OAKLAND -- A San Jose man implicated in a plot to blow up an Oakland bank last week could face a competency evaluation before his criminal case can proceed, according to federal prosecutors.
Matthew Aaron Llanez, 28, was in an Oakland federal courtroom Thursday, the first public glimpse of him since authorities announced his arrest after his purported scheme was foiled by an undercover FBI agent.
Handcuffed and flanked by two U.S. marshals, Llaneza appeared for a status hearing stemming from a charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. But his federal public defender got a continuance until March 8 to examine additional evidence and determine whether Llaneza needs to undergo a competency evaluation.
During the three-minute appearance, Llaneza appeared calm and attentive. At one point he looked at the gallery and smiled. He sported long curly hair and was clean shaven, starkly contrasting the short hair and long beard he had in a two-year-old police mug shot.
According to the FBI, the defendant met Nov. 30 with an undercover agent who led Llaneza to believe he was connected with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Llaneza proposed a car-bomb attack on a Bank of America branch on Hegenberger Road. On the morning of Feb. 8, Llaneza drove there and parked an SUV filled with a dozen 5-gallon buckets of chemicals prepared by the FBI to simulate explosives. Llaneza was arrested after trying to detonate the fake bomb with a cellphone.
The case elicited outcry over the methods used to arrest Llaneza. His former attorney from a 2011 weapons conviction questioned whether his mental illness made him susceptible to going along with a ploy he could not carry out on his own. Civil-rights groups are wary that Llaneza was targeted because of his religion; he had converted to Islam -- adopting the names of Tarq Khan and Tariq Solamin.
Federal authorities, while remaining tight-lipped about the case, assert that generally in these types of undercover stings the targets are given ample opportunity to back out. Legal experts say an entrapment defense is unlikely to be successful because entrapment is narrowly defined to protect those with no previously expressed desire to commit a crime.
The Arizona-raised Llaneza moved to San Jose in March 2011 and lived in an RV in front of his estranged father's home. The one-time Marine attracted police attention a month later when after being hospitalized for a suicidal episode, San Jose officers discovered he had an AK-47 assault rifle and three high-capacity magazines, which he bought in Arizona but are illegal to own in California.
The ensuing probe -- which yielded a suspended prison sentence -- revealed Llaneza suffered from psychosis and bipolar disorder, according to a probation report. He told interrogators that secret government police and Mexican drug cartels were hunting him. Llaneza's mental state reportedly improved while he was in jail, thanks to in-custody counseling and medication, and was ordered to continue treatment when he was released in November 2011.
It's unclear how Llaneza came to the FBI's attention, but Glenn Katon, a lawyer for San Francisco-based Muslim Advocates, said it's common for federal authorities to approach Muslims who have been overheard making inflammatory remarks.
Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said this week in an email that while he could not comment specifically on the Llaneza arrest, no threat can be summarily dismissed and that undercover stings have been effectively used to thwart violent plots and protect the public, adding "the public record of guilty pleas and convictions in such cases speaks for itself."
Staff writers Mark Emmons and Matt O'Brien contributed to this report. Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.