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North Carolina airport bomb-maker admits guilt

A Tennessee man whose criminal acts seem to fit an antigovernment, survivalist profile has pleaded guilty to illegally possessing explosive material found in plastic bags found last October at the Asheville, North Carolina, airport.

Michael Christian Estes faces a maximum of five years in prison on the charge of unlawful possession of explosive material. A sentencing date was not set when he pleaded guilty to the charge last Friday in U.S. District Court in Asheville.

Estes, formerly of Tazewell, Tennessee, was arrested a day after an improvised explosive device was discovered on October 6 near the baggage area at the Asheville Regional Airport. 

Surveillance video, a tip from an airport employee who had seen a man dressed in black clothing emerge from a wooded area and the subsequent release of the suspect’s photo led to Estes’ apprehension, court documents say.

Wearing camouflage clothing, the 46-year-old suspect immediately confessed to making the device. 

The explosive device didn’t explode and was rendered safe by bomb technicians. It was constructed from retail store components, including nails, Sterno, an alarm clock, shotgun shells and ammonium nitrate droplets apparently removed from cold compress packets, the documents say.

The bomb-maker’s motivation or affiliations, if any, aren’t detailed in public records, but court documents say the crudely made bomb included the words, “For God & Country” and “For all the V/N vets out there!!!” — an apparent reference to Vietnam War veterans. 

Estes told FBI agents he wanted to “fight a war on U.S. soil,” but didn’t say why he targeted a government-owned regional airport. Court documents say the would-be bomber removed the alarm’s clock’s bell, but didn’t set alarm to activate the device, the court documents say.

Authorities retrieved store video surveillance video showing Estes purchasing the bomb-making supplies at a Walmart and Lowe’s stores not far from the wooded area.

A black back pack, containing some of the same supplies, was found in the woods near the airport area which Estes described to authorities as his “staging area” where he had spent time before placing the crudely made device at the airport.  Estes had been released from prison 20 days earlier and apparently was homeless.

The Asheville Citizen Times reported that Estes had been released from jail only 20 days before the bomb was placed at the airport and is estranged from his family. 

The newspaper also reported that Estes had been arrested in July 2015 by the Cherokee Indian Police Department after he assaulted a man with a large knife and hatchet. It wasn’t disclosed if that assault was racially motivated.

While the Asheville newspaper has thoroughly covered the arrest and prosecution of Estes, there has been only brief mention of the airport bomb case in national media.

That led Shaun King, a writer for The Intercept, to opine, “The story didn’t go viral and Trump didn’t tweet about it because the bomb was not placed by an immigrant, or a Muslim, or a Mexican. It was placed there by a good ol’ white man, Michael Christopher Estes.”

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