ARVADA, Colo. — She was a memorable figure in this western Denver suburb, a teenager wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf and dress, sitting alone on a park swing or walking into a Christian church with a backpack and notebook.
People who encountered 19-year-old Shannon Maureen Conley over the past few months said Thursday they were shocked, unnerved or simply sad to learn she had been arrested on charges of conspiring to help terrorists.
“I feel sorry for her,” said Mary Beth Brugler, a member of Faith Bible Chapel, where Conley visited several times last fall before concerned church officials asked her to leave.
“She needs a lot of prayer,” Brugler said.
The FBI says Conley was a convert to Islam who was planning to travel overseas and marry a man she believed was a Tunisian fighting with an al-Qaida splinter group in Syria. She told FBI agents she wanted to help wage holy war against forces attacking Islam, according to court documents.
Conley wanted to fight, the FBI said, but if she couldn’t, she would use her skills as a licensed nurse’s aide to help jihadi warriors.
The FBI said Conley was arrested at Denver International Airport in April while boarding a plane on the first leg of a trip to a town in Turkey three hours from the Syrian border. Authorities didn’t disclose her arrest until Wednesday, citing an active investigation.
Conley’s attorney didn’t return calls Wednesday and was out of the office Thursday. Her father declined to comment.
Conley’s family moved into an Arvada cul-de-sac in the past two years or so, neighbors said, and about a year ago she began wearing a headscarf.
Neighbor Bob Taylor recalls seeing her in a headscarf and long dress, sitting on swing in a nearby park for about a half hour at a time.
“I thought it was meditation or something. It just looked unusual,” Taylor said.
“I was shocked, and it’s a little unnerving, scary, you know,” he said of her arrest. “In here, you don’t expect that, you know, as neighbors.”
In October she began showing up at Faith Bible Chapel, sometimes with a backpack, said Jason King, an associate pastor. That caught the attention of security personnel at the church, where a gunman killed two missionary workers in 2007.
“We did ask her what she was doing here, because our first heart is to help and serve anyone,” King said. “So as she was walking around, she was acting a little different, so we just wanted to have a conversation with her.”
Brugler, who serves Sunday coffee and breakfast to worshippers at the church’s small cafe, said Conley ordered biscuits and gravy one morning.
“She asked me if it contained meat,” Brugler recalled. “I said, ‘Yes.’ She cursed and threw it in the trash.”
Church officials eventually asked her to leave.
“There was obviously some resistance, a little bit of hostility,” he said.
Conley later told FBI agents she thought church members were following her, the agency said.
“If they they think I’m a terrorist, I’ll give them something to think I am,” she told the agents, according to a court document. She said she began keeping a notebook and acted as if she was diagramming the church “to alarm them,” according to the document.
Doug Newcomb, another associate pastor, said none of Conley’s conversations with church employees involved terrorism.
“All of our conversations with her were pastoral in nature, all related to explaining the Christian faith,” he said.
The FBI said when officers first asked Conley why she went to the church, she replied, “I hate those people.”
She told an FBI agent and an Arvada police detective she first went there to learn about other faiths, but that she disapproved of Faith Christian’s support of Israel.
Senior Pastor George Morrison said the investigation began when pastors expressed suspicions about Conley to security staff, which includes Arvada police officers. When officers learned the church asked her not to return, they started a probe on their own that eventually involved the FBI.
Court documents say FBI agents met with Conley eight times from November through April and that she freely described her plans — even though she knew she was speaking to government agents, and even though they told her what she wanted to do was illegal and tried to talk her out of it.
“It grieves your heart,” said King, the associate pastor.