JACKSONVILLE - A Florida teen accused of traveling to the Middle East to train with terrorists is facing federal charges.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa announced today that a grand jury has indicted Shelton Thomas Bell, 19, of Jacksonville, on charges of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to terrorists. He faces up to 15 years in prison for each of the two charges.
According to the indictment, Bell had planned to travel to the Arabian Peninsula and join Ansar Al-Sharia, which is an alias for al-Qaida there. The group has taken responsibility for multiple attacks on Yemeni forces, including a suicide bombing during a parade in May 2012, which killed more than 100 Yemeni soldiers. The group has also claimed credit for a series of armed assaults in March 2012, killing more than 100 people, including Yemeni soldiers.
A woman who answered the door at one of Bell's last known addresses in a small, rural neighborhood in Jacksonville said she was his mother and that his lawyer had advised her not to talk. Asked if she had any indication of what led to the charges, she said, "None at all."
Investigators reported that Bell and others between May and September 2012 engaged in physical, firearm and other training to prepare for armed conflict in the Middle East. Bell is also accused of soliciting others, including young people, to travel overseas with him to train.
According to court records, Bell made video and audio recordings intended to be distributed to others once he arrived in the Middle East. The purpose was to solicit and recruit others there to participate in violent jihad, federal authorities said.
The federal indictment says that Bell and an unidentified person performed "a night-time mission" and vandalized religious statues at a Jacksonville cemetery. The court records also describe how Bell participated in firearms training for an upcoming fight, recorded terrorist recruiting videos and bought a pair of black, tactical gloves for use in combat.
In September 2012, Bell and a juvenile went to Amman, Jordan, and made contact with someone who investigators claimed could help them travel to Yemen to participate in violent jihad.
Bell was being held Thursday at the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville on several state charges, including two counts of grand theft, organized fraud and knowingly and intentionally participating in a motor vehicle crash. According to jail records, Bell was arrested by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office on Jan. 29.
Ann Finnell, Bell's attorney on the state charges, said she knew that her client "was being looked at" by federal authorities.
"I don't have any information about what is alleged in this indictment," she said.
Finnell said Bell grew up in Jacksonville and his parents live in the northeast Florida city.
Kristin and John Ziegler, who used to own property behind the mother's home, said their boys, ages 10 and 15, used to talk to Bell all the time. The Zieglers moved away, but Kristin Ziegler's mother still lives in the area, and the family visits often.
"He seemed like a really good guy," Kristin Ziegler said. "He always talked to our kids."
She said she was pretty sure he never talked to them about religion or politics. The Zieglers said they never saw any indication that there was anything else going on.
John Ziegler said he was told about a year ago that Bell had converted to Islam and joined a mosque near where he lived. Around that time, Bell moved away from the area.
According to an arrest report released today by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Bell was a computer repair vendor at a Jacksonville flea market. A woman said she dropped her computer off to be fixed and she told authorities that Bell had "been giving her the run around" and she couldn't reach him.
A Jacksonville Sheriff's deputy wrote that Bell "cleaned out his booth" at the flea market and bought a one-way ticket to Israel.
The federal indictment states that Israel wouldn't allow Bell and an unnamed juvenile to enter the country - but Bell went on to travel to Turkey and Jordan and also attempted to travel to Yemen "to find a location where they could participate in violent jihad."
Jacksonville deputies wrote in their report on the grand theft case that Bell stayed in the Middle East for two months at the end of 2012, then returned around New Year's. The police got involved because Bell had not yet returned the victim's property.
It's unclear whether Bell has retained an attorney on the federal charges. Finnell said it's likely that a federal public defender will be appointed to him.