JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the second day of a sentencing hearing, Judge Timothy Corrigan read portions of a letter Shelton Bell wrote to him ahead of the hearing that will decide his punishment for traveling from Jacksonville to Jordan to try to join a terrorist organization with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The 20-year-old Bell is facing up to 30 years in federal prison. A judge will announce his sentence at a later date.
"Upon returning home, I realized that I hurt the ones I loved most by leaving," Bell wrote. "I now look back at everything and see how seriously I had gotten out of hand. All the videos seemed like fun and in some way very righteous at the time. I was oblivious to the consequences. I was ignorant to all the warnings my friends and family gave. I am going to further my education and shoot for an MBA."
"I realize I'm responsible for my actions and it shouldn't go unnoticed ... wrong and foolish, which is why I plead guilty. I never intended to hurt my family and cause all this to happen. I have no excuse to present to you as to why I did it."
"I'm still learning how to be a man and grow past thinking like a child."
Bell spoke to the judge briefly on Friday afternoon.
"When I did come back (from Jordan), my opinion about fighting, it didn't necessarily change until I got arrested," Bell said. "It's something I can't take back now, it's only something I can improve on."
"Are you an American?" Judge Corrigan asked.
"Yes, sir, I am," Bell responded. "I am an American, sir."
Bell said he keeps up with the news and is aware of the attacks and genocide that the rebel group ISIS is committing in the Middle East.
"I just want to apologize to the victims ... and the Muslim community in general," Bell added.
William Braniff, a terrorism expert from the University of Maryland, said Bell seemed to be fully involved in the cause and a full believer of Islamist extremism. He said Bell truly believed he was in the "fight of all fights" for Islam, with ideas of burning down liquor stores and shops that sell pornography.
The expert said there are "no indications that Bell was remorseful or sorry," and he doesn't think the letter is genuine.
Prosecutors said Bell was prepared to kill people, and that's why he should get the maximum sentence.
"If it weren't for the Jordanian authorities arresting him, he'd probably be on a battlefield today," Assistant United States Attorney Mac Heavener III told the judge. Heavener said the case should be considered very serious, especially with a recent increase in terrorist activity and the rise of the rebel group ISIS.
Heavener pointed out that he believed Bell had a "continued propensity of deception." He questioned the sincerity of Bell's letter to the judge.
Bell pleaded guilty in March to federal charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Judge Corrigan said he's concerned Bell may use the letter to forward his work by getting a lesser sentence.
Videos show radical teachings Bell had on his computer, as well as clips of him making bombs and setting them off in the Jacksonville area. Prosecutors also presented that Bell and a juvenile went on a jihadi training mission wearing all black and destroying statues of Jesus at an Arlington cemetery.
On Thursday, FBI Special Agent William Berry testified that he and other FBI members found other images and videos on Bell's computer, one talking about assassinating President Barack Obama, another an image of the Fort Hood shooting suspect.
According to evidence presented, Bell said he wanted to train other youth to fight against Americans, and he would be willing to kill for the cause. He said he would be willing to kill police if they got in the way of his plan.
The FBI quoted Bell during an interview saying, "if you ask me If I was going for jihad in Yemen, I say yes."
Bell was first arrested by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office after someone claimed he stole $4,500 while running a computer repair booth at the Pecan Park Flea Market. He was already under investigation by the FBI. Prosecutors said Bell used that money to fund his trip to the Middle East, where he wanted to join with a terrorist group that has links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The arresting JSO detective, Nassim Mana, who testified he is a Muslim, said when Bell found out he insulted him, calling him a disbeliever and criticizing him for working as a police officer. The detective concluded "that he does not believe the U.S. Constitution."
Police fielded complaints from leaders at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. An Imam told investigators that Bell and other juveniles had made alarming statements showing extremist sentiments.
A defense expert, neuropsychologist Dr. Robyn Cohen of the Orlando area, said Bell is very intelligent but had a lack of motivation and was disorganized. She said he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that could play into his actions.
Bell's mother, father, maternal grandmother and younger brother were in the courtroom for the hearing. At times, they cried in the courtroom. They have not commented publicly about the case.
Bell's attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Lisa Call, said if Bell is released from custody, his father has offered to give him a place to live and make sure he stays on the right track.
Call said Bell should "pay his debt to society" but should also have "a future and a chance to move forward."
Call had no further comment, besides what she said in court.
Bell remains in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He appeared in court with a red jumpsuit and shackles on his legs.
Judge Corrigan said because of the volume of material heard over the two-day sentencing hearing and the unique complexity of the case, he wanted time to consider the matter.
He said he would announce Bell's sentence on Jan. 9.
"That's the time that I think I'll need in order to give it the serious consideration that it deserves," Corrigan said.