Liberty City Seven's Sentencing Starts Wednesday

An iPhone buzzes inside a Wynwood restaurant, and Naudimar Herrera's bright brown eyes light up when he sees the caller: the downtown Federal Detention Center.

​"Patrick, what's up, my brother?" he barks into the phone. "You got to hang in there, man."

On the other end, Patrick Abraham sits in a prison cell that's mostly been his home for the past three years.

Both men were arrested -- along with five others -- as the "Liberty City Seven."

The feds charged them with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, saying they wanted to "wage a full ground war on the United States."

After two mistrials, the feds finally notched convictions this past May for five of the defendants. A sixth faces deportation to Haiti.

Only the slight, 25-year-old Dominican-American Herrera walked free. This week, he'll speak at the sentencing hearings for his former codefendants. He'll even plead for leniency for Narseal Batiste -- the group's leader, whose "stupidity and greed" led to the charges, Herrera says.

"How can I go on living every day knowing my brothers are still locked up over nothing?" he asks.

Herrera's story is instructive about the case: Like most of the defendants, he was a troubled teenager when he met Batiste. By age 19, the high school dropout was selling drugs and living on the street.

Batiste ran a Bible study group in a building down the street from Herrera's apartment. The 30-something Haitian preacher mixed religion with physical workouts. "Mentally, physically, spiritually, he changed everything for us," Herrera says.

Then Batiste began meeting with two Middle Eastern men who claimed they wanted to invest $50,000 in Batiste's community group.

Herrera says he and the group's other members knew nothing about the FBI informants who persuaded Batiste to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda in order to get the money. Batiste, he says, simply let his greed blind him. "He never would have done nothing violent," Herrera says.

In June 2006, Herrera was pressure-washing a sidewalk outside a Wynwood home when dozens of federal agents stormed in with rifles.

Doubts quickly emerged. One FBI informant was a wife-beating drug dealer, and the other had a record of lying to the feds. Even the bureau admitted the group was "more aspirational than operational."

Then came the mistrials and Herrera's freeing. He has since tried to return to a normal life -- moving back into a shabby midtown apartment with his disabled father, finding work with a pool company, and starting air-conditioner technician classes.

At the sentencing hearings -- which begin Wednesday -- he'll ask Lenard for mercy for his friends. "I keep telling 'em that this is just a first step," he says. "We're going to appeal this."

When Abraham's ten-minute call from prison runs out of time, Herrera puts down the phone and orders a shot of Hennessy. He raises the amber liquid, softly says, "For my brothers," and slowly drains it down.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink