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Investigation of Kevin Harpham’s 2011 planned MLK March bombing in Spokane turned terrorism into an FBI case study

Hundreds of marchers gathered in downtown Spokane on the morning of Jan. 17, 2011, for speeches and a show of solidarity as part of the the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March.

A bloodbath awaited them.

Among the gathering crowd was Kevin Harpham. The electrician from Addy, Washington, had earlier arrived in Spokane and placed his mortarlike bomb where its shrapnel could spray the crowd before the marchers could have a chance to spread out.

The “lone wolf” white supremacist, who was unknown to law enforcement, chose that moment to finally put action behind his belief that multiculturalism was poisoning the country. In his bomb, Harpham laced 128 quarter-ounce fishing weights with rat poison, to prevent blood clotting, and human feces, to cause infections in survivors.

As Harpham waited with an electronic car-starting ignition switch so he could remotely detonate his bomb and safely watch the carnage, he walked among the waiting marchers and took photographs of himself and his potential targets. One image captured black children standing next to a statue honoring black astronaut Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, who was killed in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia explosion.

About the same time, part-time contract workers Mark Steiner, Brandon Klaus and Sherman Welpton had finished walking the march route to make sure it was clean.

At the corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue, Steiner noticed a backpack under a bench. The three men picked it up, put it on the bench and peered inside.

They saw wires.

That discovery triggered a quick series of decisions that turned what could have been a horrific act of domestic terrorism into a textbook example of response, cooperation and investigation that has been told and retold as one of the greatest wins in Spokane police and local FBI history.

“It really was a case where every tool in the toolbox was utilized,” said Frank Harrill, former supervisory resident agent of the FBI. “It was the perfect blend of shoe leather and technology and good old-fashioned craftiness and logic to bring that to a conclusion. Everyone who was accountable was held accountable, in this case Harpham, and no one was hurt.”

Contract workers were the pivotal moment

One of the contract workers called 911 after finding the backpack and seeing the wires. The call was relayed from dispatch to the handful of Spokane police officers assigned to escort the march.

“That was the pivotal moment,” Harrill said. The contract workers “saw enough to know that authorities needed to be summoned. It was the perfect expression of, ‘See something and say something.’ ”

Spokane police Sgt. Eric Olsen, who is now a major, remembers getting the call from dispatch about 9:20 a.m. The march was set to start in 40 minutes.

Sgts. Jason Hartman, Chuck Reisenauer and Olsen considered how to respond.

“After hearing what information they had, I called dispatch to say we will treat it as a real threat,” Olsen said.

They established a safety perimeter around the backpack and Olsen called in the bomb squad. Meanwhile, Hartman and Reisenauer quickly drove the march route looking for more backpacks and rerouted the event.

“I am almost positive that Hartman came up with the route that would allow the march to proceed in a way that they were unaware that there was a threat and not subject them to the threat,” Olsen said. “It was quick thinking on his part to get us a good route.”

FBI agent Joe Cleary credited the decisions to both reroute the march and keep it quiet as the next most important decision that occurred that morning.

“They didn’t tell anyone. People just followed them and it worked like clockwork,” Cleary said. “The bomb squad could work without creating a crowd.”

After arriving on scene, the Spokane police bomb squad decided to use a water cannon to try to disable the bomb. It worked. One of the wires became disconnected.

By not blowing it up in place, investigators had everything they needed to begin the laborious process of trying to link the bomb to whoever built and left it under the bench.

News of device conveyed to Obama

Cleary and Harrill believe that Hartman’s decision to reroute the march kept Harpham far enough away that his car-starter detonator could not trigger the bomb.

“Before they knew what it was, they rerouted the march … and put Harpham at a disadvantage,” Cleary said of the Spokane police sergeants. Harpham “didn’t know where the march was headed. We’ll never know what he tried or didn’t.”

Once the march ended, the full investigative power of the federal government was brought to bear. Cleary arrived at the scene and said the soaked backpack smelled horrible when he got close. He later learned Harpham had soaked the weights with human feces, probably his own.

“We had a terrorist attempt to bomb a parade route,” Cleary said. “We had to clear vehicles to make sure there wasn’t a secondary device. Of course, no one saw anything.”

News of the discovery went all the way up to President Barack Obama. FBI officials in Washington, D.C., required twice-daily updates about the investigation.

As investigators pieced together their case, every scrap of evidence went through Aaron Hammer, an evidence control technician.

“The amount of work I did on the Harpham case is hard to calculate. It all became a blur really, since we collected evidence for months,” Hammer said. “It was clear to all of us from the beginning of this investigation that each and every shred of evidence we could collect might be the key to bringing the person or group that constructed the device to justice.”

In an area that once was the home of the Aryan Nations, federal agents began scouring old files and likely suspects to search for the culprit.

“We did contact several subjects and witnesses from old cases,” Cleary said. “Everyone to a man said, ‘I have no information,’ or, ‘It wasn’t me.’”

