About 100 federal agents poured into Sandpoint on Wednesday to raid three homes and a business belonging to suspects in the Spokane Valley bank robberies and bombings.
The agents arrived in dozens of unmarked cars, joined by a high-tech communications van and bomb-disposal unit.
They drew stares in this town of 6,000 when they set up their command post and gathered in the Wal-Mart parking lot off U.S. Highway 95.
“We had a lot of people asking questions about what was going on,” said Wal-Mart assistant manager Will Bacon. “We didn’t have an answer. We don’t know what’s going on. I have two TV trucks in my parking lot, and I don’t know why.”
Before 8 a.m., the contingent of agents from the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and U.S. Marshals Service split into groups of 20-30 officers. They scattered throughout Bonner County, launching simultaneous searches of two of the homes and an automobile repair shop.
During the daylong spectacle, plainclothes agents filled car trunks full of evidence, including some weapons. At one home, agents sifted through dirt with an aluminum shovel.
“The searchers found things they are interested in, but I can’t go into any details,” said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos. The bomb squad was called in as a precaution, but was not used.
Federal agents refused to say what they were doing or what they were looking for. They repeatedly shooed reporters and gawkers away from the search scenes.
Authorities raided the homes of Charles H. Barbee, Robert S. Berry and Jay Merrill. All three were charged Wednesday with nine counts relating to the Spokane Valley bank robberies and bombings.
Fourmost Truck Service Center, an automobile repair shop two miles east of Sandpoint, also was searched. Berry rented space in the sheet-metal building and worked on vehicles with his brother, Curtis M. Berry, 36.
The owner of the building, Don Blaese Jr., said about 30 agents piled into his parking lot after he arrived for work.
“They were all over, it kind of surprised me,” Blaese said. “It was a little hard to concentrate with 30 armed men running around the building. They really didn’t say a word to us.”
Berry operated the shop for about four years. Blaese said Berry would talk about government being too involved in people’s lives but he had no inkling the mechanic would be a suspect in the Spokane bombings.
Berry’s rented home sits in a sparsely populated wooded area just north of Sandpoint. Agents had the driveway of the gray, two-story home blocked Wednesday.
Berry, his wife and two children moved into the house earlier this year.
When agents arrived, neighbor Larry Smith couldn’t help but notice.
“I didn’t know what was going on over there, but there was a lot of traffic and activity,” Smith said. “This is not an urban area, and it’s real obvious when you see lots of rigs and various people at odd hours.”
About 20 agents swarmed Barbee’s rented home tucked into the trees next to a meadow on Sherwood Road south of Sandpoint. They searched the house, garage, an outbuilding and vehicles. Barbee’s wife, Carolyn, and their two home-schooled children were there at the time.
Attempts to reach Barbee’s wife were unsuccessful.
Authorities answered the telephone at Barbee’s house and said, “she’s not taking calls right now,” before hanging up.
Irwin Abe Abell, owner of The Country Inn on U.S. Highway 95, rents the home to Barbee. Abell considered Barbee a friend and the two men spent countless hours talking. He implied that Barbee expected Armageddon.
Barbee “was one who felt society was going to come to great conflict,” Abell said.
But, Abell added, “Chuck is innocent as far as I’m concerned.”
The owner of a feed store down the road said a jacked-up gray Suburban, like the one Barbee was driving when arrested in Union Gap, Wash., would barrel up and down his street up to 15 times a day.
Barbee’s neighbors said he kept to himself.
“You got the idea he … wanted to be left alone,” one neighbor said.
Merrill’s home about 16 miles northeast of Sandpoint on Rapid Lightning Creek Road was the last to be searched. Neighbors would not allow reporters on their property, and agents blocked off the road to Merrill’s house.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Graphic: FBI agents search for clues