Suspects Drew Parade Of Agents Nearly 50 Federal Officers Shadowed Trio
A handful of FBI agents who trailed three bombing suspects from Sandpoint grew to a parade of almost 50 federal officers by the time the caravan hit Portland.
Tipped by informers, the agents shadowed the suspects in cars and two planes for more than 14 hours and hundreds of miles before finally arresting them.
Agents watched a stolen blue Ford Aerostar van join the suspects’ two Chevrolet Suburbans in Hood River, Ore. They watched the vehicles drive back and forth about 25 miles each way from a Troutdale, Ore., truck stop to a southeast Portland U.S. Bank. They watched the van scout the bank’s neighborhood, pulling into driveways and pulling out, apparently trying to avoid being followed.
After tracking the suspects back north to Union Gap, Wash., four dozen agents swooped in and arrested Robert S. Berry, Charles H. Barbee and Jay Merrill, all of the Sandpoint area.
The three, linked to militia and white supremacist groups, could face mandatory life sentences in prison in connection with the Spokane Valley bombings and bank robberies.
At a Spokane court hearing Tuesday, federal agents said they recovered six fragmentation grenades, seven loaded guns, a gas mask, flammable candle oil, masks, radios, ski goggles and ponchos from the suspects’ vehicles.
They found reading material, too - a U.S. Constitution, a Bible and at least four copies of a threatening letter mailed from Portland Oct. 8 to The Spokesman-Review.
“It’s literally a recipe for the bank robbery,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice said in U.S. District Court Tuesday. “It’s a military operation.”
U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno decided there’s enough probable cause to hold the trio on robbery, explosives and other charges.
Imbrogno scheduled a detention hearing for today to determine if the men could be released before trial.
Two of the three public defenders appointed to represent the men objected to the government relying on anonymous tipsters to form its case.
They argued the men hadn’t been seen committing any crimes but merely had parked outside a bank. They said some of the material connecting the men to the bombings - such as fuses and black powder - is legal.
Federal prosecutors tried to connect material seized in the men’s homes and during the Union Gap stop to evidence left behind in the Valley bombings and robberies and to letters mailed to bombing victims.
Berry, Barbee and Merrill face nine felony charges relating to the Valley bombings and robberies. Berry faces a 10th count of being a felon in possession of firearms.
On April 1, masked men detonated a pipe bomb behind the The Spokesman-Review’s Valley office, then robbed and bombed a nearby U.S. Bank branch.
On July 12, a pipe bomb was tossed into the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Valley. Minutes later, the same bank was robbed.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the three men walked in wearing prison blues.
Berry, 42, said “Hey guys” to his parents and shot smiles at them throughout the hearing. But most of the time, he was grim-faced, taking notes and whispering to his court-appointed lawyer, John Rodgers.
Barbee, 44, uttered a solemn “Yahweh,” a Hebrew word for “God,” as he entered the courtroom.
Merrill, about 50, stood in front of Imbrogno with his court-appointed lawyer, Aaron Lowe.
Merrill said during a brief court hearing last week that he didn’t want a lawyer. On Tuesday, he continued to protest.
“The Messiah is my advocate,” Merrill told the judge. “I can ask for no help from man.”
But he accepted Lowe’s assistance after Imbrogno insisted, telling him he could object to Lowe at any time.
The federal government called only two witnesses to outline its case: FBI agent David Bedford and Douglas Farmer, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Bedford said at least two informers, whom he declined to name, had tipped the agency to the suspects. A $130,000 reward has been offered for information in the case.
Farmer and Bedford ticked off similarities between items confiscated from the suspects and evidence from the robberies and bombings:
Agents snagged flammable oil and two highway flares from the stolen van that could be used to set fire to the van, Farmer said. The devices are similar to firebombs left behind in two stolen getaway vans in the Valley. Neither of those devices worked.
A Mason jar filled with gasoline and equipped with a green fuse was left behind in a van in the April 1 bombing. A coil of similar green fuse was found near Merrill’s trailer, Farmer said.
In the July 12 robbery-bombing, a modified stun gun was found on top of a propane tank set to explode the getaway van. Agents said they found a similar stun gun in Merrill’s trailer.
Orange safety fuse was buried in the wall of the U.S. Bank after the April 1 bombing. Orange safety fuse also was found in Merrill’s trailer, Farmer said.
Two pairs of Scott brand goggles were found in the blue Aerostar, and two of the robbers on July 12 wore Scott goggles.
Black masks with sewn-up mouths were found in the Aerostar, similar to those used in the robberies. Camouflage ponchos and parkas also were found in the vehicles.
A manila envelope contained at least four copies of a typewritten letter - the same one laced with threats to bankers that was mailed from Portland to The Spokesman-Review on Oct. 8.
The letter contains references to “usury,” the practice of lending money and charging exorbitant interest. Usury violates God’s law in the Old Testament.
The large envelope also contained two sealed business envelopes - one to President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, and one to the “USurer” Bank.