MARQUETTE - The trial for two Upper Peninsula men accused of illegally possessing and transporting more than 4,000 pounds of explosives is set to begin Monday, after one withdrew a guilty plea.
Kenneth Ageed Kassab of Brimley on Thursday withdrew a plea agreement he had agreed to earlier this month.
Kassab will now face trial on one count of transporting explosive materials and one count of possessing explosives as a convicted felon.
In an April 10 indictment, Kassab, 53, was included as a co-defendant in the government's case against John Francis Lechner of Sault Ste. Marie. Lechner, 65, is facing eight felonies and stands accused of transporting, distributing and improperly storing the explosives.
Kassab was employed by Lechner and handled everything from cleaning to maintenance at a rental property belonging to his boss, according to Karl Numinen, Kassab's attorney.
Kassab was asked by Lechner in November of 2010 to assist in loading a number of bags of material onto a truck, according to Numinen, who said his client was not immediately aware the bags contained ammonium nitrate fuel oil, a powerful blasting agent typically used in mining and other commercial operations.
"He and I analyzed the case closely and he decided to withdraw his plea because he truly believes in his heart of hearts that he did nothing wrong," said Numinen. "He had no idea what Mr. Lechner's intentions were with any of this material. He was simply loading what he was told to load."
The original charges against Lechner stem from a separate September incident in which a government informant wearing a wire allegedly helped Lechner transport about 4,150 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The pair moved the ANFO from property Lechner owned on Blalock Road in Sault Ste. Marie to a shed on the informant's property in Dafter.
A federal agent then obtained permission to search the informant's property and located 83 50-pound bags of ANFO resting on pallets in the shed. Searches of properties owned by Lechner and his mother turned up dozens of blasting caps and thousands of feet of detonator cord.
Though authorities have not accused Lechner of plotting to detonate the substance, court testimony from September revealed there was enough ANFO to produce an explosion equal to, or exceeding, that of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., which killed 168 people.
Testimony also indicated that Lechner allegedly told the informant he was moving the ANFO in an attempt to hide it from federal agents.
In late February, just two weeks prior to the scheduled start of his original jury trial, Lechner reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. A month later, he withdrew the plea, stating that people were frightened by law enforcement allegations being made about him. His lawyer, he told the court in a handwritten letter, would prove the allegations false.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.