A Southern California biochemist who was sought in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing case was arrested by U.S. marshals Friday afternoon in the heart of Arizona's Black Mountains after he was spotted sitting on a bench in the tiny town of Oatman.
Steven Garrett Colbern, 35, a UCLA-educated chemist who was already wanted on both state and federal weapons charges, was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by the marshals who were in town searching for him.
Federal agents said the search for Colbern began after authorities learned that the chief suspect in the bombing case, Timothy J. McVeigh, tried to contact him last fall. Colbern was being held on the weapons charges.
In some ways, Colbern's photo on a U.S. Marshals wanted poster resembles the sketch of the elusive "John Doe No. 2," who is believed to have accompanied McVeigh when he allegedly rented the Ryder truck used in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But federal officials, made wary by the ups and downs of the hunt, played down any connection with John Doe No. 2 as they disclosed they have been searching for Colbern for at least a week.
As if to underscore that wariness, the marshals on Friday asked the Upland Police Department, which arrested Colbern July 20 on weapons charges, to withdraw a press release stating that Colbern also was known as John Doe No. 2.
However, federal officials--speaking not for attribution--made clear that their interest in Colbern now is based on information that McVeigh tried to contact this latest suspect last fall in Kingman, Ariz., which authorities believe may have been a planning site for the Oklahoma City bombing.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals office in Phoenix said Colbern was armed with a .38-caliber revolver when he was wrestled to the ground by three federal marshals in Oatman, an old gold mining town that now caters to the few tourists who pass through that remote region of Arizona. After a brief struggle, Colbern was taken into custody about 3 p.m., said Thomas B. Nixon, chief deputy for the district of Arizona office.
"He got up and attempted to leave and attempted to pull a .38-caliber five-shot revolver, fully loaded," Nixon said. During the struggle, Colbern kicked one of the deputies in the jaw, Nixon said.
Nixon said six federal agents had been in Oatman on Friday as part of a joint effort with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to locate Colbern.
Ted Tonioli, the owner of the Oatman Hotel, said federal marshals stopped by about 2:30 p.m. Friday to inquire about Colbern. A few minutes after the deputies left, Tonioli said he saw Colbern walking down the street.
"He stopped and bought a copy of the Mohave Valley Daily News," Tonioli said. "He then wandered down the street."
Tonioli said he motioned to federal agents, who were standing about 100 feet away.
"I told them, 'Your suspect is walking across the street with a newspaper,' " Tonioli said. Colbern was nabbed a few minutes later when the agents approached the bench where he sat outside the hotel's restaurant.
Nixon said Colbern was transported to nearby Bullhead City, Ariz., where he was being held on failure to appear with an underlying charge of possession of unregistered weapons. He will be transported to Phoenix, where he is scheduled to be arraigned today.
Colbern had been working as a janitor and a cook at the Oatman Mining Company, a bar and grill on Route 66.
"He was a super person," said the restaurant's owner, who asked not to be named. "I have nothing bad to say about Steve."
Maybelle Hertig, 70, of Bullhead City, said Friday that Colbern lived off-and-on in a mobile home near her and that he was frequently seen in fatigues.
FBI agents Thursday night showed Hertig a picture of Colbern, and she said she identified him as her occasional neighbor.
The agents then searched a brown pickup truck outside Colbern's trailer--a truck that, Hertig said, had not been moved for years. She described Colbern as aloof, eccentric and unfriendly.
"Have you ever been around someone so smart they don't think they have to talk to you? That's the type of person he is. He was not friendly at all. He didn't talk to anyone--not one person. And he had a walk you couldn't forget, like an old farmer. He walked with a kind of a hop."
Hertig said she was particularly annoyed that Colbern once had a large box of ammunition sent to her by parcel post--and another box was delivered to another neighbor--because he wasn't around to accept delivery of it.
She said Colbern was obsessed with snakes and other reptiles, and that his father once had to remove 30 animal cages from the double-wide trailer during one cleanup session.
"He (the father) told me he couldn't communicate with his son. It was his mother who gave in to him all the time," Hertig said.
In retrospect, Hertig said, Colbern bears a resemblance to John Doe No. 2--but that resemblance didn't occur to her in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, she said.
"He's not as heavy as the one in the picture," she said. She said she was unsure whether he had a tattoo.
