The men were arrested Monday night after unknowingly working with an FBI informant for months, a strategy that federal investigators have used repeatedly in recent years to nab alleged terrorists.
"They talked about making a statement against corporate America and the government as some of the motivations for their actions," U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said in announcing the arrests with the head of the FBI in Cleveland, Stephen Anthony.
The alleged plotters researched explosives and obtained what they thought was C-4 explosives. The material, in fact, was harmless and the public was never at risk, because the men got it from the informant, officials said.
The men planted the fake explosives at the base of the bridge, armed them, went to a remote spot and "entered the codes that they thought would blow up the bridge with innocent people traveling over it," Dettelbach said.
The men were charged with conspiracy and trying to bomb property used in interstate commerce. All five appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court, where Magistrate Judge Greg White ordered them jailed without bond pending a hearing Monday.
The suspects were identified as Joshua S. Stafford, 23, and Anthony Hayne, 35, both of Cleveland; Brandon L. Baxter, 20, of nearby Lakewood; Connor Stevens, 20, of suburban Berea; and Douglas L. Wright, 26; of Indianapolis. The charges carry possible penalties of more than 20 years in prison.
At the hearing, the men, with wrist manacles chained to the waist, sat in the jury box with their attorneys and acknowledged receiving copies of the complaint against them and an understanding of their rights.
At the end of the hearing, Stevens' father, James, shouted, "Love you, Connor." The father left court without commenting.
The target of the plot was a bridge that carries a state highway over part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and a picturesque scenic rail line and canal towpath in the Brecksville area, about 15 miles south of downtown Cleveland.
The men had been associated with the anti-corporate Occupy Cleveland movement but don't share its non-violent views, organizer Debbie Kline said.
"They were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland," Kline said in an email canceling the group's May Day protest at a GE Lighting plant in view of the arrests of the "autonomous group" of five.
The alleged plotters were frustrated that other anti-corporate protesters opposed violence, according to Dettelbach, citing the criminal complaint filed in the case.
"It talks about the anger and frustration that these five individuals felt that other people would not support their violent aims," Dettelbach said.
Federal authorities said their investigation was aided by a paid confidential source who had previous robbery and other convictions and was on probation for passing bad checks. The informant began making contact with the men in October and had recorded conversations with them over the past three months, according to an affidavit.
The men considered different plots over time, including distracting law enforcement with smoke grenades while trying to bring down financial institution signs in downtown Cleveland.
The men also discussed other potential targets, including a law enforcement center, oil wells, a cargo ship or the opening of a new downtown casino, according to the affidavit. The document also alleges that one suspect talked about being part of group planning to cause trouble during an upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.
The group finally settled on blowing up the busy bridge, federal authorities alleged.
The arrests mark the latest case in which an FBI informant plans fake terrorism plots alongside targeted suspects. Several arrests in the last few years indicate it's a top strategy for the government in preventing terrorism.
Similar cases have included that of Rezwan Ferdaus, a Muslim American in Massachusetts who was arrested in September after undercover agents posed as al-Qaida members and delivered what Ferdaus believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosives. Authorities accuse Ferdaus of plotting to fly remote-controlled model planes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.
In Oregon, authorities arrested Mohamed Mohamud after they say the Somali American attempted to detonate a weapon of mass destruction at a Portland Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in November 2010. Authorities pretended to show Mohamud how to detonate a bomb and offered him cash to buy bomb-making parts and an apartment to hide in.
In both cases -- and in others involving plots in Chicago, New York and Texas -- FBI agents have communicated with suspects over a period of time to set up fictional terrorism plots.
Defense attorneys in those cases have accused federal authorities of conducting overblown sting operations that entrapped their clients. Authorities have defended the practice, saying it's prevented countless terrorist attacks.
The announcement of the arrests came as Occupy demonstrators joined Tuesday protests marking International Workers Day, or May Day.