Pipe bomb suspect arrested in Nevada

Minn. student, 21, believed responsible for 18 devices in mailboxes in 5 states

May 08, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHICAGO - Authorities arrested a 21-year-old college student yesterday on a highway 40 miles east of Reno, Nev., in connection with a rash of 18 pipe bombs planted in rural mailboxes in five states in recent days.

About eight hours after the FBI issued an all-points bulletin with his description, the student, Luke John Helder, pulled over on Interstate 80 near Fernley, Nev., about 4:30 p.m. and tossed a gun to the ground as he surrendered to state troopers who had been following him.

Trooper Alan Davidson of the Nevada Highway Patrol said Helder was talking to the FBI on his cell phone before being taken into custody.

Investigators said they believe Helder, who grew up in Pine Island, Minn., and studied art at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, was responsible for all the bombs, which injured six people on Friday and rattled nerves across the Midwest. Residents were asked to leave their mailboxes open and report any suspicious items to police.

Investigators said Helder apparently drove his father's 1992 gray Honda Accord 3,000 miles across the country since Friday.

Davidson said the police tracked Helder heading west from a cell phone call he made from Battle Mountain, Nev., a 19th-century mining town of 4,066. Federal officials said that someone at the 8,000-student Menomonie campus alerted them that Helder had recently disappeared, and that his parents met with authorities yesterday morning and were cooperating.

Yesterday afternoon, Helder's father, Cameron Helder, defended his son before reporters and urged the young man to turn himself in.

"I really want you to know that Luke is not a dangerous person," Cameron Helder, wearing sunglasses and a baseball jacket, said in a brief statement outside his home. "I think he's just trying to make a statement about the way our government is run. I think Luke wants people to listen to his ideas, and not enough people are hearing him and he thinks this may help.

"Please don't hurt anyone else," the elder Helder added in an appeal to his son. "It's time to talk. You have the attention you wanted. We want you home safe."

Federal prosecutors in Iowa filed charges of using an explosive to maliciously destroy property affecting interstate commerce and using a destructive device to commit a violent crime. Luke Helder faces similar charges in Illinois and Nebraska.

The suspect's identity, and a yearbook-style photograph showing him smiling between a crew cut and bright yellow and black tie, confounded terrorism experts who had thought the threatening anti-government notes that accompanied the bombs were authored by an older man. Luke Helder, who used to play in a grunge rock band in Minnesota, does not fit the profile of a bomber, and he has no criminal record, though he was questioned in one incident while a juvenile.

University officials said he stopped attending classes three weeks ago, returned briefly, then left the campus a week ago.

"He is being described as an intelligent young man with strong family ties," Jim Bogner, the FBI's special agent in charge of Nebraska and Iowa, said at an afternoon news conference in Omaha. "The investigation continues, and at this stage, we need to talk to Luke Helder."

Law enforcement officials said they were encouraged that the bombs found over the weekend in Nebraska and on Monday in Colorado and Texas were not set to explode, unlike those discovered Friday in a ring of Iowa and Illinois communities straddling the Mississippi River.

"It appears there is some bit of de-escalation in terms of the violence," said Mark James, special agent in charge of the Kansas City office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "It appears that the Nebraska ones were more in the realm of sending a message, versus intending to harm people."

The FBI's all-points bulletin, issued yesterday morning, came after the announcement of another bomb found in a mailbox, this time in Amarillo, in the Texas panhandle. The authorities said they were unsure whether that bomb was planted before or after one found about the same time in Salida, Colo.

Luke Helder was apprehended some 1,717 miles from Davenport, Iowa, near where the first bomb was discovered at 6:49 a.m. on Friday when a man pulled a copy of the Quad-City Times from his mailbox outside of town. Davenport is 267 miles from Helder's parents' Pine Island home, and 302 miles from the 8,000-student university campus where he is a junior and a member of the paintball club.

On Friday, seven nearly identical bombs were found between 10:49 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in small towns forming a rough circle 70-miles across. A letter carrier injured his arm and lost his hearing. Another had 14 stitches to his right hand. A 70-year-old farmer's wife had blood running down her face after an explosion that her husband said sounded like a blown tire.

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