In Kingman, where McVeigh lived before he was arrested, the manager of a mail-drop service used over the past two years by McVeigh said Friday that authorities have questioned her regarding Colbern. Lynda Willoughby, manager of the Mail Room, said that FBI and U.S. Marshals Service agents had shown her pictures of Colbern during the past week, asking if she recognized him.
Willoughby's ability to recognize Colbern holds significance because she had already told the FBI that a man resembling the sketch of John Doe 2 picked up McVeigh's mail once in either February or March of this year. Willoughby said she is unsure whether Colbern was the man who picked up McVeigh's mail.
"It's very difficult to say that could have been him--or no, that's not him," Willoughby said. "It's very difficult to know."
What is certain, she said, is that Colbern did not share McVeigh's mail box. Willoughby said that she has also told the FBI that no one with Colbern's name or two aliases provided to her by the authorities has rented space at the Mail Room since at least December, 1992, when the current owners acquired the business.
The arrest of Colbern in Upland on a weapons charge last July 20 had uncanny similarities to the arrest of McVeigh in Oklahoma. McVeigh's car was stopped by a police officer who noticed that the license plate was missing on the vehicle and took the suspect into custody when the officer discovered he was carrying a concealed handgun.
In Colbern's case, Upland Officer Brian Schaefer noticed that the rear license plate of the suspect's red 1969 Volkswagen was not illuminated so he pulled the vehicle over. Schaefer became suspicious of Colbern's manner when he asked for identification.
"In response to this routine request, the defendant appeared unusually nervous, breathing heavily and shifting hands in his lap," according to a federal court document. "When . . . asked . . . for his driver's license, the defendant oddly stared at Officer Schaefer for a full five seconds before he reached into a black canvas bag on the vehicle's front passenger seat," according to a federal court document.
When Schaefer asked Colbern to get out of the car, the officer noticed "a bulge in his left front pocket," according to court records. Schaefer subsequently discovered Colbern was carrying "a black Dirk knife with a two- to three-inch blade"--an illegal weapon under California law.
When Schaefer attempted to arrest Colbern, the suspect put up such a struggle that five other police officers were needed to subdue him, according to court records.
In a black bag on the passenger seat of the car, officers subsequently found a chrome silencer, a Jennings .22-caliber pistol, a Sig Sauer Model P-226 9-millimeter pistol, order lists for gun parts and a mechanism used to convert a semiautomatic rifle to fully automatic, which would make the weapon illegal.
In a compartment covered by carpet in the rear of the car, officers found an SKS assault rifle, several boxes of ammunition and a videotape showing Colbern holding a Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun, according to court records.
Last Aug. 12 Colbern was charged by a federal grand jury with possession of a silencer, which is illegal under federal law.
Upland police notified the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which obtained search warrants for a house in Oxnard owned by Colbern's father, and also for a residence in Ventura.
When Colbern, who was free on $10,000 bail on the local charges, returned in late July to the Upland Police Department to retrieve a video camera and film that had been in his vehicle, ATF agents arrested him on federal weapons charges. But Colbern failed to show up for the federal proceedings, resulting in the issuance of a federal fugitive warrant for him Oct. 21.
The wanted notice said Colbern, with an alias of Bill Carson, is considered armed and dangerous and has been "trained in survival skills."
It described him as 6-feet-1, weighing 195 pounds with green eyes and brown hair. While he has a scar on his right wrist, according to the wanted notice, he has no tattoos. The description of John Doe No. 2 included a tattoo.
His father, Robert J. Colbern, a 60-year-old California State Corrections Department dentist, said Friday that his son "has always been a gentle person who has not hurt anyone as far as we know."
Robert Colbern said he was surprised when his son failed to show up for his court appearance last year. "All of the sudden, he was just gone one day.
"I don't agree with what happened over at Oklahoma City," the senior Colbern said, "but until somebody shows me, I don't believe my son was involved."
Steven Colbern was born in Illinois and moved to Oxnard with his family when he was about 3. After attending elementary and intermediate schools there, he graduated from Oxnard High School on June 8, 1978.
His father said Steven was a straight-A student, but teachers at the school then said they had little memory of the boy who wore thick black eyeglasses and joined the biology club.
In his freshman or sophomore year, he threw the shotput for the track and field team, said Paul Orseth, a former Oxnard High track coach. "I don't remember him as a great athlete," Orseth said. "I don't think it was a priority with him."
Bill Thrasher, who taught Colbern American government, said he was an average student. "He came to class every day, did his assignments and did the best he could," Thrasher said.
