Late on the night of March 16, as his Amtrak bus approached the Canadian border near Blaine, Wash., Nicholas Teausant says he put his plan into action.
Using a phone given to him by a friend who promised to get Teausant to Syria to join rebel forces there, the 20-year-old Lodi-area man says he sent a text message to a number he had been given, one that was supposed to connect him with someone in Canada who would take care of his travel needs.
The friend “told me that if I get myself out of the country everything will be taken care of, they’ll pay for me to go over there, they’ll give me a gun,” Teausant said during a pair of interviews from the Sacramento County jail, where he has been held since April on a charge that he was trying to join forces with a foreign terror group.
“They’ll give me everything I could possibly want,” Teausant remembered his friend saying. “They’ll take care of my family, and that I can always come back to America when this is over.”
Today, Teausant realizes that the “friend” was an FBI informant whose work led to the bus being stopped south of the border, agents arresting him and his indictment on a charge of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
The group he is charged with trying to join – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – rose in infamy last week when it posted video of one of its members beheading American journalist James Foley. The U.S. government believes the group so dangerous it has launched airstrikes against it.
As someone who allegedly tried to join the group, Teausant has been ordered held without bail because the federal government considers him a threat to the public.
But Teausant, in his first public comments on his case, said he is not dangerous but the victim, in part, of his own words and boasts that got out of hand as the informant and an undercover FBI agent helped him plan to buy a train ticket from Lodi to Seattle.
“I’m not going to say that I’m completely innocent and I have no fault in this,” Teausant said in a call to The Sacramento Bee on Monday afternoon from jail. “Some of it is my fault, yes. But then again I also feel that if the informant hadn’t come along I would have just been making idle boasts and I wouldn’t have done anything.”
Teausant contends it was the informant who first suggested ISIS as the group he should join, and says when he was first arrested FBI agents told him they did not have to provide him a lawyer immediately because of provisions in the USA Patriot Act. He also said agents had him sign a letter agreeing that he understood his constitutional rights and that he spoke to them freely for two hours before saying he wanted to see a lawyer.
“After I said I wanted my lawyer, it was done,” he said.
Over the course of the phone call and a subsequent interview at the jail on Tuesday, Teausant denied some of the more sensational allegations the government has leveled against him and insists he would never commit an act of violence in his own country or threaten to kill his mother, as the government has alleged.
A convert to Islam, Teausant is one of about half a dozen Americans charged in recent months with trying to travel overseas to support ISIS or other radical groups. The FBI says there are dozens who are fighting with such groups currently, and The New York Times reported Tuesday that one of them, a 33-year-old San Diego man, Douglas McAuthur McCain, was killed in fighting in Syria in recent days.
Teausant has been accused of discussing a bomb attack against the Los Angeles subway system over New Year’s Eve, something he says he doesn’t remember saying.
He also has been accused of plotting to blow up his infant daughter’s day care center because he believed it was “Zionist,” but he now says he “specifically told the informant” he would only do it when no one was there, and that he later made it clear he would take no action inside the United States.
Teausant is awaiting trial on a charge that could send him to federal prison for 15 years, and he conceded that his attorneys have advised him not to speak to the media. But he said he wanted to speak out, partly because he is concerned about his reputation being destroyed.
“I have to talk to somebody,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing myself portrayed as a crazy terrorist who wants to kill all Americans I specifically told the informant and the FBI and my lawyers that I’m no threat to Americans and I just want to go home, back to my books and my daughter and my family.”
The FBI said it could not comment Tuesday, and U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, whose office is prosecuting Teausant, said it was not appropriate to comment on his statements, except to insist the case was handled by the book.
“We fully reviewed the evidence prior to filing charges in this case, and we are confident that the investigation was conducted properly by experienced agents,” Wagner said.
Teausant’s own attorneys have been laying the groundwork for a plea deal based on their client’s mental state, and they said Tuesday that he clearly has a serious illlness.
“Everybody involved in this case – the defense, the judge and the prosecution – agree that the defendant is mentally ill at this time,” Federal Defender Heather Williams said. “That’s really all we can say, because the government claims the investigation supporting the case includes classified information.”
In fact, Teausant concedes that once he arrived at the jail in April he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed on medication. And he said he has been under stress because he is kept separated from other inmates and has little human contact, except weekly visits from his mother and visits every other week from his grandmother.
“It’s kind of surreal, the way it is at times, I’m kind of like a cracked egg and I can’t cope with all the pressure and everything,” he said. “And at times I understand what I’m going through and have to be level-headed about it. It’s a lot harder being in solitary confinement because I’m a social person.”
Teausant says he understands the gravity of his situation, and that ISIS has come to be considered much more dangerous and bloodthirsty than when he was discussing joining it.
“You’ve got to understand, at the time they were not doing the brutal stuff that they’re doing now,” he said. “I am absolutely abhorred at that Foley thing. I did not see that coming. ISIS was the informant’s suggestion. At the time, ISIS was something small.”
Teausant said he moved frequently as a child, attending 13 schools since kindergarten as his father and stepmother moved about while she pursued her education. But he said he had normal interests, going to a Christian church and attending youth groups, excelling at swimming in school and volunteering in hospices. He was enrolled at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton when he came to the government’s attention, and also had been a member of the California National Guard.
He said he first became interested in Islam while living in Montana, where he met a beautiful young Muslim woman who would only speak to Muslim men.
From there, he embraced the religion, posting his thoughts on Facebook and elsewhere and eventually became convinced that the Syrian government needed to be removed from power because it was killing its own citizens.
That led to his interest in going overseas, he said.
“I wanted to go help fight for these people because the New Hampshire slogan is ‘Live Free or Die,’ ” he said. “In 1775, we rebelled against Britain because we felt we were being tyrannized and conquered, so we wanted our own freedom. So I felt like I could try and help with that, and give the people freedom that they were fighting for.”
Now, he says, he expects to spend up to three years watching his case drag through the courts, and he hopes for a reduced sentence if he reaches a plea agreement.
But he added that he believes he can rebuild his life no matter what happens.
“Even if they gave me the maximum 15 years I’d come out of prison at 35. That still leaves me the rest of my life to go to college and get a Ph.D., do what I want and be with my family,” he said.