The bombing last week of a van driven by the wife of Navy Capt. Will C. Rogers III was the latest in a sharply increasing number of bombings and attempted explosions using crude pipe bombs in San Diego and across the nation.
The problem was underscored Friday at San Diego Fire Department’s bomb squad station when city and federal officials had to abruptly cancel a press conference to respond to another bomb emergency.
It turned out that the explosive device, reported in the University Heights area, could not be located.
Weapon of Choice
Officials said pipe bombs--primarily because they are easy to assemble and often leave little traceable evidence--are becoming the weapon of choice among a growing number of criminals.
Dot Koester, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Washington, said “information is readily available in public libraries on how to build these things. There is all sorts of crazy literature out there that teaches people how to build these.”
She said the bombs are more frequently turning up among drug dealers, particularly those who operate clandestine methamphetamine labs in San Diego County, which has been dubbed the “meth lab capital” of the United States.
“Very often what happens, we’ll go out to serve a search warrant at these meth labs and we’ll find a pipe bomb there, ready-made,” she said.
With the March 10 bombing of Sharon Rogers’ van, officials worry that pipe-bomb activity is moving into the even more dangerous sphere of international terrorism.
“The recent events that have occurred in this city certainly underscore the problem,” said San Diego City Councilman Ron Roberts.
The van explosion left Sharon Rogers unscathed, but set off an intense federal investigation to find the perpetrator and increased security for the Rogerses and their son. Heightened security measures have also been put in place at military bases around San Diego County.
Because investigators believe it possible that the bombing was in retaliation for Capt. Rogers’ order to shoot down an Iranian airliner mistaken for an attacking warplane in the Persian Gulf last summer, he and his wife are being provided around-the-clock protection at an undisclosed San Diego location by the Naval Investigative Service.
In addition, the son of the guided-missile cruiser Vincennes’ commander has been moved off campus from his Colgate University dormitory in New York so that Navy bodyguards can better protect him.
Will Rogers IV, a sophomore at Colgate, and Navy officials declined to discuss the security measures. Students at the university said the younger Rogers has been accompanied by two to four bodyguards whenever he is on campus.
SDSU Student Group
Also on Friday, officials at San Diego State University said they have no reason to believe any of the Iranian students enrolled at the school are responsible for bombing the Rogers van. Their response came after The Times reported Friday that a small group of pro-Khomeini students from Iran is the object of an FBI inquiry as part of its probe into the bombing.
Rick Moore, a SDSU spokesman, said, “There is no indication that any student or organization was involved in this affair or incident, and thus the university is not changing the way it deals with these institutions.
“We are still operating under the system that people are innocent until proven guilty,” he added. “And the past performance of these individuals has given no indications that we should deal differently with them.
“They’ve been very well-behaved, very cooperative and they carefully follow the rules.”
Ron Orrantia, a local spokesman for the FBI, declined Friday to discuss details of the investigation. But sources close to the probe have said that little hard evidence has been recovered from the scene of the Genesee Avenue explosion.
The sources said the few fragments found by investigators lead them to believe the device was attached to the van’s transmission and apparently was activated by a heat-sensitive mechanism.
San Diego and national experts on explosives said this week that, when little evidence is left from explosions caused by pipe bombs, it is often extremely difficult for investigators to locate suspects.
Explosive Devices on Rise
In the San Diego area, officials revealed that there has been a 300% increase in the number of explosive devices found so far this year from the same period last year. They also pointed to a 700% increase in the actual number of detonations.
According to a city memo detailing “bomb squad activities,” 77 pipe bombs were recovered in the city in 1987. Those ranged from pipe bombs that were gas-enhanced to those that were made with a mercury switch, and two that could be triggered by remote control.
The memo also noted that one juvenile was killed “by a pipe bomb that functioned while he was holding the device,” and that “one technician received burn injuries while disposing of smokeless and black powder.”
Because of the increase, local officials Friday called for the purchase of a special robot to help bomb squad experts recover, remove and detonate explosive devices. Noting that many large cities, including Los Angeles and New York, have already purchased robots, they said it would go a long way toward assuring the safety of explosives disposal experts.
A robot costs about $145,000, and U. S. Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) said a private donor has agreed to contribute 10% of the cost. “We need to finally join the 20th Century and get a robot,” he said.
On the national level, Koester, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spokeswoman, said 37% of illegal explosive devices recovered by the agency in 1978 in the United States were pipe bombs. In 1987, the last year that statistics were available, that number had risen to 52%, she said.
“That’s the highest kind of bombs we have,” she said. “After that, it is bottles, and then dynamite and sticks and cans. But these other types of bombs were used much less frequently.”
Two Typical Cases
She described two cases, both last fall in Fort Worth, Tex., as examples of the use of pipe bombs:
- A Colombian national was killed when a remote-control pipe bomb detonated.
The victim was on probation for the murder of his girlfriend and was allegedly involved in narcotics traffic. Witnesses said he was sitting in his parked car when another man stepped in, chatted briefly, then hurried out and drove off in a second car. Moments later, the victim’s car exploded.
“Within 48 hours of the explosion, and after 100 hours of investigative work, we did identify a suspect,” she said, noting that he later drew a 48-year prison sentence.
- The second incident ended with the death of an 8-year-old boy and the injury of five of his friends.
The maker of the pipe bomb had sold it to another man, who used it in a failed attempt to blow up a car. The device later changed hands and “eventually was discarded in an alley,” she said.
“And it was in this alley that the kids found it,” she said.
An arrest was made, she said, and the case is still awaiting trial in Texas.
In other developments Friday into the bombing of the Rogers van, investigators said they were reviewing a reported phone call this week to the Union-Tribune offices in which a caller spoke briefly about the bombing.
One federal source said they had been unable to trace the phone call through the phone company.
And officials announced that rewards of up to $36,000 have been offered for any information leading to the arrest or conviction of the person who set the bomb under the Rogerses’ van.
A Los Angeles-area military commentator said he was called at home by an unidentified man and warned to stop broadcasting “lies” or “you will be stopped.”
Andy Lightbody, military and aerospace editor for CBS-owned KNX radio in Los Angeles, said he received the call at his home shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday. He often discusses terrorism, the Middle East and military affairs.
The caller, who spoke with an accent, “said that my reports are all wrong,” Lightbody reported. “You do not know what you’re talking about. Your station does not know what it’s talking about. It is broadcasting lies.”
The FBI confirmed it is aware of the incident.
In another development, an Iranian businessman awaiting trial in San Diego on smuggling charges asked to be released on bail Friday, claiming he was beaten by other inmates in retribution for the van bombing.
Saeid Asefi Inanlou “has been assaulted in the (Metropolitan Correction Center),” defense attorney Juanita Brooks said. “He has been called a terrorist and told all Iranians are alike and that he wants to get out and kill (author Salman) Rushdie.”
However the bail request by Saeid Asefi Inanlou, who appeared in court with a black eye, was turned down by U. S. District Judge Leland C. Nielsen.
Times staff writer Jane Fritsch contributed to this report.