System worked, ‘start to finish,’ to nab bomber
Second of two parts
Through late February and into March, the massive investigation into the attempted bombing at Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march focused its considerable resources on Kevin William Harpham.
Investigators knew that Harpham, a 37-year-old electrician living on 10 acres north of Addy, Wash., had purchased the kind of fishing weights that had been used in the bomb. They knew he’d posted racist, survivalist rants online. They had many more pieces of suggestive evidence, but not the kind of lock they’d need to convict him in court.
Investigators with every agency under the sun were involved. FBI. ATF. Homeland Security. U.S. Marshals Service. Border Patrol. City and county officers. On and on.
In Quantico, Va., lab workers had discovered DNA on the handle of the backpack that contained the bomb – genetic material left behind by whoever had carried the thing. Investigators had the sample, but nothing to check it against. Harpham’s DNA wasn’t in any database. Trying to trick him for a sample seemed unlikely, since he was holed up at home most of the time. Investigators decided to try asking the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for a specimen from the blood sample Harpham submitted when he joined the Army in 1996.
Military officials are reluctant to allow the specimens to be used in criminal trials. They assure recruits that the samples are taken primarily for identification in worst-case scenarios. Special Agent Joe Cleary said he believes the AFIP has agreed to similar requests only a few times before.
“We told the lab this was what we were going to do, and they said, ‘Good luck. That’s not going to happen,’ ” Cleary said.
But it was worth a shot. Federal prosecutor Joe Harrington wrote a 16-page brief arguing for a court order to get the specimen, and Frank Harrill, supervisory senior resident agent in the Spokane FBI office, made a lot of phone calls. On Feb. 25, a court order was issued; three days later the AFIP turned over the sample.
It matched – “with a confidence interval of between 1 in 1 million and 1 in 100 million,” court records say.
“That’s enough,” Harrill said. “That’s enough to arrest.”
Cleary said, “That was the happiest I’ve been in a while. Because you have a hunch, but you don’t know. That was huge.”
A week or so of feverish planning followed at the offices of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Liberty Lake. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team came in to plan and execute the arrest. Members of the Seattle SWAT team would provide backup, along with many others. Well over 100 people would be involved.
There was plenty of reason for concern. Harpham had tried to bomb a public event. He was believed to be well-armed. He’d expressed racist, survivalist, anti-government views. He was living in a hard-to-reach place.
The echoes were hard to ignore. Ruby Ridge. Jordan, Mont. Nobody wanted a standoff. Nobody wanted bloodshed.
Harrill said the arrest was planned and choreographed elaborately, in an effort “to take the end game and shape it on ground of our choosing.”
Harpham was kept under surveillance. Agents felt that as long as Harpham was at home, he didn’t pose a threat to others. If he left and headed toward Spokane, though, that was a different matter. Cleary said agents would have arrested him had he gone anywhere near a public event.
Harrill won’t discuss many details of the operation, but a ruse was planned to draw Harpham from his home. Investigators knew Harpham was interested in purchasing a car he could sleep in, and arranged a fake rendezvous with a supposed car seller in north Spokane on the morning of March 9.
By March 8, investigators were ready to go. A 36-page affidavit was filed in federal court, seeking an arrest warrant. The affidavit was sealed at the time but has since been unsealed.
Cleary spent the night of March 8 wide awake.
“You can’t sleep,” he said. “You hope everything goes right, and worry about everything that could go wrong. You don’t sleep at all.”
Before dawn, the team moved into place. Members of the Hostage Rescue Team were posing as a road construction crew at the intersection of 12 Mile Road and Townsend-Sackman Road, just outside his property. Team members were driving front-end loaders and other big equipment; some hostage team members have commercial driver’s licenses and are trained to use the big rigs for incidents just like this one. Armed agents sat in a van nearby.
Cleary said that before Harpham emerged, a neighbor saw the big equipment and came over to ask if they’d help him move a slash pile. The agent obliged.
Cleary and Ryan Butler, who helped lead the investigation, listened by radio in a car about a half-mile away.
Harpham emerged about 8:30 a.m. He approached the intersection, where an agent posing as a road worker stopped him, then waved him forward. As Harpham started across a small bridge, a van pulled into his path, blocking him. Another agent drove a backhoe up behind him – and dropped the bucket onto the car’s trunk.
A flash-bang device went off, and the armed agents came piling out of the van. Harpham – who had a .38-caliber pistol under the seat and an assault rifle in the trunk – did not resist.
Agents searched Harpham’s house and seized evidence. Included were digital photos Harpham had taken at the MLK march. He had planted the bomb, it appeared, and then showed up to record the carnage.
Agents eventually tracked down another photograph of that day. A digital snapshot provided by a march-goer. An African-American woman had posed four children in front of the downtown statue of Michael Anderson, the astronaut and native of Cheney who was killed in the 2003 Columbia explosion.
In the background of the photo, taking his own picture of the woman taking a picture of the children, is Kevin William Harpham, the man who once wrote: “I … can hardly wait for the day they have an all-black shuttle crew. That’s one explosion I don’t want to miss.”
In November, Harpham pleaded guilty to using a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to injure people in a hate crime. He has since tried to rescind that plea with a bit of tortured argumentation; a judge rejected the attempt, and Harpham is appealing.
In the space of 11 months, the case raced from utter mystery to a conviction. It’s been said on more than one occasion that last year was a tough one for law enforcement in Spokane. But that assessment omits the Harpham case, which is an example of so much going so well – hard work in combination with good luck.
“It never goes this quickly and this efficiently,” Cleary said.
Harrill calls the case a top-to-bottom success: From the temporary workers who discovered the bomb and kept passers-by from getting near it, to Spokane police’s decision to reroute the march; from the performance of the city-county bomb squad that disabled the bomb, to every federal police agency in the world, working alongside federal prosecutors.
There is a lot of back-patting in the world, an excess of awards-granting and smoke-blowing. In this case, though, there’s not nearly enough to go around.
“The system, in this case, worked exactly like it should,” Harrill said. “From start to finish.”
Three-hundred sixty-four days after Kevin Harpham left that backpack at Main and Washington, some 3,000 people turned out for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March – one of the biggest crowds in the event’s history.
One of the marchers that morning was Special Agent Joe Cleary. Off-duty. Walking with his wife and three kids.
“There were so many people there,” he said. “It completed the circle, in a sense. It felt good.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.