January 20, 2011 in City

Downtown bomb linked to hate crimes

Police chief praises sergeants for keeping marchers from harm
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick credits two officers, including Sgt. Eric Olsen, left, with steering the Unity March on Martin Luther King Jr. Day away from an explosive device in downtown Spokane.
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The hunt for the person who left the bomb targeting marchers in Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. parade will focus on two aspects: forensics and the region’s violent history with white supremacists.

Frank Harrill, the special agent in charge of the Spokane office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, confirmed late Wednesday that two recent protests by white supremacists in Coeur d’Alene will be part of the effort to identify those responsible for leaving the bomb on the northeast corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue.

“We will examine every avenue,” Harrill said. “We are reaching far and wide in terms of what we are looking at. That certainly will be one of them.”

Tony Stewart, a member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said neo-Nazis used signs on Friday to protest two Mexican restaurants and then about 15 neo-Nazis protested a human rights event on Monday.

“Then we hear about the bomb in Spokane,” Stewart said. “There would be no question that since it was planted directly on the path of the Martin Luther King Jr. march, that it has to be connected to hate crimes. It was an attempt to injure and kill people because they were out there promoting the equality of human rights. The evidence is just too overwhelming.”

Harrill said the bomb discovered Monday in a Swiss Army brand backpack was sent Wednesday to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va. Investigators have not yet arrested anyone in connection with the bomb, which officials characterize as a thwarted attempt at domestic terrorism that could have caused multiple casualties.

Sources who received security briefings on Tuesday described a sophisticated bomb that could have been detonated remotely. Harrill said he could not discuss whether investigators believe the person who left the backpack remained in the area. Investigators continue to seek anyone who took photographs or video in the area between 8 and 11 a.m. on Monday, he added.

While Harrill said he hopes to make a quick arrest, he added: “A lot of this is going to turn, in part, on results of the lab analysis. Even though we will get an expedited handling of the evidence, it sometimes takes days to complete,” he said.

Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said her department’s Central Intelligence Unit has reported an increase in hate literature and other white supremacist activity over the past two years, “but nothing in the two weeks as a precursor to this event.”

Stewart, too, said his organization has tracked a number of troubling events, even though the efforts don’t seem to be well funded and don’t have a central meeting point, such as the now-defunct Aryan Nations compound north of Hayden Lake.

In 2009, someone spread hate literature throughout North Idaho and Spokane Valley, Stewart said. There was a lull in activity, until the events last week, he said.

“Now we have this re-emergence. Here we are facing something that is not to be taken lightly,” Stewart said.

Stewart and others started their efforts to combat hate in 1981 after Richard Butler founded the Aryan Nations compound in 1973. Stewart said his organization tracked more than 100 felonies committed by hate groups in the area in the 1980s and ’90s, including eight murders, several bank robberies and other crimes intended to intimidate residents.

The crimes attributed to people linked to the Aryan Nations included several bombings in the mid-1980s, including those at the home of a Catholic priest, the federal courthouse in Coeur d’Alene and other locations, Stewart said.

Then in 1996, three bombings linked to racists caused severe damage to a Planned Parenthood building, Spokane City Hall and the Spokane Valley office of The Spokesman-Review.

Butler began holding annual marches in downtown Coeur d’Alene in the 1990s before Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, bankrupted Butler in a civil trial in 2000. Butler died in 2004 and much of the crime spree ended with him, Stewart said.

“I know a lot of people were hoping that we were past our most serious period,” Stewart said. “But it’s not over. It’s time for people to be very vigilant again.”

Kirkpatrick also keyed on that word, vigilant, as she praised her employees who quickly identified the potential threat from the bomb.

Although they were first identified as city employees, three workers from the Spokane Public Facilities District were credited with finding the backpack and alerting Spokane police. Their boss, Kevin Twohig, would not identify them.

“I’m very proud of what they did and they will be appropriately acknowledged by the district,” Twohig said.

Likewise, Kirkpatrick praised Sgts. Jason Hartman and Eric Olsen for their decisions to inform command staff and reroute the march.

“We are trying to have a national conversation to learn to say, ‘See something, say something,’ ” she said. “I’d like to get all of our residents to put that phrase into their thinking. We don’t want to be a city paralyzed by fear, but we must be a community that is mindful.”

Olsen, who was managing the traffic around the MLK march, said Hartman called him at 9:37 a.m. Monday and told him about the backpack. Without enough time to determine what was inside, the sergeants decided to change the route of the march.

“We always assume the worst,” Olsen said on Wednesday. “But when I found out it was a viable device, I was both scared and relieved. I was scared that someone would do that but relieved that it was resolved. I felt very fortunate … just from the chaos and devastation it would have caused.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French commented on the near miss for the Spokane community.

“It is appalling to think that a celebration to commemorate the life and work of Dr. King could have ended so tragically,” French said Wednesday in a news release. “We cannot allow such acts to go unanswered or unpunished.”

Commissioner Mark Richard spoke at the King event and only learned later of the potential threat to the hundreds of people – including children – in the parade.

“If nothing else, this kind of violence shows us that we must continue Dr. King’s work for justice and peace,” he said.

Reporter Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.


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