Federal investigators probing the bombing last March of a van driven by the wife of the skipper of the Navy guided missile cruiser Vincennes have turned their attention away from international terrorism and toward an American believed to have a personal grudge against the captain, The Times has learned.
The bombing drew national attention because of the possibility that it was terrorist retribution for the mistaken downing of an Iranian commercial jetliner by the Vincennes, commanded by Capt. Will Rogers III. Rogers' wife, Sharon, who was alone in the van when it was destroyed, narrowly escaped injury.
Four sources familiar with the investigation have told The Times that while terrorism has not been officially ruled out, the thrust of the investigation has shifted to the possibility that the attack was the result of personal animosity toward Capt. Rogers.
Tom Hughes, FBI special agent in charge in San Diego, refused to discuss any aspect of the six-month probe. "We will have the same position we have in any ongoing investigation," he said, "and that is 'no comment.' "
Capt. Rogers expressed surprise Friday at the possibility that animosity toward him might have triggered the attack.
"The investigation has been and continues to be extremely thorough," the Navy captain said. "But I have not the remotest idea of anyone who would take a personal vendetta against me or my family."
Two sources said that a suspect--an American citizen--has been identified, and that officials are now checking his alibi.
Each source cautioned that the animosity believed aimed at the Navy skipper was not related to the operation of the Vincennes, nor was it coming from a disgruntled sailor. (In July, Rogers was given a routine change of assignment and took over as commander of a Navy training group in San Diego that teaches tactics to senior officers.)
The sources also told The Times that if the latest avenue of investigation does not pan out, investigators may refocus on terrorism as a possible cause.
290 Aboard Airliner
The March 10 bombing was immediately labeled as a potential act of international terrorism on U.S. soil, probably by pro-Khomeini factions retaliating for Rogers' decision on July 3, 1988, to shoot down the commercial Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988. All 290 people aboard the plane were killed.
Rogers told Navy investigators he mistakenly believed the airliner was an Iranian military aircraft preparing to attack his ship. The Pentagon later concluded that while the ship's crew made crucial errors that led to the decision to shoot down the airliner, Rogers was exonerated because the airliner failed to respond to repeated warnings from the Vincennes.
After an initial San Diego police and bomb squad investigation at the scene of the van bombing on a La Jolla intersection, the FBI assumed jurisdiction of the case because of the possibility of terrorism. FBI officials have never affirmed that the bombing was an act of terrorism, but it was clear from the beginning that terrorism was the major focus of the investigation.
Shortly after the bombing, investigators were checking tips that men who looked like natives of the Middle East had been seen near the Rogers' home. A small group of pro-Khomeini students at San Diego State University was questioned by the FBI.
In addition, federal officials were alerted to watch the borders. And as the probe wore on, 15 extra FBI agents were brought to San Diego to assist in the investigation.
La Jolla Country Day School, where Mrs. Rogers had been a longtime teacher, refused to renew her contract because of concerns about possible terrorism. That led to a White House statement that it was "very disturbing" to see Americans bowing to perceived international terrorism.
Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) is pushing legislation to create a special, $100,000 reward fund for victims of terrorism in the United States. Lowery, along with the Rogerses, has spoken out against the danger of foreign terrorism reaching the United States.
But sources said federal investigators have spent months tracking down countless leads in the case, hampered by the problem that little physical evidence was found at the scene of the bombing. Some investigators have privately expressed doubt that the case would ever be solved.
Now, investigators have come up with what sources say is one of their most promising angles: that the bombing may have been intended as a personal attack on Capt. Rogers.
No Arrests Soon
The sources cautioned that even while the focus of the investigation has shifted, officials are not close to making an arrest. And it could be that if the new lead dries up, investigators will return to the possibility of terrorism.
"Don't bet the ranch on this latest development being the final answer," said one source familiar with the case. "It could turn around again."
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story from Washington.