FBI zeroed in on bomb suspect after his father called police

Thursday, May 9, 2002

RENO, Nev. -- The FBI zeroed in on 21-year-old Luke Helder as the suspect in the string of pipe-bomb attacks after his father called police about a disturbing letter in which his son warned, "Mailboxes are exploding," authorities said Wednesday.

Helder was captured Tuesday in Nevada after holding a shotgun to his head during a car chase and telling a friend by telephone "I might have to blow myself away," authorities said.

The FBI had used the signal from his new cell phone -- and a tip from a motorist who spotted his Honda Accord -- to pinpoint his location 1,400 miles from his home in Pine Island, Minn.

During his odyssey halfway across the country, Helder was stopped by police and released three times for traffic violations over the weekend. But that was before his father called police and an all-points-bulletin for Helder was issued on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the FBI said Helder confessed to making a total of 24 pipe bombs out of tape, paper clips and Christmas tree bulbs and placing 18 of them in mailboxes in five states, along with anti-government notes. Helder had the six other bombs with him when he was arrested, authorities said. They said the 6-inch bombs were packed with smokeless gunpowder and BBs or nails, and were wrapped in black electrical tape. Six bombs in all exploded, injuring six people in Iowa and Illinois.

The FBI said the final 10 bombs -- found in Nebraska, Colorado and Texas -- were not rigged to detonate.

Helder faces federal charges in four states. At a brief hearing in Reno on Wednesday, he was ordered held without bail for transfer to Iowa. He could be sent to prison for life if convicted.

Asked by the judge if he understood that he does not have to make any statement, Helder replied, "most definitely." Asked if he understood that any statements he made can be used against him, he replied "for sure."

U.S. District Court Magistrate Robert McQuaid Jr. denied a request to release Helder to the custody of his parents.

"It's apparent to me that he suffers from some apparent mental health problems," McQuaid said.

Helder's deputy public defender, Vito de la Cruz, said Helder was willing to face the charges. "He's anxious to have a jury trial," he said.

The bombs rattled the Midwest and recalled last fall's anthrax-by-mail attacks as well as the case of the Unabomber, who was turned in his by own brother. The bombings prompted the Postal Service to suspend service in some areas and urge people to leave their mailboxes open so letter carriers could peer inside.

The FBI issued an alert for Helder after his father, Cameron, called police late Monday night about letters from his son that included references to death, anti-government comments and the phrase "Mailboxes are exploding." The same phrase was in the notes found with the bombs.

Helder also wrote his father: "If I don't make it through this ordeal (if the gov't doesn't realize I can help) then I'll have to get out of here for awhile."

Before Helder's arrest, criminal profiling experts had speculated that an older man was responsible. But the improbable suspect who emerged proved to be a guitar player in a punk rock band called Apathy and a junior studying art and industrial design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis.

Helder remained something of an enigma Wednesday. He was described as bright, polite and not given to ranting about politics. In high school, he played football and golf and was in the choir. Until this week, his criminal record showed only a marijuana possession charge last October.

That he could be involved in the case stunned people in his hometown and his college town.

"For heaven's sake, he's not a terrorist," said Rachel Stanton, whose son played in Helder's band. "Nobody saw this coming."

Citing his writings and statements from friends, however, the FBI said Helder had become obsessed recently with death and the afterlife.

And last fall, when he was cited in Menomonie for possession of a marijuana pipe, leading to a $151 fine, he told the officer something to the effect of "Is this what government is for?" Sheriff Dennis Smith said.

His roommate, James Divine, was quoted as telling authorities that Helder had mentioned some "anti-government rhetoric here and there" but that he felt it was harmless.

The FBI said Helder admitted making the first of his eight bombs in his Menomonie apartment after buying some of the raw materials in mid-April. He made 16 more bombs at a motel near Omaha, Neb., the FBI said.

His capture ended a virtually nonstop driving stint during which he did little to conceal his identity. He checked into the Nebraska motel under his own name and used his credit card at a gas station.

Just after midnight Friday, Helder was stopped for speeding in St. Edward, Neb., 12 miles from where a pipe bomb was found later. He told the officer, "I didn't mean to hurt anybody," though what he was referring to was unclear.

Cameron Helder told the FBI his son had called his best friend while he was on the run. During the conversation, Luke Helder said there was a "change of plans," and he spoke of dying if "this" doesn't work, according to the FBI. "I might have to blow myself away," he was quoted as saying.

Helder's father also told authorities that his son's roommate had called him Monday to say he had found possible bomb-making materials under Helder's bed.

When authorities finally caught up to Helder, he tossed his shotgun out the car window before surrendering east of Reno.

Helder's family has not commented publicly since his arrest and a sheriff's deputy was posted at their property to prevent reporters from asking questions. His roommate could not be located.

"It's finally set in that it was unfortunately their son," said the Rev. Dennis Kampa, the Helders' longtime priest. "They're thankful no one was killed. They're very grateful nothing worse happened."

Early Wednesday, a handcuffed Helder was led into the Washoe County Jail by federal agents. He wore a black T-shirt bearing the likeness of Kurt Cobain, the singer of the rock band Nirvana who killed himself. Helder answered "No" when asked by a reporter if he had anything to say.

Helder was charged in Iowa and Illinois with using a pipe bomb in a crime of violence and destroying property used in interstate commerce. He was charged in Nebraska with interstate transportation of explosives and he faces a firearms charge in Nevada.

Washoe County Sheriff Dennis Balaam said he arranged for Helder to talk with his parents by telephone Wednesday morning. He said Helder was put on a suicide watch overnight.

"In my conversation with him, I asked whether he was on any medication or thought he would do himself any harm," the sheriff said. "He said, 'No,' that he was ready to face the day," he said.

On the Net:

Postal Service: http://www.usps.com

FBI: http://www.fbi.gov

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