James Strickland, 32, of Camarillo, remembered a weekend trip he and his brother took with Colbern to the Arizona desert in the mid-1980s. He said Colbern detonated small bombs he had made.
"That was our plan, to explode his fireworks and little bombs," Strickland said.
Strickland said Colbern had brought a larger bomb--a 100-pound device made of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel--along on the trip.
But Strickland said he and his older brother talked Colbern out of exploding it after a park ranger drove by the site where they had detonated the smaller bombs.
Colbern received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from UCLA in March, 1989, a decade after he first attended the university. He attended classes from 1979 through the spring of 1985, withdrawing during four different quarters and taking classes part-time during another. He did not get his degree for another four years, and the university had no information to explain that gap.
In the fall of 1991, he returned for a quarter as a graduate student in biological chemistry. While at UCLA, Colbern requested that his address not be given out by the university--information that would otherwise be public. The yearbook carried no photo of him.
Colbern worked in a medical research lab at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from June of 1993 until last November, when he resigned voluntarily. For all his time there, he was a research associate in one of the center's basic science labs.
According to his father and Santa Monica Superior Court records, Colbern filed for divorce in March, 1991, after a five-year marriage to Ava Hacopian Colbern. They were married Dec. 27, 1985, in a civil ceremony at the Los Angeles courthouse. She listed herself as a "self-employed microbiologist," and she also graduated from UCLA.
The divorce agreement gave Colbern possession of the contents of two storage lockers in Bullhead City, Ariz., where his attorney, Leslie James Sherman, said his gun collection was stored.
"The only quirk about this person . . . was his gun collection," Sherman said. "He was concerned it would be lost," because his wife didn't make the payments on the storage lockers. Ava Hacopian's last known address was in Palo Alto.
The couple filed for bankruptcy on May 23, 1989, in Los Angeles, according to court records, listing liabilities of $662,000 and assets of $5,000.
Three years earlier, they purchased a house in Long Beach and signed a deed of trust for $93,100 with the Veterans Administration--although no record of his serving in the military could be found.
It appears the Colberns failed to make payments on the house, resulting in the VA buying it back in October, 1987, for $103,530 at a public auction. Government agents sought to evict the Colberns, but failed in four attempts to serve the legal notice, apparently because they could not find anyone to serve.
Finally, on May 18, 1988, a Long Beach Municipal Court judge ordered that the VA recover $3,368 from the Colberns because they had failed to promptly turn over the property.
In their bankruptcy pleading, the couple listed their occupation as students and said "we subsisted off of an inheritance from Vigen Hacopian's estate, Ava's father who was deceased" in September, 1985.
But they listed an interesting sideline as well: Reptile breeding. The filing said the Colberns ran a business called the Boa Connection out of their Oxnard home on Carty Drive from 1987 to 1989.
Among the nearly $6,000 in exempt personal property the Colberns claimed was $1,000 worth of "animal cages and equipment," as well as $1,300 worth of household goods, furnishings and gifts. They also listed a Remington 12-gauge shotgun worth $150 and a Remington .22 rifle valued at $75. Their cash on hand: $20.
As for monthly expenses, the Colberns estimated only $135--including $30 for food and $50 for periodicals and books, including school texts. Their debts included $500 to Texaco, $1,750 to Unocal 76 and another $1,500 to Shell Oil. They owed Southern California Gas Co., General Telephone and Arrowhead Drinking Water $750 each.
The biggest debts, however, came from three court judgments against them in Orange and Los Angeles counties for breach of contract in connection with real estate, records show. The plaintiff, Gregory J. Cann, won two $300,000 settlements against Colbern and his wife in cases filed in Long Beach and Pomona, as well as a $30,000 settlement for one filed in Santa Ana.
Ostrow reported from Washington and Gorman from Upland. Times staff writers Fred Alvarez and Miguel Bustillo in Ventura County, Paul Feldman, Bob Pool, Bettina Boxall, Nancy Hill-Holtzman, Ralph Frammolino, J. Michael Kennedy, James Rainey, Carla Hall, Jeff Brazil and Tina Daunt in Los Angeles, William C. Rempel in New York and David Willman in Washington and Times correspondent Catherine Saillant in Ventura County contributed to this story.
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Steven Garrett Colbern, a UCLA-educated chemist, was arrested in the tiny town of Oatman, Ariz., and is being held in Bullhead City.