October 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Three Charged With Bombings And Robberies

Bill Morlin S Kevin Keating And Craig Staff writer
 

(From For the Record, October 11, 1996): FBI agent Michael Byrne was shown in a photograph Thursday of a Sandpoint home being searched in the Spokane Valley bombing case. His name was incorrect in the photo caption.

Refusing to stand for the judge, three North Idaho men were charged Wednesday with a long list of crimes stemming from the Spokane Valley bombings and bank robberies.

The men, who have ties to the white supremacy movement and strong anti-government views, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno in Spokane.

“Yahweh is my defense,” one of the suspects, Jay Merrill, said when Imbrogno asked if he wanted a court-appointed attorney. “I will ask nothing from the state.”

The men refused to rise when she entered the courtroom, and refused to sign cards acknowledging they understand their constitutional rights.

Charles H. Barbee, 44; Robert S. Berry, 42; and Merrill, about 50, were ordered held without bond in the Spokane County Jail.

They face life imprisonment if convicted of the crimes, authorities said. A probable cause hearing is scheduled Tuesday.

While the suspects spent the day in jail and in court, a swarm of federal agents were searching their homes near Sandpoint.

About 100 FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents also were scrambling to find two other men and a woman they think are involved in the wave of domestic terrorism that stunned the region.

During Wednesday’s search, agents worked out of the Wal-Mart parking lot in Ponderay, Idaho. Evidence was seized at three homes and a business, but authorities weren’t discussing specifics. There were no additional arrests.

Agents were looking for computer files or other evidence that ties the three suspects to notes left at the first Valley bombings last April, or a threatening letter sent to U.S. Bank a month ago.

Barbee, Berry and Merrill are each charged with two counts of armed bank robbery, three counts of detonating bombs, one count of possessing hand grenades, two counts of interstate transportation of stolen cars, and conspiracy.

Berry was also charged with a 10th count of being a felon in possession of firearms.

On April 1, masked men detonated a bomb behind the Valley office of The Spokesman-Review. Minutes later, they robbed and bombed the U.S. Bank branch at Sprague and Mullan.

Then, on July 12, a bomb was hurled into the Valley Planned Parenthood clinic. Again, minutes later, the same bank branch was robbed.

“These were truly crimes against everyone in this community,” said Spokane County Sheriff John Goldman. “This community has very much felt it was a community under siege, waiting for the next event.”

U.S. Attorney Jim Connelly said the arrests were “the result of a truly outstanding investigation” involving “many, many agents who worked around the clock to make these charges possible.”

Neither he nor FBI officials would say what led FBI agents to begin shadowing the suspects a few days ago. But there’s increasing evidence that someone interested in the $130,000 reward may have provided a tip that culminated with FBI agents arresting the three men on Tuesday.

FBI regional chief Burdena Pasenelli didn’t rule out the possibility that someone stands to collect the reward.

“We’re analyzing the information at this time” before deciding whether someone should get the reward, she said, refusing to elaborate.

She said the FBI “averted another bank robbery” Tuesday, when agents following the suspects called ahead to a U.S. Bank branch in Portland.

Agents watched as the frustrated robbers shook the locked bank doors, before speeding away to Union Gap, Wash., a Yakima suburb, where they were arrested without any problems.

Hand grenades, explosive components and firearms were found in the suspects’ three vehicles.

“We took those people yesterday at the safest place that we could with the least chance of danger to the public, or any FBI agent on the scene,” Pasenelli said.

“We did it the way it’s supposed to go down,” she said. “At 2:24, I authorized them to go (make the arrests) and at 2:25 p.m., I was told they were all in custody. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”

One focus of the investigation is whether the suspects have ties to the Phineas Priesthood. Members of this secret white supremacy sect believe they have religious justification to commit crimes, enforcing God’s law.

Merrill, a former engineer who moved to the Sandpoint area a few years ago, has been a speaker at America’s Promise. The Christian Identity church, whose members preach the superiority of the white race, moved from Arizona to Sandpoint several years ago.

Merrill appeared at an America’s Promise gathering in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1988 and has been a featured speaker at other gatherings, sources say.

He has written articles for Jubilee, a California-based white supremacist newspaper, and gave lectures on his “hate and discontent” for the government, Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos said.

Steve Avery, a constitutionalist who has been in and out of jail in Sandpoint for refusing to get a driver’s license, said Merrill made money by working on cars or logging.

Avery said he spent many days visiting Merrill’s home where they would cook, open a Bible and talk about scripture.

“He’s a very righteous man, very religious,” Avery said. “I know Jay and Chuck, and I think it’s a bunch of garbage. It’s another case of mistaken identity, but I guess they needed somebody to frame so why not these guys.”

Berry apparently made a modest living running an automobile repair shop and doing odd jobs.

He and Barbee became good friends and religious allies after they met at the America’s Promise Church in 1994.

Friends and neighbors speak highly of Barbee, who lives south of Sandpoint in a rented house.

“As a renter and a friend, he has always been exceptional,” said Barbee’s landlord, Irwin “Abe” Abell.

Abell, who shares some of Barbee’s religious beliefs, said he has “always trusted and loved Chuck.

“He had great potential, a great life ahead of him. He has a great mind and is a very intelligent person.”

All three men - Barbee, Berry and Merrill - were familiar to the Rev. Dave Barley of America’s Promise Church.

Barley said the three weren’t members of his church, but he acknowledged Barbee may have attended once and met Robert Berry there.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color); Graphic: The suspects and those arrested

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Bill Morlin Staff writer Staff writers Kevin Keating and Craig Welch contributed to this report.


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