March 10, 2011 / 1:36 AM / 9 years ago

U.S. arrests man in Martin Luther King Day bomb plot

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Washington state man was arrested and charged with attempting to place a bomb along the parade route of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration in Spokane, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.

“I can say that it was a viable device, it was planted with the aim of injuring or killing people and we were fortunate that it did not go off and that people were in fact not killed. We were just lucky in that regard,” Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference on an unrelated matter.

Kevin William Harpham, 36, was charged with two counts of attempting to put a bomb along the planned parade route on January 17, according to documents filed in federal court.

Authorities said the device, if it had gone off, could have caused multiple deaths.

Harpham appeared briefly in federal court in Spokane on Wednesday, and is being held in the Spokane County Jail until an arraignment, tentatively scheduled for March 23, authorities told Reuters. A grand jury is set to meet to consider the charges against Harpham on March 22.

A federal law enforcement official said authorities were investigating whether the suspect, who lived in Colville, Washington, had ties to white supremacists.

Officials from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group, said Harpham had been a member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance in late 2004 and that he was in the U.S. military from 1996 to 1997.

A spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the recently merged U.S. Army/Air Force base in Washington state, confirmed that Harpham served at the former Fort Lewis Army base from 1996 to early 1999 as a fire support specialist.

The MLK day parade, on the national holiday honoring the slain African-American civil rights leader and attended by about 1,500 people, was quickly rerouted while the city’s bomb disposal unit was summoned and safely “neutralized the device,” the FBI said at the time.

An unattended backpack, with wires visible, was discovered on a downtown bench by three city workers who notified police about 30 minutes before the parade was scheduled to begin, the FBI said. The device in the backpack was largely concealed by two T-shirts packed inside.

“I think the FBI has done really great work in cracking that case along with their state and local counterparts,” Holder said in confirming the arrest.

Chemical analysis of the homemade bomb remains “ongoing,” FBI supervisory resident agent Frank Harrill told Reuters, declining to confirm reports that the bomb contained a white powder anticoagulant chemical similar to rat poison.

One count charges the suspect with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, an improvised explosive device, along the planned parade route. That charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The other count charges Harpham with illegally possessing an explosive device, which carries up to 10 years in prison.

U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby told Reuters that the investigation is continuing, but no more arrests were expected on Wednesday.

Reporting by James Vicini and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington and Laura Myers and Bill Rigby in Seattle, Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh

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