Three sanitation workers found it along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march: a nest of wires in a backpack.
The homemade bomb was equipped with an unusual remote-controlled trigger and stuffed with more than 100 heavy fishing weights coated in rat poison. The Spokane County bomb squad disarmed it hours before the route would have been flooded with marchers last year.
If the device had detonated and the weights had torn into the intended victims, the poison would have prevented their blood from coagulating, all but ensuring their deaths, lab analysts concluded.
The intense manhunt that ensued led authorities to a remote cabin in the pine-shrouded hills north of Spokane. In it lived Kevin W. Harpham, an Army veteran who had posted venomously for years on a white supremacist website, the Vanguard News Network.
“Those who say you can’t win a war by bombing have never tried,” he wrote. “I can’t wait till the day I snap.”
At the conclusion of a hurried, tense investigation, Harpham pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and a hate crime and was sentenced in December to 32 years in prison.
A decade after the dissolution of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho and the arrest of the Montana Freemen, white supremacists, far-right militias and radical patriots have revived their dream of a homeland in the Northwest.
In 2010, residents in several parts of Idaho woke to find Easter eggs tossed on their lawns — courtesy of the not-dead-yet Aryan Nations. The eggs contained jelly beans and solicitations to “take back our country and make it great, clean, decent and beautiful once again.”
In October, a federal jury convicted Spokane-area resident Wayde Kurt of firearms violations in a case prosecutors said stemmed from Kurt’s membership in the white supremacist group Vanguard Kindred.
In a sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors said Kurt discussed with an FBI informant a plan for what he called an act of terrorism “of the worst kind,” comparable to the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, that “would mean a death sentence if he is caught.”
“The defendant stated that he needed to make sure that everyone is fed up with [President] Obama,” the memo says.
Meanwhile, prominent white nationalists, radical constitutionalists and other apostles of the far right have established beachheads in northwestern Montana. They include April Gaede, who is appealing to white “refugees” to establish a Pioneer Little Europe; Karl Gharst, a former member of the Aryan Nations who has been screening Holocaust denial films at the local library; and Ronald Davenport, a Washington man who was convicted in November of filing more than $20 billion in false liens against government officials seeking to collect $250,000 in unpaid taxes.
Conservative preacher and radio host Chuck Baldwin, the 2008 presidential candidate of the Constitution Party, moved to Montana from Florida in 2010 to help establish an “American redoubt” for “liberty-loving brethren,” and is now running as a Republican for lieutenant governor.
“We know there’s a fight coming. We know there is a line being drawn in the sand, and we want to be in the right place. The good ground is right here in Montana,” Baldwin told supporters last year.
In a recent report, the Southern Poverty Law Center said “a new round of antigovernment stirrings” was evident in northwestern Montana, especially around Kalispell.
“We’re seeing a real resurgence of the idea once again of retreating to the Pacific Northwest, the last best place, as they say,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the civil rights group.
The new arrivals have not made overt threats of violence. Many have said they came to establish a quiet line of defense against rising crime in cities to the south. Yet Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the militant right posed a different kind of challenge.
Instead of doing most of their proselytizing online, as they have in the past, he said, the groups are now sponsoring public meetings, bringing in guest speakers such as David Irving, an internationally known writer who challenges the Holocaust, and Paul Fromm, a well-known Canadian white supremacist.
“The idea that they just want to move here and be left alone — we’ve seen in the last 21/2 years that that’s not what these folks are about. They’re about pushing their agenda, trying to recruit people if they can,” McAdam said. “It’s definitely about establishing a presence and saying basically, ‘We’re here.’ “
In the case of Baldwin, he added, “They’re engaging mainstream political institutions and trying to accumulate power.”
The near-disaster involving the backpack bomb at the King Day march in Spokane evoked comparisons to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, another below-the-radar radical, and Buford O. Furrow Jr., a former guard at the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho who drove to Los Angeles from Washington state in 1999 and opened fire at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, wounding five, then killed a Filipino American postal worker in Chatsworth.
