Suspect in MLK bomb tied to racist movement
March 9, 2011 4:19 p.m. - Updated: March 15, 12:08 p.m.
Federal agents today arrested an ex-soldier with ties to the white supremacist movement and charged him with planting the backpack bomb along the planned route of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in downtown Spokane.
Kevin William Harpham, 36, of Colville, could face life imprisonment on charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered explosive device, according to documents on file in U.S. District Court.
Harpham, wearing blue jeans and a dark sweat shirt, only gave one word answers when he appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno.
Federal agents, who had been assembling in Spokane during the past few days, arrested Harpham driving near his home at 1088 Cannon Way, in rural Stevens County south of Colville.
The Southern Poverty Law Center confirmed that Harpham in 2004 was a member of the National Alliance, which is one of the most visible white supremacist organizations in the nation. It was founded by the late William Pierce, who authored “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about a future race war. That book was believed to be the blueprint behind the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.
“What to me this arrest suggests is that the Martin Luther King Day attack is what it always looked like: A terror-mass murder attempt directed at black people and their sympathizers,” said Mark Potok, who is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project that tracks and investigates hate groups.
But Erich Gliebe, chairman of the National Alliance, based in Hillsboro, W.Va., said Harpham is not a member of his organization, which believes all races are entitled to their own living spaces.
“We have a zero tolerance policy regarding illegal activity and anyone committing those acts – even hinting or joking — would not be welcome in our organization,” Gliebe said.
Gliebe said he didn’t know where the Southern Poverty Law Center got its membership information.
“They will try to smear any organization they can,” Gliebe said. “They tried to smear me in the past.”
Harpham served from 1996 to 1999 as a fire support specialist with the Army’s 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, base spokesman Joseph Piek said.
“Serving in a field artillery unit doesn’t teach you to do what he has allegedly done,” Piek said.
Harpham also appears to be a member of the Vanguard News Network, which is the racist magazine for the National Alliance. That Website features essays, blog posts and message boards on topics such as “resettlement and construction of local communities for Whites” and “How to Live White.”
Stevens County tax records show that Harpham bought the 9.8-acre parcel on Cannon Way in 1997 for $27,950. A 672-square-foot single-family home was built in 2007.
Mike Ormsby, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, announced the arrest but provided no other details about how the investigation centered on Harpham. All documents supporting the arrest have been sealed.
“The tireless dedication and extraordinary efforts of the law enforcement officers involved in all aspects of this complicated investigation are commended,” Ormsby said in prepared remarks.
At his first appearance hearing, Harpham sat with his arms crossed leaning on a table. He generally averted his eyes from a full gallery as he waited for Imbrogno to begin.
Federal Public Defender Roger Peven was appointed to defend Harpham and said he only met his client for about an hour before the hearing.
“I know very little at this point,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a long road.”
Imbrogno said the government’s evidence will be presented to a grand jury on March 22. If they indict Harpham, an arraignment will be held on the next day and a trial date will be set.
If the grand jury does not indict Harpham on March 22, Imbrogno will hold a probable cause hearing on March 23 where federal agents must testify about the evidence they have to support the charges.
Records indicate Harpham is a registered voter, which suggests he has no prior felony convictions, and could explain why it took so long for a suspect to be identified.
Agents remained throughout the day searching Harpham’s home near Addy, which is south of Colville. Witnesses reported hearing a loud explosion that agents used to breach the front door.
Kevin Coy, who lives near the house being searched, said law enforcement took one of his neighbors into custody this morning as he drove across a bridge over the Colville River. In an interview with KHQ News, Coy described the suspect’s house as a trailer, and said several dogs lived on the property. Coy also said he saw agents put a blue four-door Honda on a trailer and haul it away.
Previously, federal officials had called the bomb a thwarted attempt at domestic terrorism and said the investigation would likely turn on forensic testing of the bomb, which had been sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation lab in Quantico, Va.
The developments today came as welcome news to the Rev. Happy Watkins, who was a featured speaker at the Unity March in January.
Watkins, senior pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane, said federal officials hadn’t given him any updates about the progress of fhe investigation.
“We’ve been asking questions but no one has talked to us,” said Watkins. “People in New York City hear about Spokane and associate us with Hayden Lake and the Aryan Nations. It just shouldn’t be that way because it’s a great place to live. We’ve still got that hate that lingers and doesn’t go away. That’s disheartening.”
The bomb was discovered on Jan. 17, just minutes before the planned Unity March. Three contract workers located the black Swiss Army brand backpack containing what turned out to be a powerful bomb on or next to the bench at the southeast corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue.
Spokane police officials were alerted of the backpack’s presence and quickly re-routed the march to avoid the potential danger. Other sources, who received security briefings after the discovery, said it was a sophisticated device which could have been detonated remotely, using something similar to a vehicle keyless entry switch.
Sources said the bomb could have inflicted multiple casualties and was placed in a way to maximize the blast toward marchers in the street.
Other sources then revealed that it appeared the bomb maker used rat poison, with the potential intent of causing victims to continue to bleed once struck with shrapnel.
As the investigation progressed, much attention was focused on the region’s past bombings, all of which were carried out by either members of the Aryan Nations or other white supremacists.
The most recent came in 1996, when three bombs linked to racists caused severe damage to a Planned Parenthood building, Spokane City Hall and the Spokane Valley office of The Spokesman-Review.
Watch for online updates on this story and for complete coverage in Thursday’s edition of The Spokesman-Review.