While the search continued, technicians in the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, found someone’s DNA on the shoulder strap of the backpack. But nothing came back as a match in known databases.

The bomb “looked like a rat’s nest of wires. But the lab said whoever put this together knows electronics very well,” Cleary said.

With agents pursuing leads in North Idaho, the Colville area and the Tri-Cities, each day began to drag into the next.

“The leads dried up,” Cleary said. “We were getting calls from headquarters every day. ‘Anything new?’ ‘No, boss.’ But what do you do? We were working around the clock.

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. What about Bloomsday or Hoopfest. How many backpacks are left at Hoopfest?” Cleary said. “The pressure to catch this person or people was intense.”

FBI agent Craig Noyes was sent to Spokane by headquarters to backfill any needs of the local office and help keep superiors informed about the progress of the investigation, Cleary said.

“He was bored. I said, ‘You want to work? Great. Here’s a stack of leads,’ ” Cleary said.

Knowing they were looking for purchases of fishing weights, agents went to every store that sold fishing gear in the region. Noyes tried the Wal-Mart in Colville. And investigators got a bit of luck: Harpham had slipped up. He normally paid with cash, but on Nov. 7, 2010, Harpham bought 30 fishing weights with his debit card.

Some 26 days after the bomb was discovered, the FBI had a name: Kevin Harpham.

That led to the discovery of his white supremacist postings as “Joe Snuffy” on the Vanguard News Network, and things began to fit. They also learned Harpham had once been in the U.S. Army.

“This guy’s a hater, but that’s not a crime. He bought fishing weights, but that’s not a crime,” Cleary said.

The Army takes a blood sample whenever someone enlists. However, military officials promise that it won’t be used for DNA comparisons.

“The lab said, ‘We’ve tried before and you are not going to get it,’ ” Cleary said. “It took a court order for them to release it. It was only the third time that the U.S. Army released DNA. It had to be approved by the secretary of defense.”

A few days later, Cleary was helping conduct a search warrant at the local Hells Angels clubhouse when he got confirmation that the DNA linked the bomb to Harpham.

‘How long have you known me?’

From that point on, Harpham never moved an inch from his home in rural Stevens County without someone watching. While he mostly stayed home, agents were poised to arrest Harpham if he tried to approach any public event or potential target.

The investigation switched to “how do we get him in custody,” Cleary said.

Agents learned Harpham was in the market to buy a car. The FBI placed a fake advertisement for a car and Harpham contacted the seller. The agent who posed as the seller arranged to meet Harpham in north Spokane on March 9, 2011.

“We wanted to get him out of his house,” Cleary said. “We didn’t want a standoff. He mentioned in his online postings that he was stockpiling food and weapons.”

Members of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team came to Spokane and devised a plan. They borrowed clothes from Stevens County road crews, and as soon as Harpham left his house, he encountered the undercover agents; they asked him to shut off his vehicle as they moved a piece of equipment.

Another agent came from behind and smashed into the back of Harpham’s car with the bucket of a backhoe. In front, a van full of SWAT team members jumped out and held him at gunpoint. Harpham had a handgun under his seat and an AR-15 rifle in his trunk.

“I was about 400 or 500 yards away in my car watching,” Cleary said.

When Cleary finally got close to Harpham, the bomb maker asked the agent a question. “How long have you known me?”

Harpham later pleaded guilty on Sept. 7, 2011, to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to hurt people as part of a hate crime.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington said he remembers when Harpham pleaded guilty. That’s because, except for a two-day medical procedure, Harrington worked every weekday and weekend until the plea.

“On Labor Day, I was up in Stevens County interviewing witnesses for trial. That day the plea negotiation came together,” he said. “The plea was approved at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.”

U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush sentenced Harpham to 32 years in prison. In court, Harpham tried to back out of the plea agreement and claimed he didn’t intend to hurt anyone with his bomb.

Harpham said in court that he aimed it upward to take out a wall of windows at the Eye Care Center “to deliver a shotgun blast” as a statement of protest to unity and multiculturalism.

But Harrill, at the time, and Harrington this week said they doubted Harpham’s explanation.

“Why would you go to all the effort to coat all the fishing weights with rat poison, as an anti-coagulant, if you were just trying to scare everybody?” Harrington said.

Lessons repeated

Harpham, now 42, resides in a medium security federal prison in Lompoc, California. His release date is Jan. 23, 2039, which is two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. Day some 22 years from now.

Harrington has given several talks, and Cleary said he’s traveled all over the country to tell the story about how citizens, local law enforcement and federal agents worked to thwart the bombing and bring the bomber to justice without anyone getting hurt.

The Harpham case also was the subject of an episode of “FBI Takedowns” on the American Heroes Channel.

“I’ve given this case presentation maybe 30 times,” Cleary said. “This was a win for the good guys.”

For Hammer, the evidence specialist, the result justified what turned out to be the most work he’d ever put into a case during his FBI career.

“I’m very happy and pleased to have been part of the team that brought Harpham to justice,” Hammer said, “before he could attempt to maim and kill other innocent people.”


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