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Column: Legwork key to unraveling MLK Day bomb plot

Fri., Feb. 10, 2012

First of two parts

Valentine’s Day was right around the corner. But when Craig Noyes walked into the Wal-Mart in Colville last Feb. 12, he wasn’t looking for a card.

Noyes, a special agent with the FBI based in Washington, D.C., was trying to determine where someone had purchased a whole lot of quarter-ounce oval fishing weights – and who that someone was. The search, by Noyes and many others, had gone all around the Northwest and finally to the Wal-Mart in Colville.

Combing through sales records, Noyes found what he was looking for: Three purchases of quarter-ounce fishing weights in November 2010. One hundred and thirty fishing weights, to be exact.

The bomb that had been planted 26 days earlier along the route at Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march included fishing weights of the same size. One hundred and twenty-eight of them, to be exact.

Two of the three Wal-Mart purchases were made with cash. One was made with a debit card.

Within days, investigators used bank records to put a name to the card: Kevin William Harpham.

If Kevin Harpham was not quite a needle in a haystack, he wasn’t far off. Hundreds of law enforcement officers – from city and county agencies and every federal organization in the book – had been chasing leads ever since the discovery of that backpack at Main and Washington, with little to show for it.

Noyes’ catch set off a chain of events in a massive, complicated investigation that produced, between last Valentine’s Day and this one, something rare in our region’s history of conflicts with armed ideological extremists: A happy ending.

One year ago today, Special Agent Joe Cleary hadn’t heard the name Kevin William Harpham.

Cleary had been working all day, every day, for weeks. A 16-year veteran of the FBI, he was leading the investigation with Special Agent Ryan Butler out of the Liberty Lake office of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multi-agency group run by the FBI.

Leads were abundant. A $20,000 reward had drawn tips from across the nation. But none of them was going anywhere.

“What kept going through my mind was: Bloomsday’s in May, Hoopfest is in June. We can’t let this guy do this again,” Cleary said. “We just worked every day. … It was just go, go, go.”

A native of Bellingham, Cleary is a Gonzaga University graduate who worked for the FBI in Chicago and Seattle before coming to Spokane in 2001. Though he’s investigated big cases – such as the Spokane Valley man convicted for making the poison ricin in 2003 – the attempted MLK bombing stood in a class by itself.

From the moment it was discovered, the backpack and its contents raised an ugly, threatening specter. Once again, it seemed, our region had produced a grotesque specimen of violent racial hatred. This dismaying element of our history is something we’ve battled, rationalized and occasionally tried to believe we have defeated.

But a bomb at the MLK Day march? Here it was, all over again.

Frank Harrill, supervisory senior resident agent in the Spokane FBI office, said the investigation almost immediately grew to include representatives from every law enforcement agency there is. The nation’s anti-terrorism machine – built up in the years following 9/11 – was aimed with full force toward a domestic case. It drew attention from people all the way up the food chain.

“It made it up to the president,” Harrill said. “And it should have.”

But the weeks following Jan. 17 were a pressure-filled time for Cleary. The biggest case of his career was bearing down on him, and he was already putting plenty of pressure on himself.

“It was a very, very high-profile case back East,” Cleary said.

A lot of people up the ladder wanted to know what was going on. For 26 days, the reports were pretty thin.

“It was a scary time,” Cleary said.

The morning of Jan. 17, 2011, three temporary workers discovered the backpack. Inside were two T-shirts: one for a 2009 after-school production of “Treasure Island” in Chewelah, and one for the 2010 Relay for Life in Colville. The T-shirts were wrapped around an “improvised explosive device” – a mortar-type bomb meant to blast the fishing weights like shrapnel into march-goers and the businesses across the street. The fishing weights were coated with an anti-coagulant.

The temp workers discovered the bomb, set up a human perimeter to keep people away from it, and alerted police, who diverted the march. The city-county bomb squad came in, and FBI agents were shortly on the scene. Special Agent Bomb Technician Lee McEuen – who had spent time in Iraq investigating IED explosions – determined the device had been rigged to detonate by radio control, among other characteristics.

The bomb, T-shirts and backpack were shipped to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., where forensic experts began searching for clues: hair, fibers, fingerprints, DNA, and the bomb materials themselves.

Television and movies have conditioned us to consider this kind of work almost magic: Someone in a lab solves the crime in hours. In truth, each of these steps is separate and time-consuming, and finding a usable match is the exception, not the rule.

The bomb itself contained a lot of “potentially attributable parts” – items that might be traceable by manufacturer or sales record, Harrill said. The day Noyes found the fishing weight purchases at Wal-Mart, he also found evidence in a Big R store in Colville, which carried batteries manufactured in the same batch of 100,000 as the batteries found in the bomb. Two of those batteries had been purchased from the store with cash on Nov. 2, 2010, along with a roll of wire.

The debit card was key, though. Within days, investigators had identified Harpham through bank records. A 37-year-old electrician, Harpham lived on 10 acres north of Addy, in rural Stevens County. Almost immediately, they found that he’d been a regular poster at a racist website under the name “Joe Snuffy” – a military nickname that correlated with the fact that he’d served in the Army from 1996 to 1999.

Joe Snuffy’s posts covered every point on the racist, anti-social spectrum: foul epithets, violent fantasies, jokes about killing minorities, and the sense of someone who’s ready to risk his life in an apocalyptic showdown. In one, he wrote, “the older I get the less I have to live for and the less I have to live for the less the laws of this country will be able to influence my actions.”

Things about Harpham just started to add up. Agents were still a long way from having enough evidence for a conviction. But at every turn, Harpham seemed like he was, in fact, their guy.

“You get a hunch and you listen to it,” Cleary said. “He felt good. Yeah. He felt good.”

Coming Saturday: A long shot at the lab.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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