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The man accused of planting a “weapon of mass destruction” on the parade route of a Martin Luther King Jr. unity parade in Spokane, Wash., last January is expected to plead guilty today in U.S. District Court.
Kevin William Harpham, a 36-year-old with past ties to the neo-Nazi National Alliance and the online Vanguard News Network, is expected to plead to charges that will earn him a lengthy federal prison sentence instead of life in prison.
A change of plea hearing for Harpham, a former Army ordinance specialist and unemployed electrician, was filed in court Tuesday after his public defenders and Justice Department prosecutors spent the Labor Day weekend hammering out a plea deal, it was learned late Tuesday.
The expected plea deal would come just five days before Harpham was scheduled to stand trial before a 12-member jury selected from among the generally conservative voters of Eastern Washington.
While federal prosecutors and defenders involved in the case were tightlipped on the eve of the expected plea, it likely boiled down to this for Harpham:
- Option 1: Go to trial and risk the likelihood of life in prison if convicted on all charges.
- Option 2: Accept a plea with an expected sentencing range of 25 to 30 years, give or take a little.
In court today, Harpham will have to convince the judge the guilty plea is entirely voluntarily and is not being coerced with threats or promises.
Unlike many dozens of other documents kept sealed in the case, including the probable cause affidavit used to arrest him last March, the plea agreement with the accused would-be MLK bomber is expected to be filed publicly if he follows through with the guilty pleas.
Harpham is scheduled to appear before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush at 9 a.m. local time in Spokane.
Quackenbush, a veteran jurist, is expected to grill Harpham about the willingness of his guilty plea and ask him about details of the plea bargain. Then the judge is expected to order a pre-sentence background report before sentencing, which likely will come before the end of the year.
Harpham is only the third person in the United States to be charged with a federal hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hates Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. In addition to the hate crime charge, the 36-year-old unemployed former soldier and electrician is charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered destructive device and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
Harpham is accused of building what the FBI describes as a potentially lethal bomb, wrapped in duct tape and designed to be remotely detonated. Authorities say he concealed the improvised explosive device in a backpack and placed it along the planned route of a Jan. 17 MLK Day unity parade in Spokane. Some 1,500 men, women and children participated in the event.
The device was spotted shortly before the parade began by three curious passersby who moved the device, then took pictures of it with their cell phones before calling police. It was safely disarmed, at great risk to law enforcement officials, as the MLK parade was rerouted.
When FBI agents later searched Harpham’s home and vehicle in remote Stevens County, they seized a camera with digital images of him at the MLK rally and close-ups of young black children and a Jewish man who may have been among his intended victims, it was disclosed in previous court proceedings.
Also in those earlier hearings, federal prosecutors described Harpham as a “lone wolf” racist who belonged to the National Alliance and once flirted with the idea of joining the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, then based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He posted more than 1,000 comments on the white supremacist Vanguard News Network (VNN), using the pseudonym “Joe Snuffy,” and appeared to develop increasingly extreme radical-right views.
In one VNN post he fantasized about killing anti-racists. “I can’t wait till the day I snap,” Harpham wrote as “Joe Snuffy” in a 2006 message.
Responding to a post about German anti-racists protesting white supremacists, Harpham wrote: “Videos like that bring me closer to it every time I watch them. Fear of death is the only thing stopping me and it is a fear that is hard to get over if you can relate to that.”
He also showed an interest in bombs, asserting that they were the way to win a war. Last year, in another VNN discussion of thorium, a slightly radioactive element sometimes used in nuclear reactors, Harpham referred to its “uselessness in building bombs,” indicating some real knowledge of explosives.
In 2004, according to information acquired by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Harpham was an active member of the National Alliance. That was two years after the death of the Alliance’s founder and leader, William Pierce, who wrote the novel The Turner Diaries, a race war fantasy that became the inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 as well as a deadly neo-Nazi terrorist group called The Order, or Silent Brotherhood, in the mid-1980s.