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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Harpham admits guilt in bomb plot

Plea deal in MLK incident nets at least a 27-year term

Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, fields questions from the media outside the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse following Wednesday’s proceedings. (Christopher Anderson)
Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, fields questions from the media outside the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse following Wednesday’s proceedings. (Christopher Anderson) Buy this photo

Kevin William Harpham sounded meek Wednesday when he stood before a federal judge and admitted a racist attempt to bomb Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. march.

“Yes, your honor,” Harpham said without a trace of defiance, convinced prosecutors could prove the charges against him.

The 37-year-old Colville-area resident faces 27 to 32 years in prison if Judge Justin Quackenbush accepts his plea agreement.

With fewer than five years of good-time credit available, Harpham would be at least 60 when released. Without good time, he could be as old as 69.

U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said in an interview that he thought the plea-bargain sentencing range is fair and would allow the community to begin “healing.”

“Mr. Harpham acted alone,” Ormsby said. “There is no indication of a conspiracy.”

Harpham’s attorneys in the federal public defender’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. Spokane County Jail officials said Harpham declined to give interviews.

Harpham pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to injure people in a hate crime.

Two other charges – possessing a “destructive device” illegally and using one in a crime of violence – are to be dismissed.

Ormsby said Harpham’s case was reviewed at the Justice Department’s highest levels. The hate-crime charge was pressed by Chris Lomax, an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the department’s Civil Rights Division.

Ormsby said he considered it especially important for Harpham to admit the hate crime.

Quackenbush may ignore the recommended sentencing range or reject the deal entirely. If he accepts the agreement, Quackenbush will sentence Harpham on Nov. 30.

Harpham or the U.S. Attorney’s Office may dissolve the agreement if Quackenbush goes outside the proposed sentencing range.

If that were to happen, Harpham’s plea could not be used against him. However, if he backs out of the deal for any other reason, a jury could be told about his confession.

Wearing a stubble beard and an overlong jail jumpsuit that drooped around his sneakers, Harpham answered Quackenbush’s questions calmly and clearly.

He said he personally built the mortar-like weapon that temporary Public Facilities District workers found Jan. 17 in an unattended backpack at the northeast corner Main Avenue and Washington Street.

“It was a period of time, a month,” Harpham said when asked how long it took him to build the weapon.

He left it along the route of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March, which drew an estimated 2,000 people. Officials don’t know why it wasn’t detonated, but it was armed and capable.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington said the device consisted of a 6-inch-long, 3-inch-diameter steel pipe welded to a steel plate. It was packed with 128 lead fishing-line weights that had been coated with rat poison.

A plastic bag containing about 100 grams of black powder would have sprayed the projectiles at anyone within range.

“It was a very significant load,” powerful enough to damage buildings 40 feet away, Ormsby said in an informal press conference.

Harrington told the court a model rocket igniter, controlled by a remote car-starter radio receiver, would have touched off the gunpowder. A key-fob transmitter for the device was found at Harpham’s Stevens County home.

Genetic material on the backpack was matched to Harpham, and video cameras recorded him at the parade. In addition, federal agents found several dozen pictures of the parade on Harpham’s camera, including some he took of himself.

“He ultimately walked in the parade,” Ormsby said.

He credited federal and local investigators with “unbelievable police work” in tracking down a previously unknown suspect in five weeks.

A number of small discoveries led to Harpham’s arrest, Ormsby said.

Harrington said investigators found quarter-ounce fishing weights at the Colville Wal-Mart store that were similar to those in the homemade weapon. Then they learned the Colville store sold an unusually large number of the sinkers during a one-week period in November.

Cash register records showed 130 sinkers, among other items, were purchased on Nov. 1, 3 and 7. The first two purchases were in cash, but the third was with Harpham’s bank debit card.

Harpham made all three purchases, according to his plea agreement.

Investigators also found that Harpham purchased the remote car starter from an online store in October, and that he posted racist comments on a white-supremacist website.

Ormsby said sealed court files, which he expects to be opened after Harpham is sentenced, will reveal additional evidence.

A court order prevented Ormsby from discussing the sealed evidence, but he acknowledged it includes a test, using a replica, that showed how the explosive device would have worked.

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