Man charged with attempted MLK Day bombing linked to neo-Nazi group
A Stevens County man charged with the attempted bombing of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane has links to a neo-Nazi group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Seattle Times staff reporters
ADDY, Stevens County — DNA evidence and purchases of electronic components led investigators to the former Fort Lewis soldier accused of planting a rat poison-laced bomb along the route of Spokane's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Kevin William Harpham, who reportedly has links to a neo-Nazi group, was arrested by FBI agents and local law enforcement Wednesday morning at his home near Addy, a community of about 1,400 people roughly 55 miles northwest of Spokane.
Harpham, 36, appeared briefly in U.S. District Court in Spokane on Wednesday afternoon, where he was told he had been charged with one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and one count of knowingly possessing an improvised explosive device, according to a federal complaint. The weapon-of-mass-destruction charge carries a penalty of up to life in prison.
Harpham was a member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance in late 2004, according to Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. Potok, whose Alabama-based office tracks hate groups in the United States, said it was not known when Harpham joined or whether he was still a member.
However, the chairman of the National Alliance told The Spokesman-Review of Spokane that Harpham is not a member.
Harpham also served in the Army and was based at Fort Lewis during the 1990s.
He is accused of leaving a backpack containing the potentially lethal bomb on a bench along the route of the Jan. 17 parade in downtown Spokane. Had the bomb gone off, the crowd would have been sprayed with lead pellets coated with rat poison.
Investigators believe its placement was designed to maximize casualties.
The backpack was found by three city sanitation workers 40 minutes before the start of the parade.
Federal prosecutors have sealed documents supporting Harpham's arrest.
However, the source familiar with the investigation said authorities were able to link Harpham to purchases of bomb components, including a remote car starter and other electronics. The purchases were traced to various stores, and at least one purchase was made with a debit card, the source said Wednesday evening.
In addition, DNA recovered in the backpack or on the bomb was linked to Harpham, the source said.
The source characterized the hunt for the suspected would-be bomber as a "meticulous, shoe-leather investigation."
Harpham, a big-shouldered man with rumpled short brown hair and stubble on his face, gave single-word answers to questions during his brief appearance Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno. He quietly conferred with his federal public defender, Roger Peven.
Imbrogno said the next federal grand jury will convene March 22 and will consider whether to indict Harpham on the charges. She scheduled his next court appearance for March 23.
Peven waived Harpham's bail hearing. In the meantime, Harpham will remain in the Spokane County Jail. He can request a bail hearing at a later date, or wait until the grand jury convenes.
In 2004, when Harpham was believed to be a member of the National Alliance, the group was still prominent, according to Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The alliance was the most prominent hate group in America for decades, but has fallen on hard times since the 2002 death of its founder, William Pierce, Potok said.
"It went into rapid decline," Potok said.
Pierce authored "The Turner Diaries," a 1978 race-war novel often referred to as the bible of the radical right and white supremacists, and believed to have inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The book depicts a violent overthrow of the government by a small band of white supremacists who finance themselves through counterfeiting and bank robbery.
The Order, a paramilitary white-supremacist group, took its name from "The Turner Diaries." In 1985, 10 members of The Order were convicted of racketeering and other charges in Seattle. Among the crimes they were accused of were armored-car robberies and the 1984 machine-gun slaying of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg, who was Jewish.
But Erich Gliebe, chairman of the National Alliance, based in Hillsboro, W.Va., told The Spokesman-Review that Harpham is not a member of his organization.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding illegal activity and anyone committing those acts — even hinting or joking — would not be welcome in our organization," Gliebe said.
Harpham was stationed at Fort Lewis, now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, from June 1996 to February 1999 as a fire-support specialist in the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, according to Joe Piek, base spokesman:
It is unclear what rank he achieved or if he received any awards, Piek said.
Piek said he was unaware of any problems the base has had with supremacist group members within Army ranks. "There is no evidence to support any claims of a large number of extremists at the base," he said.
In 1997, when Harpham was stationed at Fort Lewis, all 19,000 soldiers were subjected to partial body searches for tattoos that indicated membership in gangs or extremist groups. The search did not lead to any serious disciplinary action, the Army said at the time.
In March 1994, Stevens County prosecutors charged Harpham with being a minor in possession of alcohol. He later pleaded guilty to the charge. Because the case is archived, staff at the prosecutor's office could not immediately provide Harpham's sentence.
It doesn't appear Harpham has ever been convicted of a felony.
According to Stevens County tax records, Harpham bought a 9.8-acre parcel at 1088 Cannon Way for $27,950 in 1997. A 672-square-foot home was built on the property in 2007.
FBI spokesman Fred Gutt said investigators are looking into whether the suspect had assistance from others.
"The investigation is ongoing. At this stage no one else has been arrested. It remains to be seen if anyone will," Gutt said.
Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, declined to discuss Harpham's alleged motives. He said more information will be revealed when court documents are unsealed in the coming weeks.
Potok said it is "extremely unlikely" the attempted bombing was carried out by a group.
"What we see are lone-wolf attacks," Potok said, possibly with one or two confederates.
Most investigators suspected race and hate were the likely motives behind the attempted bombing.
Frank Harrill, the resident agent in charge of the Spokane FBI office, said, "Nobody believes that the timing and the placement of the device along the route of the march was a coincidence."
Rat poison added
A second source familiar with the investigation said the device 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.
Some suicide bombers in the Middle East pack their bombs with rat poison in hopes of making them more lethal, according to media reports.
The bomb was to be detonated remotely, with what the source would describe only as a "line of sight" electronic device, such as a remote car starter.
It is likely, the source said, that the bomber would have to be close by to set it off.
Harrill said the two T-shirts — apparently purchased at a local thrift shop — were stuffed around the device, most likely in an effort to conceal it.
The two T-shirts were tied to Stevens County. One was distributed last year at the "Relay for Life" race in Colville. The second shirt — which had the words "Treasure Island Spring 2009" on the front — was from a local theater production in 2009 in the town of Chewelah.
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Freelance writer Kevin Taylor reported from Spokane. Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton and news researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives and The Associated Press.