Harpham “was what we feared most, the prototypical lone wolf extremist who didn’t foreshadow the event in any way,” the FBI’s lead agent in Spokane, Frank Harrill, said in an interview. “There had been nothing that would signal that he would conduct some vicious attempt like this.”
The rush to identify a suspect — complete with an elaborate arrest plan involving a SWAT team disguised as road workers — reflected the fear that whoever was responsible might detonate a bomb somewhere else.
“We all felt, although the timeline was uncertain, that this could be a race against a second device in some venue somewhere … so it was all hands on deck,” Harrill said. “One of the big concerns was that the geographic origin of the perpetrator was unknown…. We didn’t even know if it was an individual” or a group.
The first victory came when the bomb squad disarmed the device while keeping most of its components intact.
FBI bomb technician Leland McEuen, who had dismantled improvised explosive devices in Iraq, recognized it as a pipe bomb with a triggering device — a remote car starter — similar to those used against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
The bomb was wrapped in two T-shirts, traced by FBI Case Agents Ryan Butler and Joe Cleary to a Relay for Life fundraiser and an after-school production of “Treasure Island” in Stevens County, the forested valley that stretches north of Spokane toward the Canadian border.
Zeroing in from there, FBI Special Agent Craig Noyes found that an unusually large number of fishing weights identical to those found in the bomb had been sold the previous November at a Wal-Mart in Colville, Wash. The weights had been purchased with a debit card belonging to Harpham, a 37-year-old electrician who lived on a 10-acre plot outside Colville.
A quick check revealed that Harpham had served with an artillery unit at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord in western Washington. A DNA sample from his Army records matched a sample found on the backpack’s handle.
Within hours of coming up with Harpham’s name, FBI analysts had matched him to a man posting under the pseudonym “Joe Snuffy” more than 1,000 times since 2004 on the Vanguard website.
“The older I get, [the] less I have to live for, and the less I have to live for, the less the laws of this country will be able to influence my actions,” he wrote in one of the postings, which frequently ranted about African Americans and Jews.
“It was clear from those postings that …we were dealing with an individual who was extraordinarily racist and potentially violent,” Harrill said. “He was talking about caching food, fortifying structures, obtaining high-capacity assault weapons. And while those things are not of themselves illegal, if you juxtapose them with the placement of an extremely lethal destructive device, it presents really a nightmare scenario in terms of an ultimate resolution.”
One thing FBI supervisors knew: They did not want to try to arrest Harpham at his cabin — not after the disastrous 1992 siege of the Idaho cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver. That assault killed Weaver’s wife and 14-year-old son.
Instead, FBI agents learned that Harpham was looking to buy a car, and devised a plan to grab him when he emerged from his cabin.
On March 9 — 51 days after the attempted bombing and 22 days after agents had identified him as their suspect — Harpham drove down the narrow mountain road from his cabin to a small bridge at the bottom. Awaiting him there were the FBI’s hostage rescue team and an FBI SWAT team from Seattle, disguised as road workers.
A man dressed as a flagger signaled Harpham to proceed onto the bridge. A van on the other side blocked his exit. A backhoe bucket slammed down onto the rear of Harpham’s car.
A dozen FBI agents in camouflage leaped out of the van with assault rifles, shouting at Harpham to put his hands in the air. He did so — but he had questions of his own. “How long have you known about me?” Harpham asked. When he didn’t get an answer, he muttered one of his own: “About two months.”
During his sentencing in December, Harpham argued that his intention had been merely to shatter the glass of a nearby medical building and cause general alarm as a form of protest.
“Just these kinds of social concepts — unity, multiculturalism. It was no different than a Christian person out there protesting gay marriage,” Harpham said. “Just making a statement that people are out there who do not agree with these ideas.”
Harpham’s father, Cecil “Bill” Harpham, said his son was “a real good kid” who fell in with skinheads in the Army.
“They more or less brainwashed my son into thinking that this hate group is going to better America, that they’re getting stronger every day and a bunch of stuff like that,” he said. He sighed. “Oh, I cried an awful lot. But he brought this on himself. I told him not to mess with those skinheads. Stay away from ‘em. But he wouldn’t do it.”