Student charged in mailbox bombings after arrest in Nevada
RENO — A 21-year-old college student was charged Tuesday in connection with the five-state string of mailbox pipe bombs after he was arrested on a windswept highway following a manhunt that stretched across half the country.
Luke J. Helder of Pine Island, Minn., was captured after dropping a gun out his car window, the FBI said. A bomb squad was called to check the vehicle for explosives.
Helder was stopped more than 1,500 miles from the Illinois communities where some of the first bombs and their telltale anti-government notes were found. The terrorism spree alarmed thousands of rural Americans and raised fresh concern about the safety of the mail in the wake of last fall’s deadly anthrax outbreak.
Residents in several states were asked to leave open their roadside mailboxes to give nervous letter carriers a clear look inside.
After Helder’s license plate and car description were broadcast nationwide Tuesday, a motorist on Interstate 80 spotted Helder’s westbound vehicle and tipped off authorities. He was pulled over after a 40-mile chase that reached 100 mph.
“The FBI contacted him on his cell phone and started negotiations with him, and asked us to back off,” said Major Rick Bradley of the Nevada Highway Patrol. “Then he slowed down.”
FBI agent Terry Hulse said Helder telephoned his parents during the chase and was patched through to an FBI negotiator. He said Helder stayed on the phone with the FBI after pulling over and volunteered to surrender if he was not harmed.
“He requested not to be tackled,” Trooper Alan Davidson said. “He surrendered the gun and was taken into custody without incident.”
Helder, who was expected to be jailed in Reno, was charged by federal prosecutors in Iowa with using an explosive to maliciously destroy property affecting interstate commerce and using a destructive device to commit a crime of violence. The charges carry penalties of up to life in prison and fines of $250,000.
Specifically, U.S. Attorney Charles W. Larson said Helder was responsible for the cuts and shrapnel wounds suffered Friday by Delores Werling, 70, of Tipton, Iowa. Other charges were expected.
The capture came just eight hours after the FBI issued an all-points bulletin for Helder and said it wanted to question him about the 18 pipe bombs found since Friday. His father, at the family’s home in Minnesota, also pleaded with Helder: “Please don’t hurt anyone else. … You have the attention you wanted.”
Six people — four letter carriers and two residents — were wounded by bombs left in mailboxes in Illinois and Iowa. Twelve other bombs found in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas did not explode.
Most of the bombs were accompanied by anti-government propaganda warning that more “attention getters” were on the way.
FBI agent Jim Bogner in Omaha, where the investigation is centered, refused to say how Helder had become part of the case.
But Tuesday, a college newspaper in Wisconsin said it gave the FBI a seven-page letter that was received over the weekend and signed with Helder’s name. The letter was postmarked in Omaha on Friday — the day the first eight bombs were found, in Iowa and Illinois, and a day before eight more bombs turned up in Nebraska.
The letter’s first page is identical to the anti-government notes found with the bombs. The letter also said, in part: “I will die/change in the end for this, but that’s ok, hahaha paradise awaits!
“I’m dismissing a few individuals from reality, to change all of you for the better, surely you can understand my logic. See you all in 2011 (or sooner). Now go find your higher selves!”
The FBI refused to comment on the letter sent to The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At Helder’s family home an hour’s drive southeast of Minneapolis, his father, Cameron, read a statement urging his son to call home.
“I really want you to know that Luke is not a dangerous person,” he said. “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.”
He added: “Luke, you need to talk to someone. Please don’t hurt anyone else. It’s time to talk. You have the attention you wanted. Luke, we love you very much. We want you home safe.”
Reached after his son’s arrest, Cameron Helder declined to comment.
Helder was enrolled as a junior majoring in art and industrial design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, 60 miles from his home, but had apparently not attended classes since at least April 24, a school official said. He played guitar and sang in a punk rock band called Apathy.
On a Web site for the band, two songs were posted, “Conformity” and “Back and Black,” but the lyrics were unintelligible.
The issue of conformity is a theme in the bombing notes, which say, in part: “To ‘live’ (avoid death) in this society you are forced to conform/slave away. I’m here to help you realize/ understand that you will live no matter what!”
From the start, the FBI called the attacks domestic terrorism. Over the weekend, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt had speculated that the writer of the notes was an older person, based on the phrase “attention getter.” Instead, the suspect turned out to be a fresh-faced student acquaintances described as normal, even mellow.
“The top things I care about are my girlfriend … and my music/band,” Helder wrote on his band’s Web site. “I party, play guitar, and talk online to everyone. That’s my life.”
FBI agents searched Helder’s apartment in a two-story building near the Menomonie campus. Police spokesman Brian Swantz said two houses nearby were evacuated because of “potential danger” but refused to elaborate.
Six of the 16 bombs left in the Midwest exploded. The 17th bomb was found in Salida, Colo., on Monday. It did not explode.
The FBI said all those bombs came from the same source. The last device was found Monday at a home in Amarillo, Texas, and was described as being similar to the others.
That bomb differed from the others in that it was found in a residential neighborhood and not a far-flung rural route. It was placed in a mailbox on a post in a yard behind a low chain-link fence, about 25 feet from the front door but not accessible from the street.
Roberto Martinez, 44, found the bomb in his mailbox along with two notes in a pink-hued sandwich bag. He said police told him it did not explode because it lacked a battery.
The FBI did not immediately confirm whether the Texas note was the same as the anti-government propaganda found with the other devices.
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