WASHINGTON ― An attorney for a neo-Nazi facing federal terrorism charges for trying to commandeer an Amtrak train said Tuesday that the case against his client had been “blown significantly out of proportion.”
Taylor Michael Wilson, a 26-year-old from Missouri, is accused of breaching a secured area while armed with a handgun and setting off the emergency brake on an Amtrak train as it passed through a remote part of Nebraska in the early morning hours of Oct. 22. The incident didn’t garner much press coverage at the time, and Wilson, who was facing local charges, was even allowed to leave jail after posting bond last month. But the FBI arrested Wilson just before Christmas, and federal prosecutors unsealed the terrorism charges against him last week. The Justice Department never informed reporters about the case.
Wilson’s attorney, who was first hired by his family in connection with the state charges and is now representing him in the federal case, told HuffPost he was “kind of surprised when the feds did get involved,” even though they knew of the investigation and that federal charges were a possibility.
“I believe it’s been blown significantly out of proportion,” said attorney Jerry Sena. “That’s all I’ll say about that.”
Wilson was carrying a business card for the National Socialist Movement, America’s neo-Nazi party, when he was booked in jail after the incident. Wilson’s cousin and roommate, Andrew Olney, told the FBI that Wilson had traveled to the deadly “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, with members of a neo-Nazi group he’d found on a white supremacist forum. Olney told the FBI that Wilson had “serious” interest in “killing black people,” and told agents about a secret compartment behind a refrigerator, where the FBI found a tactical vest, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, “white supremacy documents and paperwork,” and a handmade shield he is believed to have taken to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.
Sena, the defense attorney, paints a different picture. He noted that Wilson had a full-time job and didn’t have a criminal record. “He comes from a decent family,” Sena said, mentioning that his father is involved in ministry. “As far as I know, nobody in the family has any kind of criminal background or history whatsoever.”
Sena declined to say if his client had brought the train to a halt or if he held white supremacist beliefs. He didn’t offer up any alternative explanation for his client’s reported behavior. But he said a major part of their case will be investigating the statements Wilson’s cousin made to the FBI.
“We don’t know why the cousin is saying some of the stuff that he’s saying. I’m a little curious about that,” Sena said. “That’s going to be at the center of our investigation: why he’s saying the things that he’s saying.”
While an FBI affidavit suggests that Wilson’s parents misled investigators about their knowledge of where their son lived, Sena said they aren’t worried about facing charges. He didn’t think there’s much significance to the fact that Wilson’s parents refused to talk to the FBI about discussions they had with their son about race relations.
“They’re just leery of talking to anybody,” Sena said. “They want to make sure there’s no fake news.... They don’t want some stories to get misconstrued.”
Sena said he’s handled federal prosecutions before. (Federal court records indicate he recently represented a man who received 20 years in federal prison on child porn charges.) But he’s never handled a case quite like this. Still, Sena said it shouldn’t be surprising that Wilson got out on bond or that local authorities didn’t initially treat the incident as a terrorism case.
“They didn’t believe it was,” Sena said. “Quite frankly, I’m not sure I believe it is.”
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at email@example.com or on Signal at (202) 527-9261.