A lack of physical evidence or other clues poses a major hurdle to agents investigating the bomb that exploded beneath the van owned by Navy skipper Will Rogers III, independent bomb experts said Wednesday.
FBI agents would not characterize their progress, but the lack of gunpowder residue or other physical evidence left by the blast should be considered a serious setback in solving the case, the outside experts said.
Steve Gardella, a San Diego private consultant on terrorism and former vice president of security for Pacific Southwest Airlines, said pipe bombings are especially difficult to solve. With as little evidence as the FBI appears to have, the task can become impossible, he said.
“There are many difficulties in a case like this,” Gardella said.
Little Gathered at Scene
Federal sources have said that the FBI has gathered little at the scene of the bombing in La Jolla, from which Rogers’ wife, Sharon, escaped unharmed, or at the couple’s nearby home. One federal source said some evidence may have been lost at the Rogers home when the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department used explosive-sniffing dogs to check for more bombs.
Sgt. Conrad Grayson, commander of the sheriff’s arson-explosives unit, said local law enforcement officials have often made arrests after bombs have detonated, but usually not with key help from physical evidence found at the scene. Instead, he said, an arrest is usually made after follow-up investigation reveals the identity of someone threatening the victim.
In this case, however, Rogers has been unable to offer any suggestion as to who would want to harm him. Speculation has included Muslims loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who might want to retaliate for Rogers’ order last July aboard the guided missile cruiser Vincennes to down an Iranian airliner, which was mistaken for a military jet fighter.
“So I sympathize with the FBI,” Grayson said. “They’re dealing with a situation where the victims can’t help them. And that’s the key . . . the FBI doesn’t have anyone to turn to to ask, ‘Who the heck hates you?’ ”
Law enforcement officials in San Diego and elsewhere said pipe bombs similar to the one used to blow up the Rogers van are a favorite weapon of many violent elements, including drug dealers and motorcycle groups.
“Pipe bombs are very, very common,” said Robert Wall, a special agent in Washington for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Flurry of Excitement
There was a brief flurry of excitement in the investigation Wednesday after a man with a thick Middle Eastern accent telephoned radio station KNX in Los Angeles and claimed that a group calling itself Guardians of the Islamic Revolution was responsible for the bombing.
The caller, who claimed to be a member of the group, linked the bombing to the airliner tragedy and threatened more attacks against Sharon Rogers and “all the American officers and officials,” according to Roger Nadel, executive news producer of the AM news station. The station immediately contacted the FBI, Nadel said.
According to an FBI spokesman in Washington, “The bureau will investigate the receipt of the call and the information to see if it has any relevance to the bombing of Capt. Rogers’ vehicle.” The spokesman said the FBI was taking the call seriously.
However, others discounted the role of any group calling itself Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. A caller used that name to claim responsibility for the downing of Pan American Flight 103 over Scotland in December and the recent crippling of a United Airlines plane near Hawaii. But investigators have determined that the United incident was caused by a faulty cargo door and not an explosive, as the caller claimed, and a group by that name is not suspected in the Pan Am incident.
As one government anti-terrorism expert put it Wednesday: “These folks are in the claiming business. I’m sure the FBI is not too excited about this development.”
Bruce Hoffman, who analyzes terrorism for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, said it is unclear whether Guardians of the Islamic Revolution exists.
“The first question I have is whether it is, in fact, a real group,” he said. “No one knows that. We just have no way of knowing whether in fact it is a group.”
Hoffman said the name surfaced in 1987 in connection with the killings of three Iranian expatriates in London. The group, if it exists, was not heard from again until it claimed responsibility for the downing of the Pan Am plane.
“That was pretty much dismissed out of hand,” Hoffman said.
The fact that the group’s name was “kicked around in the media” extensively following the Pan Am incident casts doubt on whether the claim Wednesday was legitimate, he said, adding that anyone could have called and mentioned the group’s name.
“It’s not as if it’s unknown,” he said, noting that a call from someone claiming to represent an obscure group would carry more weight.
Officer Had Met Victim
Meanwhile, San Diego Police Officer Pamela B. Smith, the first officer to arrive at the bombing scene last week, said Wednesday that she already knew Sharon Rogers because they had worked together on a tactical plan for protecting the Rogers home after an FBI warning of possible threats months before.
When Smith arrived and recognized Rogers, she was able to quickly grasp the possible meaning of the attack.
“She was already out of the vehicle,” Smith said. “She thought she was hit by something behind and heard a ‘kaboom’ and smelled smoke.
“Then she asked to speak to me alone. She said she was Mrs. Rogers and Capt. Rogers’ wife, and I put my hand on her shoulder and said I knew. And she said she thought she recognized me.”
Smith is assigned to the University City area where the Rogerses live. She said Mrs. Rogers had not seemed concerned months earlier when they discussed how police would respond if the Rogers home were attacked.
“She was such a calm and collected lady,” Smith said. “She just seemed like a person who had her act together.”
The contingency plan had not taken into account anyone tampering with family vehicles, and Smith said she knew of no recent threats.
“So, needless to say, Friday morning took them (the Rogerses) by surprise.”
Times staff writer Jane Fritsch contributed to this story from San Diego. Staff writer Ronald Ostrow reported from Washington.