Key clue to bombing in Ala. stays hidden Some evidence points to Md.

priest injured in blast 8 months ago

August 26, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- Eight months after a bomb exploded in Alabama and wounded the former curate of an Episcopal parish here, some tantalizing pieces of the puzzle have emerged. A surprising number of them point nearly a thousand miles north, to Maryland's Eastern Shore.

As agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) returned to the Eastern Shore last week for a fourth round of interviews and inquiries, investigators were able to say with certainty that: The bomb was intended for the priest or someone in his household; it was a very sophisticated weapon; some components of it came from the Shore; and it was clearly intended to kill whoever opened the box containing it.

But the most important pieces of the puzzle -- the bomber's identity and motive -- remain a mystery.

"Trying to piece together a large puzzle -- that's what a bombing investigation is, right from the moment you get to the scene," says Mark Mutz, an ATF special agent in Birmingham assigned to the case. "You never know when that one piece is going to come along and make everything else fall into place."

Agents have yet to find or recognize that key piece. They have no suspect, Mutz says. But the intensive, far-flung investigation keeps bringing the ATF back to Maryland, and to St. Michaels in particular.

The bomb was placed on the car of the Rev. Michael D. Schnatterly, which was parked in the carport at his Opelika home. The blast was so powerful that it threw the minister over his wife's car, scattered debris and shrapnel for 300 yards, and blew a hole in the attic of their house.

It had been wired with six 9-volt lantern batteries -- the kind used on oversized flashlights -- and was the work of someone who knew how to make a lethal explosive.

"This was not a first-time bomb," says Michael Golson, another ATF agent assigned to the case. "It was a very serious bomb."

In the debris, agents found a typewritten, one-page note that contained anti-government sentiments and a damaged matchbook cover with some handwritten numbers that could have been part of a telephone number. Investigators used computer to generate all possible combinations of telephone numbers that included the numbers written in the matchbook.

One combination led them to a federally funded jobs program at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills. But no leads or suspects were found there or anywhere else from the list of phone numbers, agents say, and they have not returned to Wye Mills.

But they have gone elsewhere on the Shore, probing Schnatterly's four-year tenure as curate in Christ Church, St. Michael's Parish, as well as questioning salespeople at hardware stores and tackle shops in Talbot and Dorchester counties where the bomb parts could have been purchased.

Why the bomb was put at Schnatterly's house remains the biggest mystery of all.

The blast occurred New Year's Day, just before 10 a.m. Schnatterly, his wife, Lorelle, and their two young sons were in the kitchen. The priest was drinking coffee when he looked out the kitchen window and saw a U-Haul box on the trunk of his teal 1995 Mustang, parked next to his wife's station wagon.

Still in his bathrobe, Schnatterly went outside. Walking between the cars, he put one hand on the corner of the box. It exploded.

"You should have seen that house," says Jerry Brown, an Auburn University professor of journalism who is on the board of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The brick, one-story house had a hole in the attic and shingles pushed out of the carport roof by the explosion, he said.

The rear window of Schnatterly's Mustang was blown through its windshield, Brown said. "It blew out the kitchen door panes, the windows."

Shrapnel was found in the attic insulation, says Golson, the ATF agent who helped collect the 173 pieces of debris the bomb created.

Miraculous survival

Friends, parishioners, medical personnel and even the ATF agents say Schnatterly's survival, with relatively minor injuries, is miraculous.

"The Lord wasn't ready for him that day -- it wasn't his day," says Golson.

An anesthesiologist at East Alabama Medical Center, where Schnatterly was taken for treatment, offered a similar explanation.

"It was like an angel standing by him," the anesthesiologist told Brown at the hospital. Nails and shrapnel had entered Schnatterly's right hand but missed major blood vessels and bones. Although he had injuries to his face, his eyes weren't damaged.

Search for evidence

For the next four days, agents from the ATF and the FBI scoured the scene. Items sent to the ATF lab for analysis included Schnatterly's bathrobe.

Also analyzed were the note and the matchbook found in the debris. The full contents of the note have not been made public. But one sentence, which reads "At last the time has come for Alabama to unite against the ATF conspiracy," led agents to consider the possibility that the bomb had been intended for a retired ATF agent across the street.

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