Colleen LaRose, 47, faces the possibility of life in prison after pleading guilty to four federal charges, including conspiracy to murder a foreign target, conspiracy to support terrorists and lying to the FBI.
LaRose, who spent long hours caring for the father, also was building a shadow life online from 2008 to 2009. According to prosecutors, LaRose "worked obsessively on her computer to communicate with, recruit and incite other jihadists," using screen names including "Jihad Jane," "SisterOfTerror," and "ExtremeSister4Life."
LaRose returned to the United States in November 2009 and was immediately taken into FBI custody at Philadelphia International Airport. She remained in secret custody until March, when her indictment was unsealed hours after Irish authorities swept up an alleged terror cell that included another American women, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, 32, of Leadville, Colo., and her Algerian husband. LaRose had previously denied the allegations against her and had pleaded not guilty before changing her plea Tuesday.
But prosecutors said LaRose and her co-conspirators had hoped her all-American appearance and U.S. citizenship would help her blend in while carrying out their plans.
"Today's guilty plea, by a woman from suburban America who plotted with others to commit murder overseas and to provide material support to terrorists, underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face," said Assistant U.S. Attorney General David Kris.
Speaking clearly but quietly, the 4-foot-11 LaRose told a judge Tuesday she had never been treated for any mental health problems and was entering her plea freely. She whispered a few comments to her lawyers, some of them prompting a smile from public defender Mark T. Wilson.
Wilson declined to comment afterward.
"We'll have a lot to say at sentencing," he said.
LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez are the rare U.S. women charged with terrorism. Paulin-Ramirez has pleaded not guilty and her lawyer, Jeremy Ibrahim, declined to say whether she will enter a plea or head to trial on May 2.
However, he believes LaRose's plea will benefit his client's case.
"With LaRose's plea it removes some pretty prejudicial evidence from coming in at Jamie's trial, evidence of making plans to kill someone, evidence of using the Internet to recruit enemies of America, that might otherwise become difficult for a jury to segregate in their minds who did what," defense lawyer Ibrahim told The Associated Press.
In e-mails recovered by the FBI over 15 months, LaRose had agreed to marry an online contact from South Asia so he could move to Europe. She also agreed to become a martyr, the indictment said.
Her would-be spouse directed her in a March 2009 e-mail to go to Sweden to find the artist, Lars Vilks, who had depicted the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog, the indictment said.
Vilks has questioned the sophistication of the plotters but said he is glad LaRose never got to him.
Both women left troubled lives behind, LaRose having survived a suicide attempt in Pennsburg and Paulin-Ramirez, according to her mother, an abusive first marriage and a childhood marked by bullying.
LaRose, born in Michigan, moved to Texas as a girl and had married twice by age 24. Her first marriage came at 16, to a man twice her age in Tarrant County, Texas. Both unions were long over by the time she met Pennsylvanian Kurt Gorman in 2005.
LaRose lived with Gorman and his father in Pennsburg, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, caring for the older man while Gorman worked. He called her a "good-hearted person" who mostly stayed around the house.
But her online ties grew to a loose band of allegedly violent co-conspirators from around the world, prosecutors said. They found her after she posted a YouTube video in June 2008 saying she was "desperate to do something somehow to help" ease the suffering of Muslims, the indictment said.
Despite Web images that show LaRose in a Muslim head covering, Gorman said he never picked up on any Muslim leanings. She did not attended religious services of any kind, he said. Gorman said he sensed nothing amiss in their five-year relationship - until LaRose fled days after his father's funeral.
LaRose had removed the hard drive from her computer and set off for Europe, according to the indictment. She had swiped Gorman's passport and planned to give it to the co-conspirator she had agreed to marry, the indictment said.
It's unclear how she was able to travel overseas, given that the FBI, presumably tipped to her online postings, had interviewed her in July 2009. According to the indictment, she then denied soliciting funds for any terrorist causes or making the postings ascribed to "Jihad Jane."
LaRose left for an undisclosed location in Europe on Aug. 23, 2009.
By Sept. 30, 2009, she wrote online that it would be "an honour & great pleasure to die or kill for" her intended spouse, the indictment said. "Only death will stop me here that I am so close to the target!" she is accused of writing.
Among those LaRose allegedly recruited was Paulin-Ramirez, a single mother who also spent long hours on the Internet as "Jihad Jamie" before moving to Ireland on Sept. 11, 2009, with her 6-year-old son. She married the Algerian man the day she arrived.
According to her mother, Paulin-Ramirez had met her fourth husband online. She was pregnant by the time she and LaRose appeared in court together in the United States in May. On Tuesday, Ibraham declined to say if or when his client's baby had been born. Her older son is now in protective custody.
The mother has described her as a troubled single mother who had the "mentality of an abused woman." When Paulin-Ramirez discussed jihad with her stepfather, a Muslim convert of 40 years, she said she would strap on a bomb for the cause, her mother said.
Paulin-Ramirez now faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of aiding terrorists. Both she and LaRose remain in custody. LaRose's sentencing has not yet been scheduled.
"The guilty plea in this case today demonstrates our need to remain vigilant to the continuing and evolving threats that we face in addressing terrorism," said George C. Venizelos, special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Philadelphia office.
Associated Press writer Patrick Walters contributed to this report.