FBI dissecting bomb to crack Spokane case
White supremacists are at the top of a long list of possible suspects in the frightening attempted bombing in Spokane of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. The FBI has called the thwarted attack a case of domestic terrorism.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SPOKANE — Nearly 30 years ago, a bomb went off outside a small Northern Idaho church.
No one was hurt and the culprits were never found, but one thing was clear: Race and hate were the likely motives.
Last month, a backpack left on a metal bench along the route of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade route in downtown Spokane was found to contain a bomb that, had it gone off, would have sprayed the crowd with lead pellets coated with rat poison.
Investigators believe the bomb was placed in such a way as to maximize casualties.
So far, the attempted bombing remains unsolved. But the presumption is that it was a race-based hate crime, and has been labeled an act of domestic terrorism by the FBI.
The connection between these two events?
The 1981 church bombing occurred at the Rev. Richard Butler's Church of Jesus Christ Christian at Hayden Lake, Idaho, where he twisted religion to justify his race hatred and the formation of the Aryan Nations. The bombing in the community 37 miles east of Spokane occurred not long after the group's first public cross-burning, according to news reports.
The attempted bombing in Spokane on Jan. 17, most investigators suspect, was undertaken by someone who has taken up the late Butler's cause.
The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating. Officially, the bureau says it's too early to assign a motive, especially when it hasn't got a suspect.
However, Frank Harrill, the resident agent in charge of the Spokane office, said "nobody believes that the timing and the placement of the device along the route of the [Martin Luther King Jr. Day] march was a coincidence."
Still, the FBI is leaving all avenues of investigation open. For example, Harrill said it's possible the target was an individual in the parade, and that the motive was personal, not ideological.
"There was no foreshadowing or forewarning of this event," Harrill said. "There was no threat-stream before, and no group or individual has claimed responsibility."
"There's a long list of knuckleheads who could be responsible," added FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge David Gomez. "It's a target-rich environment as far as that's concerned."
Without a suspect or clear motive, he said in a recent interview, the FBI is settling in for "an intense, if not lengthy, investigation." He said FBI headquarters has offered "significant" resources, including additional manpower, to the investigation.
Harrill said the violent history of Northwest hate groups certainly offers an avenue of investigation, and that the bureau is coordinating with investigators and detectives from every law-enforcement agency in the region.
But much of the bureau's hope for a quick solution lies in the examination of the unexploded bomb. By their nature, bombs aren't supposed to leave a lot of evidence, and to get one intact can be a forensic treasure trove.
The bomb and the backpack that was holding it are being examined by FBI laboratories in Quantico, Va.
Harrill said the FBI would not discuss the specifics of the construction of the device. However, he said it was designed to "cause injury or death to a lot of people."
A source familiar with the investigation said it was fueled by gunpowder or a similar commercial "low-explosive" surrounded by lead pellets and a white powder that has tested to be rat poison.
Many rat poisons contain the chemical warfarin, an anticoagulant. There have been media reports that some suicide bombers in the Middle East pack their bombs with rat poison in hopes of making them more lethal.
The source, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk, said the lethality of the Spokane bomb has yet to be determined. At the least, the source said, it could have caused serious injury to anyone nearby.
It was to be detonated remotely, with what the source would describe only as a "line of sight" electronic device. Those sorts of devices include items such as garage-door openers or similar low-powered transmitters.
It is likely, the source said, that the bomber would have to be close by to set it off.
Harrill said two T-shirts — apparently purchased at a local thrift shop — were stuffed around the device, most likely in an effort to conceal it.
Progress has been slowed particularly by the large amount of duct tape used in the bomb's construction, the source said. Lab technicians are peeling it back a fraction of an inch at a time, looking for hairs, fibers and prints.
"A lot of these tests are sequential in nature," Harrill explained. "You have to do one before another, and only then can you begin to form a picture of what you have and don't have.
"I can tell you that picture isn't completely formed," he said. "We are in daily, if not multiple-daily contact with the labs."
Harrill said that the bomb is unlike any of the crude pipe bombs associated with previous white-supremacist or neo-Nazi groups — or any other bombings, for that matter.
"We would say if there had been similar devices," he said. "That would be a matter of public concern and public safety."
Harrill acknowledged that agents are also investigating whether placement of the bomb was out of convenience or to increase the number of potential victims.
The backpack was found by three city sanitation workers 40 minutes before the parade was to begin, on a metal bench at the intersection of Washington Street and Main Avenue, across from Auntie's Bookstore. Police rerouted the parade, which concluded without incident.
Behind the bench is a pair of short concrete walls that form an L-shape that Harrill said would have concentrated a blast toward the crowd.
Harrill said the vigilance and quick action of the sanitation workers likely saved lives.
Drawn to the area
In the 30 years between the Aryan church bombing and the attempted bombing in Spokane, groups and individuals with ties to the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have clustered in this remote corner of the Pacific Northwest, many attracted by Butler and his effort to create an Aryan homeland.
Others came "for the remoteness. For the 'live-and-let-live' attitude," said retired journalist Bill Morlin, who as a reporter at the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper covered Butler and the Northwest Christian Identity movement from Butler's immigration from California in the mid-1970s until his death at 89 in 2004.
Morlin is skeptical of any explanation for the bomb that doesn't involve Aryans, other hate groups or anti-government extremists — or perhaps a "lone wolf" sharing those views but operating independently.
"Given the day, the parade route, where the bomb was placed, nothing else makes sense," he said.
The Idaho Panhandle and the northeastern-most corner of Washington have spawned some of the movement's most violent followers. Butler's compound was a melting pot for hate groups, and he held a yearly "congress" on Adolf Hitler's birthday that sometimes attracted hundreds.
The Aryan compound was the breeding ground for Robert Mathews and the Order, a neo-Nazi "silent brotherhood" whose members trained at his farm in Metaline, Pend Oreille County, about 94 miles north of Spokane. Throughout the early 1980s, its members robbed banks and armored cars in hopes of funding violent white revolution, netting $4 million in one robbery alone. The Order also took responsibility for the 1983 murder of Denver radio host Alan Berg, who was Jewish.
Mathews died in a fiery shootout with U.S. marshals and the FBI at his Whidbey Island cabin in 1984.
Burford Furrow, who in 1999 killed a postal worker and then opened fire in a Los Angeles Jewish community day-care center, was a former security lieutenant for Butler. He lived for years in Western Washington, and at one point was married to Debra Mathews, Robert Mathews' widow.
In 1996, a small group of Christian Identity followers set off pipe bombs at The Spokesman-Review offices and a Spokane Planned Parenthood office. They also robbed the same bank twice before they were caught. They claimed alliance to a particularly violent credo of Christian Identity, the "Phineas Priesthood."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(The Associated Press) Fuel rules get support A Consumer Federation of America survey conducted in April found that a large majority of Americans R...
Post a comment