant U.S. attorney Andrew Choate said after the hearing that federal agents in the case were able to head off a "significant domestic terrorism threat right here in Utah."
"We hope this prosecution would be an object lesson for any would-be terrorist who would attempt to use violence, either in the domestic or international context, against the United States," he said.
Prosecutors say Keebler headed a militia group called the Patriots Defense Force consisting of seven members, including three undercover FBI agents. The FBI started investigating Keebler after he took part in a 2014 armed standoff with federal officials at Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch.
Keebler's attorneys maintained in earlier court hearings that the undercover agents built the inert explosive device and placed it against the cabin door before handing Keebler the remote detonator.
The cabins were for seasonal use and were occupied by a professor and about 20 college students doing field research, but FBI and BLM agents moved them out before the attempted bombing, Choate said.
"The defendant actually was committed to going around and making sure that it was just going to be an unoccupied building, so we can't say if he would have gone through with the bombing if he had seen the people inside the cabins," Choate said.
Prosecutors earlier said Keebler wanted to use explosives and was also willing to shoot people if anyone came after the group when he detonated the device. He had an AR-15-style gun, a handgun and a lot of ammo, they say.
Keebler took video of an unidentified mosque and cased federal offices before settling on the BLM cabin in northern Arizona, prosecutors said.
Keebler, who has been held in jail since his arrest in June 2016, agreed to a 12- to 70-month prison term as part of the plea deal. Sentencing is scheduled for July 9. Choate said the government would seek a sentence on the high end of the range.