The wife of Capt. Will Rogers III, skipper of the San Diego-based Vincennes, escaped unharmed Friday morning moments before a pipe bomb exploded under her van, igniting a fire that gutted her vehicle at a busy La Jolla intersection.
Hours after the 7:40 a.m. explosion, the FBI took control of the investigation, suspecting that the bombing might be an act of “domestic terrorism” linked to the Vincennes’ accidental downing of an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf last July, killing 290. The Navy and Marine Corps tightened security at every military installation in San Diego County.
“Certainly it raises the question whether there was a terrorist group involved in this,” said Gary Laturno, an FBI spokesman.
No Motive Yet
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, a federal law enforcement official said.
“At this point in time, we have no motive; we have no suspect,” said Thomas A. Hughes, special agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego. “We do not rule out the possibility of retribution against Capt. Rogers.”
However, a senior Defense Department official said that there was “no evidence” of a terrorist connection Friday, and some law enforcement officials described the bombing as “amateurish.”
Nonetheless, federal officials acknowledged that the incident followed an FBI lookout report issued in San Diego in late December for a Syrian national allegedly linked to the Dec. 21 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 259 passengers and crew members in Scotland last year.
A copy of the FBI document, obtained by The Times, said the Los Angeles FBI office had received an anonymous phone call alleging that the Syrian, identified as Farwan Abdin, was “involved in or responsible for the Flight 103 bombing over Scotland.”
The FBI added: “Also mentioned were Navy quarters or TV station. No further information given.”
The FBI’s assessment at the time was that the call was “shoddy” but that efforts should be made to locate Abdin. Officials said Friday that a serious investigation of the call was never launched.
The Rogerses were being protected Friday night by the Naval Investigative Service and other Navy personnel at an undisclosed location.
“They are not home, and we will not disclose their location,” said Chief Craig Huebler, a Navy spokesman. “And we won’t discuss it beyond that. That gets into security, and you can understand the sensitivity to that.”
He said that no special security precautions had been undertaken for Rogers, crew members and their families after the Vincennes returned to San Diego.
“Why should the Vincennes crew be treated any different?” he said. “There was nothing to indicate a threat to the crew or to their families.”
All 360 sailors assigned to the Vincennes were alerted by their commanders Friday morning of the bomb in the Rogerses’ van and urged to take whatever precautions they deemed necessary, Huebler said.
Police and Navy officials said Rogers and his wife telephoned their son, Bill Rogers, at an eastern university, where he is a student. They assured him that they were safe.
After the bombing Friday, an FBI spokesman said the Rogerses’ van was usually driven by Sharon Rogers, but two highly placed law enforcement sources told The Times that Will Rogers drove his wife’s van to a doughnut shop without incident about an hour before the blast.
The explosion occurred while the van was in the left-turn lane on Genesee Avenue, south of La Jolla Village Drive. A law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified, said Sharon Rogers told investigators that she pulled up behind three or four cars stopped at a red light at the intersection and then suddenly heard two popping sounds.
The official said she believed that her van had been struck in the rear by another car, so she got out and walked to the back of the van to look for damage.
“And then it all went up,” the official said. “That’s all there was to it. There were holes everywhere, and there was plenty of burn.”
The explosion propelled metal fragments through the roof of the white Toyota and ignited a fire that destroyed the vehicle.
One law enforcement source said several construction workers nearby reported that moments after the explosion, a red car quickly made a U-turn over the traffic median on Genesee and sped from the scene. No other description of the car was available, but witnesses said there were four people in it.
“It could have been a guy with a remote-control device who popped the bomb,” he said, “or it could have been somebody who saw the explosion and was trying not to get hurt.”
Sharon Rogers, 50, was on her way to her job as a fourth-grade teacher at La Jolla Country Day School when the bomb went off.
Other Vehicles Undamaged
Though the van was surrounded on three sides by other vehicles, none of them were damaged, witnesses said.
“I believe she got out just as it blew,” said Kurt Lent, a laborer who was walking down a dirt embankment toward the vehicle as it exploded.
