Student Admits to Bombings
College student Luke John Helder confessed that he is the mailbox pipe bomber, traveling so fast on his interstate crime spree that he was stopped twice for speeding, authorities said Wednesday.
Helder, 21, was arrested Tuesday after his father, Cameron Helder, alerted the FBI that his son was a likely suspect.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 12, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Pipe bombs-Luke J. Helder, who is accused of planting pipe bombs in mailboxes in five states, had been attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. The university’s name was incorrect in stories published in the A sections Wednesday and Thursday.
Cameron Helder turned over letters from his son about explosions and death, and said Luke told him in a phone call, “I may have to blow myself away.”
The FBI issued a nationwide bulletin for Helder’s arrest. Agents tracked his harried travels across the Western states and captured him Tuesday afternoon in the Nevada desert with the help of an alert motorist.
Luke Helder then confessed to planting the pipe bombs in rural mailboxes across the country’s midsection, the FBI said Wednesday.
Later in the day, U.S. District Magistrate Robert McQuaid in Reno ordered that Helder be sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa--the first of three jurisdictions that want to prosecute him on multiple federal charges in connection with pipe bombings that injured six and rattled residents in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and Colorado.
Helder appeared in court Wednesday wearing an orange jail uniform. “It’s apparent to me that he suffers from some apparent mental health problems,” McQuaid said. He was placed on suicide watch Tuesday night.
Helder’s public defender, Vito de la Cruz, said his client is “willing to face the charges. He’s anxious to have a jury trial.”
If convicted of the most serious charges, Helder faces a maximum sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
Helder’s motive for the bombings remains unclear, but in letters left with the bombs, and mailed to his adoptive father and a college newspaper, Helder rambled about government control and chided conformists who fear death.
The FBI in Las Vegas said Helder had constructed 24 pipe bombs. He admitted placing 18 of the bombs inside rural mailboxes in five states; the first eight were rigged to explode and the other 10 were not, said FBI spokeswoman Gayle Jacobs.
Another six bombs were found in his car when he was arrested about 60 miles east of Reno, Jacobs said. Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Alan Davidson said Helder was believed headed for California.
The spree began Friday and was quickly characterized by authorities as domestic terrorism. On Saturday, the third-year student at the University of Wisconsin at Stout in Menomonie left a cryptic telephone message for his roommate advising him to check the news, according to various FBI affidavits filed to support charges against him.
On Monday, Cameron Helder received an envelope at the family’s Minnesota home containing various letters that made reference to explosions. Then came the phone call in which the younger Helder spoke of dying.
The father called his son’s roommate, who searched Helder’s bedroom and found the makings of pipe bombs--nails, paper clips, explosive powder and receipts for pipes.
Helder’s roommate told investigators that, over the last year, the suspect showed keen interest in “out-of-body experiences” and that death is a “way of going on to another life” and that he was “looking forward to it as a new experience.”
The father contacted authorities Monday evening and on Tuesday tearfully read a statement to his son: “Please don’t hurt anyone else. You have the attention you wanted.”
By now, authorities were following Helder’s travels through credit card receipts and by tracking the location of Helder’s cell phone as he used it.
The FBI put the Nevada Highway Patrol and local sheriff’s deputies on alert, and they converged along Interstate 80 across northern, desolate Nevada, Davidson said.
Motorist Lori McDonagh spotted Helder’s car as he drove by on the highway and recognized it from news reports.
“He passed right by us,” McDonagh said Wednesday. “It looked like he was reading a map atlas. We noticed the Minnesota plates and I said, ‘That’s the kid!’”
She wrote down the license plate number and called 911 and the FBI.
As Helder sped by, poised law enforcement gave chase at speeds reaching 110 mph, Davidson said.
Talking to him by cell phone, FBI agents calmed Helder and he eventually stopped his car, threw a gun out the window and gave himself up after being promised he would not be harmed.
Helder was stopped three times for traffic violations during his crime spree, before he had been named as a suspect.
According to court papers, Helder was first stopped, for speeding, shortly after midnight Saturday. He told a police officer in St. Edward, Neb., “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.”
Helder had just rigged a bomb in a rural mailbox 12 miles away, but it hadn’t been discovered.
Later Saturday, Helder was stopped near Watongo, Okla., for not wearing a seat belt. Helder told the state trooper that he spent Friday near Omaha and was headed toward Arizona.
Helder also told the state trooper that he was “very tired and needed to find a motel room,” according to the affidavit. He was cited for an expired driver’s license.
Sunday afternoon, Helder was stopped for speeding at Fowler, Colo., about 125 miles from where a bomb would be found the next day. He was given a warning for driving too fast through town.
According to the court papers, the trooper said Helder “appeared to be very nervous and had very watery eyes, like he was going to cry.”
Helder spent Tuesday night in Washoe County Jail, said Sheriff Dennis Balaam.
He described Helder as “a model prisoner, very polite, pleasant, cordial and cooperative.”
Authorities have since learned that the quiet, guitar-playing college student was accused four years ago of threatening to blow up a friend’s mailbox in Minnesota.
Times staff writer Julie Cart in Denver contributed to this report.