At a time of heightened concerns over threats to government officials, federal authorities in Spokane kept quiet about the discovery of a bomb found alongside the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse last week.
They acknowledged the investigation Wednesday, however, after the latest edition of Newsweek magazine disclosed the March 28 discovery as part of an article examining increasing anti-government threats and violence spreading across the nation.
U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt defended the decision to try keeping the case under wraps.
“It’s an ongoing criminal investigation,” McDevitt said. “Basically, that’s all we can say.”
The device was located late in the evening on a Sunday, said Tom Rice, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington. Rice wouldn’t describe the device, where it was found or whether federal agents have identified any suspects.
“I will be guarded in what I say. We would confirm that a device was located. But that’s as far as we are going to go,” Rice said. “The appropriate people in the courthouse were notified. … (W)e didn’t want to compromise the active investigation.”
McDevitt, who was attending a conference Wednesday in California, said federal authorities were not compelled to inform neighboring businesses about the discovery.
“I’m not sure if members of the public or people in neighboring buildings were in danger,” he said. “I’m not an expert but … the device was not something that, from my standpoint, would have done any harm except to the immediate area … the area within feet.”
Although no one has suggested a direct link, the bomb was planted during a wave of threats against politicians and other government officials that some believe was triggered by outrage over passage of the recent health care reforms.
On Wednesday, for example, the FBI arrested a Northern California man on allegations that he made threatening phone calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, law enforcement officials told the Associated Press. Charges against the man have yet to be disclosed, but they are expected to be filed in federal court in California.
On Tuesday, authorities announced charges against a 64-year-old Yakima-area man accused of making threatening calls to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Charges also have been filed against a Philadelphia man who allegedly made a YouTube video threatening U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Spokane is no stranger to anti-government threats and violence.
A pipe bomb packed with nails and screws exploded outside Spokane City Hall on April 29, 1996. There were no injuries, but the blast blew out a window in one of the doors at the Post Street entrance and sent shrapnel flying into Riverfront Park. Authorities called the bomb fairly sophisticated, with a timer and electronic ignition.
Federal prosecutors later indicted white supremacists Chevie Kehoe, of Colville, and Danny Lee, of Yukon, Okla., for the bombing. Both also were later convicted in the 1996 murders of an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife and her 8-year-old daughter. Kehoe, the alleged mastermind, was sentenced to life in prison, while Lee was given a death sentence.
Also in April 1996, a pipe bomb exploded at the Valley office of The Spokesman-Review shortly before a nearby bank was robbed and bombed. A Planned Parenthood office was bombed in July 1996 shortly before the bank was robbed for a second time. No one was injured in either blast.
Verne Merrell, Robert S. Berry and Charles Barbee were arrested in October 1996 near Yakima. Prosecutors said they were traveling from their hometown of Sandpoint to Portland to rob another bank. The fourth defendant, Brian Ratigan, was arrested later and tried separately.
All four were convicted of armed bank robbery, bombings and conspiracy, and Merrell, Berry and Barbee were convicted of additional weapons charges. Those three were sentenced to life in prison without parole.