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Psychological exam ordered for suspect in mailed explosives

UPDATED: Wed., April 11, 2018

Thanh Cong Phan of Everett, Wash., is shown in an undated photo provided by the Yolo County Sheriff's Office. (Associated Press)
Thanh Cong Phan of Everett, Wash., is shown in an undated photo provided by the Yolo County Sheriff's Office. (Associated Press)
By Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – A federal judge has ordered a psychological evaluation for an Everett man accused of mailing explosive devices to government agencies in the Washington, D.C., area to help determine if he is competent to participate in judicial proceedings and help in his defense.

Thanh Cong Phan, 44, had been set for arraignment Thursday on one count of shipping explosive materials, but U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle canceled the hearing until a psychologist files a report on Phan’s competency.

Eleven suspicious packages were received by mail at government agencies on March 26, the FBI said in a criminal complaint against Phan. The agencies included the Secret Service, Dahlgreen Naval Base and FBI headquarters.

Up to seven other similar packages have been received at various government facilities, FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams said Wednesday.

Tests are being performed to determine whether those seven packages are related to the 11 others and the FBI won’t reveal where those packages have been sent until the investigation is completed, Dietrich-Williams said.

Authorities have no information indicating more packages are in the mail system, but FBI agents and investigators with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are “poised to detect and safely recover any additional packages,” she said.

No packages have exploded and no one has been injured.

Each of the original 11 packages contained a letter with “ramblings about neuropsychology, mind control” and terrorism, the FBI said in the complaint. The packages also contained a homemade explosive device consisting of a glass bottle containing a black substance with a fuse and a small GPS device.

The criminal complaint said Phan had previously sent hundreds of “letters and/or emails to various government agencies containing similar incoherent ramblings,” and the FBI had contacted him numerous times before the packages were sent.

The facilities that received packages were evacuated and closed while authorities investigated and removed the packages.

An investigation discovered that the black substance was a low-explosive powder known as double-base smokeless powder that can detonate or explode when confined, the FBI said.

“When lit, the hobby fuse inserted into the powder would serve as an initiator for the detonation of the confined power,” the FBI said. “The detonation of the powder inside the glass jar could have caused significant injury to a person who was in proximity to the object, particularly due to the fragmentation of the glass jar.”

The package sent to the FBI was traced to a postal kiosk in Mill Creek, Washington. It was mailed on March 16 and surveillance photos identified Phan as the person who sent the package, the complaint said.

The judge’s competency order was in response to a request by Phan’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Ashwin Cattamanchi.

He told the judge last week he had “substantial concerns over Mr. Phan’s competency (or, more accurately, lack of competency).”

Cattamanchi added: “I believe that there is a cause to doubt that Mr. Phan can both understand the nature of the proceedings and rationally assist counsel in preparing a defense.”

The judge ordered Phan held in custody for up to 30 days and to be examined by a psychologist to determine if he can understand the nature of the charges against him and help with his defense.

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