After a meticulous two-day search of the scene, representatives of five law enforcement agencies were still uncertain Sunday whether the bombing of a van driven by the wife of Navy skipper Will Rogers III was a terrorist act.
The FBI, which is coordinating the investigation, on Sunday appealed to the public for help in developing leads to the pipe-bomb attack Friday morning from which Sharon Rogers escaped unhurt. Her husband’s order to shoot down an aircraft mistakenly thought to be an attacking Iranian jet fighter last July over the Persian Gulf led to Iranian threats of retaliation against the United States. The downed plane turned out of be an Iranian civilian airliner. All 290 aboard were killed.
Speculation on Bombing
Investigators have speculated that the bombing of Mrs. Rogers’ car may have been an act of retaliation, although they have not ruled out such other motives as a disgruntled sailor.
FBI spokesman Gene Riehl said that “in a perfect world, we would like to find somebody who saw something very suspicious and out of place. We’re looking for people who saw anything suspicious” around the bombing scene in the La Jolla district of San Diego. Riehl said investigators already have received dozens of calls, “all generally helpful,” about the incident. “It is a great help and we solve a huge number of cases with the help of callers,” Riehl said.
Also Sunday, Thomas Hughes, head of the FBI office in San Diego, and Dennis Usery, head of the Naval Investigative Service office here, met with the Rogerses at an undisclosed location to discuss the investigation. Hughes described the couple as “in good spirits.” They have moved from their home near the scene of the explosion and are under NIS guard.
The executive officer of Rogers’ ship, the Vincennes, has taken over for the captain in the last two days, but Rogers will resume his full command duties shortly, a Navy spokesman said. Rogers will remain with the Vincennes until a long-scheduled change of command takes place this July, the spokesman said.
Drums of Debris
FBI laboratory experts spent Sunday sifting through three drums filled with debris collected near the site of the explosion and fire on Genesee Avenue south of La Jolla Village Drive. Investigators finished their examination of the scene late Saturday and moved the burned-out shell of the Rogers van to an FBI garage, Riehl said.
“There have been items of evidentiary value shipped to our laboratory in Washington, D.C.” Riehl added.
In a brief statement Sunday afternoon, Hughes said investigators from the FBI, the Naval Investigative Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department “are all working very hard together to resolve the matter.” Hughes refused to discuss the progress of the investigation.
The mangement and staff of all five agencies met all day Sunday to “evaluate the investigation” and discuss plans for the coming days and weeks, Riehl said.
Riehl refused to respond to an editorial in an Iranian newspaper that blamed the FBI for the bombing and contended the incident was engineered to provoke anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States.
“We’re not responding to that at all,” he said.
The English-language newspaper Kayhan International linked the alleged U.S. plot to Western anger at Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s order that British novelist Salman Rushdie be killed for his book, “The Satanic Verses.”
The bombing “will not be the last attempt to implicate Iran” over the Rushdie controversy, Kayhan International said in an editorial summarized by Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The Associated Press reported that FBI spokeswoman Kathy Kennedy in Washington deniedthe allegation and added: “We have never made any linkage to Iran since this incident happened.”
The incident occurred at 7:40 a.m. Friday as Sharon Rogers was en route to her job at a private elementary school in La Jolla. Hearing what sounded like two loud noises underneath the vehicle, she initially thought a motorist had struck her van from behind. Moments after she stepped out to check for damage, the van exploded into a fireball, but she was unhurt.
FBI officials have confirmed that a pipe bomb attached to the vehicle caused the explosion.
A Navy spokesman in San Diego said Sunday that a telephone threat received by Sharon Rogers last July, shortly after the Iranian plane was shot down, was thoroughly investigated at the time and was determined to be a “hoax.” Sharon Rogers hung up on the unidentified caller after he asked, “Are you the wife of the murderer?”
“That was a hoax,” said Chief Petty Officer Craig Huebler, a spokesman for the San Diego Naval Base. “We went through all the steps we normally do in investigating these incidents. We checked out the entire situation and determined that this was not a real threat.”
“Sad to say, but we receive many of these calls,” Huebler said. “Our families are the first ones, normally, to get these kinds of hoax phone calls . . . almost as soon as an incident occurs.”
Sometimes, he said, the threats are sexual. At other times, unidentified callers telephone the wives of sailors and report that their husbands, who are out to sea, have been injured or killed, he said.
“We get these things all the time,” Huebler said. “We straighten them out quickly. But there is still the initial panic and fear.”