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Dad, cell phone lead to suspect

Cameron Helder alerts police after disturbing letters from his son, who admits making mailbox bombs.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 9, 2002


RENO, Nev. -- The FBI zeroed in on 21-year-old Luke Helder as the suspect in the string of pipe-bomb attacks after his father called police about a disturbing letter in which his son warned, "Mailboxes are exploding," authorities said Wednesday.

Helder was captured Tuesday in Nevada after holding a shotgun to his head during a car chase and telling a friend by telephone "I might have to blow myself away," authorities said.

The FBI had used the signal from his new cell phone -- and a tip from a motorist who saw his Honda Accord -- to pinpoint his location 1,400 miles from his home in Pine Island, Minn.

During his odyssey halfway across the country, Helder was stopped by police and released three times for traffic violations over the weekend. But that was before his father called police and an all-points-bulletin for Helder was issued on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the FBI said Helder confessed to making 24 pipe bombs out of tape, paper clips and Christmas tree bulbs and placing 18 of them in mailboxes in five states, along with anti-government notes. Helder had the six other bombs with him when he was arrested, authorities said. They said the 6-inch bombs were packed with smokeless gunpowder and BBs or nails, and were wrapped in black electrical tape.

Six bombs in all exploded, injuring six people in Iowa and Illinois. The FBI said the final 10 bombs -- found in Nebraska, Colorado and Texas -- were not rigged to detonate.

Early Wednesday, a handcuffed Helder was led into the Washoe County Jail by federal agents. He wore a black T-shirt bearing the likeness of Kurt Cobain, the singer of the rock band Nirvana who killed himself. Helder answered "No" when asked by a reporter if he had anything to say.

Helder faces federal charges in four states. At a brief hearing in Reno on Wednesday, he was ordered held without bail for transfer to Iowa. He could be sent to prison for life if convicted.

Asked by the judge if he understood that he does not have to make any statement, Helder replied, "most definitely." Asked if he understood that any statements he made can be used against him, he replied "for sure."

U.S. District Court Magistrate Robert McQuaid Jr. denied a request to release Helder to the custody of his parents.

"It's apparent to me that he suffers from some apparent mental health problems," McQuaid said.

The FBI issued an alert for Helder after his father, Cameron, called police late Monday night about letters from his son that included references to death, antigovernment comments and the phrase "Mailboxes are exploding." The same phrase was in the notes found with the bombs.

Helder also wrote his father: "If I don't make it through this ordeal (if the gov't doesn't realize I can help) then I'll have to get out of here for awhile."

Before Helder's arrest, criminal profiling experts had speculated that an older man was responsible. But the improbable suspect who emerged proved to be a guitar player in a punk rock band called Apathy and a junior studying art and industrial design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis.

Helder remained something of an enigma Wednesday. He was described as bright, polite and not given to ranting about politics. Until this week, his criminal record showed only a marijuana possession charge last October.

That he could be involved in the case stunned people in his hometown and his college town.

"For heaven's sake, he's not a terrorist," said Rachel Stanton, whose son played in Helder's band. "Nobody saw this coming."

Citing his writings and statements from friends, however, the FBI said Helder had become obsessed recently with death and the afterlife.

And last fall, when he was cited in Menomonie for possession of a marijuana pipe, leading to a $151 fine, he told the officer something to the effect of "Is this what government is for?" Sheriff Dennis Smith said.

James Divine, who shared an apartment with Helder, and his friends, who had for months laughed off Helder's obsession with cable news programs and overbearing monologues about spirituality and current events, looked under Helder's bed Monday night and found a bag filled with pipes, nails, and two plastic bottles of gun powder. One was empty.

"What troubles all of us, not only the parents but the whole community, is what happened?" said the Rev. Dennis Kamps, pastor of St. Michael's Church in Pine Island, where Luke was confirmed and the Helders are Sunday regulars. "Something happened in the ensuing three years. Just what it is that triggered him to do what he did, that's what we'd all like to find out."

But what is most striking in this case is not the scarcity of signs of trouble, but the lack of any information at all.

Professors here at Stout and teachers from Pine Island, a town of about 2,200 about 15 miles north of Rochester and 55 miles south of the Twin Cities, barely recalled having Helder in class. A dozen students from his high school graduating class of about 85 could not share any specific anecdote with him as even a bit player. He was a lineman on the football team and played golf, sang in the school choir and recorded a CD with Apathy, a Cobain-inspired garage band, but acquaintances offered only the blandest of memories.

"We talked, but I can't even remember what we talked about," said Josh Scott of Eau Claire, Wis., who worked with Helder 15 hours a week at a supermarket in Rochester, in high school, and later saw him when both played guitar in a benefit for the Rochester Public Library.

Divine and three other close friends sat for an hour on Wednesday afternoon in the small apartment here, now disheveled by the FBI's search, looking for clues amid the posters of Cobain and Nirvana in Helder's room, where the detritus of college life were strewn about his unmade bed. They insisted Helder had never been violent -- most of the bombs were not set to go off -- and said they had found his constant spinning of complex philosophical webs somewhat charming.

Asked repeatedly by FBI agents what might have sent Helder on his rampage, the four friends said he had never made any threats except one vague reference to some action in the future.

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