Bomb component receipts, deleted pictures and a DNA match led FBI agents to identify long-time racist Kevin William Harpham as the man who built and planted a potentially deadly homemade explosive device on a Martin Luther King Jr. parade route in Spokane, Wash., earlier this year.
Those details came Wednesday at a 45-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in Spokane, where the 37-year-old Harpham — a man with past ties to the neo-Nazi National Alliance and the racist Vanguard News Network — pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and placing that bomb to carry out a hate crime.
Harpham, an unemployed electrician and former U.S. Army ordnance technician, struck the plea deal five days before his scheduled jury trial.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director William Mueller both have been briefed on the domestic terrorism case, Michael Ormsby, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, confirmed after the hearing.
“This was a very significant case,” Ormsby said as he responded to reporters’ questions outside the federal courthouse. “This community was terrorized back on Jan. 17 when this event occurred.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington, the lead prosecutor who outlined the Justice Department’s case, said it was an act of domestic terrorism carried out by a racist. “Mr. Harpham has told others he is a white supremacist and a white separatist,” Harrington told the court.
As part of a 16-page plea agreement, Harpham faces a sentencing range of 27 to 32 years if Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush accepts the deal after a background report is prepared. If the judge rejects the agreement or proposes a sentence outside the sentencing range, either the defendant or federal prosecutors could back out.
The judge, who routinely accepts such plea agreements to avoid the costs of protracted trials, set sentencing for Nov. 30.
If Harpham, of Addy, Wash., had gone to trial and been convicted of the four counts in a superseding indictment, he could have faced the likelihood of serving life in prison.
The judge spent 40 minutes painstakingly going over the written plea agreement with Harpham, who wore a gray Spokane County Jail jumpsuit and appeared with a shadow beard.
“Did you construct this device yourself?” the judge asked Harpham, considered a “lone wolf” by federal terrorism investigators who unraveled the case.
“Yes,” Harpham responded in a firm voice without elaborating.
“How long did you [take] to construct this device?” the judge then asked.
“It was a period of time; a month,” Harpham responded.
The judge then asked Harpham if he placed the device on the proposed route of the Jan. 17 MLK parade in downtown Spokane because of his actual or perceived racial bias toward the 2,000 participants in the unity march and rally.
“Yes,” Harpham said, confessing to violating provisions of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. He is only the third person to be charged by the Justice Department with a federal hate crime under that law.
Federal Defender Roger Peven, one of three defense attorneys, told the court Harpham’s guilty pleas were given knowingly and voluntarily.
A brief outline of the evidence against Harpham – kept from the public in dozens of sealed court documents – was presented to the court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Harrington.
The prosecutor said Harpham, using the alias “Joe Snuffy,” had posted racist comments on the Vanguard News Network web site and made no secret of his views toward Jews and minorities — views that he eventually acted upon.
The improvised explosive device, which meets the legal federal definition of a “weapon of mass destruction,” was made out of 6-inch long steel pipe with a 3-inch bore hole, the federal prosecutor said. The steel pipe was welded to a steel base plate, similar to a mortar tube.
A model rocket igniter, hooked to two 6-volt lantern batteries, was packed with 100 grams of black powder inside the steel pipe, surrounded by128 fishing weights dipped in brodifacoum, an anticoagulant and an active ingredient in rat poisons, Harrington said.
The triggering system consisted of an Audiovox remote car starter/alarm receiver that FBI agents confirmed Harpham purchased over the Internet, the prosecutor said. The remote system's key fob activator was not found in Harpham's possession when he was arrested March 9 as he drove away from his home in northeastern Washington.
A loaded handgun was found on the seat of the car and a rifle was in the trunk.When the device was found, the parade was rerouted and Harpham, who was videotaped in the crowd, presumably abandoned plans to remotely detonate his bomb.
But the bomb, once it was defused, became a windfall of physical evidence for FBI technicians, Harrington told the court. Three types of DNA – predominately that matched to Harpham – were found on the handle of the backpack which hid the bomb.
“The FBI investigation revealed several items of evidence leading to establishing Kevin William Harpham as the suspect responsible for the building and placement of the IED,” the plea agreement says.
Once the FBI crime lab identified the type of quarter-ounce fishing weights used in the device, agents contacted a Wal-Mart store in Colville, near the suspect’s home, and learned from computer records the store “had an unusually high amount of the weights sold during a one week period in November 2010.”
Wal-Mart records showed cash purchases of the fishing weights on Nov. 1 and 3. An examination of Harpham’s bank records show he purchased three more packs of the weights, along with Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Crème and Vitamin D milk on Nov. 7.
FBI agents also retrieved records showing Harpham bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera on Nov. 15, the prosecutor said. Once seized, the camera’s memory card contained “several dozen deleted’’ photos taken during the MLK parade, including pictures of Harpham and others of his intended victims, Harrington said.
U.S. Attorney Ormsby said it was solid investigative work by the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force and other police agencies that solved the case. “Mr. Harpham acted alone, and there is no indication whatsoever there was a conspiracy,” the Justice Department official said.
“There was no ‘aha’ moment,” Ormsby said when asked how the case unraveled. “It was a giant jigsaw puzzle, put together by the FBI and other police agencies.”
“We wouldn’t have brought the plea agreement if we didn’t think this was fair,’’ Ormsby told reporters. “We think this is a fair sentencing range,” he said of the 27 to 32 years Harpham likely faces in prison.
Ormsby said the bomb had a “very significant load,” but he declined to speculate how many victims may have been killed or injured if it had been detonated. He said he had no doubts the device could have exploded, but didn’t want to discuss videotape and photos of FBI bomb technicians exploding three facsimile bombs in August.