Leaving a bomb laced with rat poison along the planned route of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March was merely a “creative idea” to protest multiculturalism, domestic terrorist Kevin W. Harpham told a Spokane judge Tuesday.
The explanation was part of an eleventh-hour bid by Harpham, an admitted white supremacist, to withdraw his guilty plea and face trial.
But an unsympathetic U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush told Harpham, “It’s beyond my comprehension that you would stand there and not accept responsibility for what you have done,” then sentenced the 37-year-old to 32 years in federal prison. It was the maximum allowed under a September plea agreement between federal prosecutors and Harpham’s public defenders.
The bomb, which was designed to be detonated from a distance of up to 1,000 feet away, was discovered by three contract workers; Spokane police rerouted the Jan. 17 march, which Harpham had already joined.
On Tuesday, Harpham said his intent was that the bomb’s blast should hit a building across the street from where it was left on a bench at the corner of Main Avenue and Washington Street. It was in a backpack that had been cut to allow the insertion of the wooden-framed, 6-inch steel pipe loaded with 128 quarter-ounce weights; the weights were coated with rat poison to act as an anti-clotting agent.
“As crazy as it sounds … the backpack was actually upward,” Harpham said. “I aimed, by my best ability, to deliver a shotgun blast to the glass of the Eye Care Center” across the street. “The idea (was) get people marching on the street. As they are approaching, I would be down Main (Avenue) further looking back. As long as it was clear, I was going to fire this thing off into the side of the building.
“It’s a big billow of smoke, very loud. The whole point of the building was to add effect … just a statement of protest.”
The judge deadpanned: “Protest of what, Martin Luther King Day?”
“No,” Harpham replied, “just these kinds of social concepts, unity, multiculturalism. It was no different than a Christian person out there protesting gay marriage. Except that it was a lot more dangerous, a lot more extreme – just making a statement that people are out there who do not agree with these ideas.”
Frank Harrill, supervisory senior resident agent of the Spokane office of the FBI, didn’t buy that story, he said after the sentencing.
“That device was constructed with a clear, lethal purpose,” Harrill said. “I don’t know why you would coat it with an anti-coagulant to break windows.”
Harpham also told Quackenbush that he didn’t build the bomb “for this event. It was for something else.” He didn’t elaborate on that purpose, but added that it sat around his house until “this event came up and I got a creative idea how I could use it.”
Federal investigators said Harpham’s comments Tuesday were the first time they’d heard he built the bomb for another purpose.
Harpham, who was arrested on March 9 while driving away from his rural home near Addy, Wash., initially wouldn’t say what his “creative idea” entailed. He told the judge that he pleaded guilty as a hedge but wanted to withdraw the plea after his attorneys found an expert who questioned the viability of the bomb.
“I am not guilty of the acts that I plead guilty to,” Harpham said. “There is a reason why I put it where I put it. And, my intent was not to hurt people, although I admit it wasn’t exactly legal, either. I am still going to pursue trying to get to a trial so I can tell a jury what I was doing.”
Said Quackenbush: “You tell me that you want a jury trial to tell a jury what you did. If you wish, you should tell me.”
Quackenbush said he hopes that Harpham, who has no previous criminal history, uses his time in prison to come to grips with his racist views.
“As citizens of this country … it’s not us versus them. It’s us, regardless of our color, regardless of our political views, religious beliefs or heritage,” the judge said.
Harpham’s life as a “lone wolf” domestic terrorist ended following an intense local and federal investigation, said the FBI’s Harrill.
Harpham was identified as a suspect in mid-February, when an agent traced the purchase of several lead weights found in the unexploded bomb to a Wal-Mart in Colville, where Harpham’s debit card was used to buy them.
“Within a day, Harpham was the prime subject,” Harrill said.
Between Feb. 25 and March 4, agents identified 1,139 postings by Harpham on the racist website Vanguard News Network under the user name “Joe Snuffy.”
Then on Feb. 28, investigators obtained Harpham’s DNA profile from samples he provided while serving in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 1999. Within days, the FBI had DNA linking Harpham to the strap of the backpack that contained the bomb.
As soon as agents had his name from the fishing weight purchase, they put Harpham’s 10 acres near Addy under every surveillance technology that the federal government could bring to bear, Harrill said.
“We took great pains to make sure that the population he would target was safe from … what he could have done,” he said.
Had Harpham tried to attend a multicultural church, for example, agents would have arrested him before he arrived, Harrill said. But the issue never arose because Harpham rarely traveled from his home.
Agents feared Harpham might have more explosive devices inside his house, so they learned what kind of car he was considering buying and set up a fake online advertisement as a ruse to lure him out.
“We knew or believed that he would be armed whenever he went,” Harrill said.
Indeed, Harpham was armed with an assault rifle and handgun on March 9 when he drove away from his home to the fake car deal. As soon as he left, Harpham encountered what appeared to be road crews, but who were actually the FBI’s crack Hostage Rescue Team and members of the Seattle SWAT team.
After directing Harpham to drive across a bridge, an agent slammed the bucket of a backhoe on the back of Harpham’s car, breaking the window on impact. The machinery began pushing Harpham’s car across the bridge where more agents with assault rifles spilled out of a van and approached, according to court records.
“A great deal of care was taken to distract him and make sure he could not mount a violent resistence,” Harrill said.
Harrill credited local law enforcement and federal agents for the success of the investigation, as well as Spokane police Sgts. Eric Olsen and Jason Hartman for rerouting the march after the backpack was discovered.
“I believe he placed the device, joined the march taking pictures of intended victims, and would have been in a position to save himself but watch – and potentially walk through – the carnage that would have resulted from detonation,” Harrill said.
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