Sharon Rogers was dazed but walking under her own power, when the laborers reached her. They took her to a pickup truck, where she told them that she was the van’s sole occupant and asked them to call her husband. Will Rogers arrived at the scene within a few minutes, and police took the couple to the San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division headquarters.
“She looked like she’d just been rear-ended or something,” said Charles Archer, one of two masonry workers to reach Rogers first. “She was surprised and shocked, but she wasn’t burned and she wasn’t bleeding.”
San Diego police and FBI agents rushed to the Rogerses’ home on Sherlock Court, checking two other vehicles and the home with dogs specially trained to sniff for explosives. Investigators also used mirrors to look beneath the vehicles.
Two law enforcement sources said Will Rogers left the couple’s home about 6:30 a.m. and drove in the van to a doughnut shop. He returned, drank coffee with his wife, and then Sharon Rogers, who usually drove the van, left in the vehicle, investigators said.
When Sharon Rogers was interviewed, one law enforcement source said, she was nervous and shaken, but she did not immediately connect the explosion with any possible retaliation for her husband’s role in shooting down the Iranian jetliner.
The official also said that the van had been parked in the driveway overnight, but that neither the Rogerses nor any neighbors reported prowlers near the vehicle. He also said the Rogerses have a family watchdog.
“The dog didn’t bark, and the dog barks at everybody,” the official said.
He also said Sharon Rogers told investigators that her family had received no threats since the airplane was downed.
“There were no threats, nothing,” he said. “That’s what’s funny. If you’re getting telephone calls in the middle of the night and threatening letters and graffiti, you would worry. But here there was nothing.”
Late Friday, the FBI declined comment on most aspects of the investigation, but at a press conference, the FBI’s Hughes said, “An explosive device exploded in the vehicle.”
However, two law enforcement sources said one or two pipe bombs had been placed on the transmission under the van.
“If she didn’t get out like that . . . well, she was very, very lucky,” one source said.
He said he and other investigators determined that the two initial loud bangs apparently came from one or two explosive devices, and that the apparatus was connected under the van’s transmission.
He noted that most of the van’s damage resulted from the fire, which he said has led investigators to believe that either low-intensity explosives were planted on the vehicle or that only a small amount of high-intensity explosives were used.
Within hours, San Diego Fire Department officials confirmed that the blast was caused by a pipe bomb. Archer said he found a flattened, 2-by-3-inch section of metal pipe near the curb and turned it over to investigators.
The Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser based in San Diego, returned from its six-month Persian Gulf deployment last October. It remains in port with Rogers as its skipper.
As the Vincennes exchanged fire with Iranian speedboats last July 3, Iran Air Flight 655 appeared on the U.S. warship’s high-tech radar system. After the plane failed to respond to warnings on civilian and military channels, Rogers gave the order to fire.
That decision, he said later, was in defense of his ship and crew. But the aircraft that Rogers feared was an Iranian F-14 fighter was actually an Airbus A300. All aboard were killed when the plane was knocked out of the air by a Vincennes missile.
After the downing of the plane, Iran said it would seek retribution for the deaths of the innocent civilians.
However, Navy spokesmen in San Diego said Friday that no threats had been made against Rogers, the Vincennes or any of its crew members since the ship returned to San Diego. The Vincennes and Rogers received some “negative” mail last July, shortly after the Iranian plane was shot down, a spokesman said. The mail was critical of the Vincennes’ handling of the incident but did not contain threats, the spokesman said.
Since the Vincennes returned to San Diego, Rogers has been overseeing routine ship maintenance and training in preparation for its next deployment. The Navy does not disclose the dates any of its ships will be deployed, but surface ships normally work in 18-month cycles, spending about six months at sea and the remainder of the time at or near their home ports.
Terrorism experts believe that the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 may have been retribution for the Vincennes’ shooting down of the Iranian jetliner. But no organization that authorities thought capable of the act has claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Pan Am aircraft.
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Anthony Perry, H.G. Reza, Tom Gorman, Jane Fritsch and Patrick McDonnell in San Diego and Ronald J. Ostrow and William Rempel in Los Angeles