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Meet the homeless man who helped foil a bomb attack in New Jersey

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Homeless and jobless, Lee Tyrone Parker, 50, and his friend Ivan White found a new backpack sitting on top of a garbage can.

Homeless and jobless, 50-year-old Lee Tyrone Parker thought he had finally stumbled onto a bit of luck when he and a friend, Ivan White, found a new backpack sitting on top of a garbage can.

It was Sunday night during halftime of the National Football League game. The men, who were watching at a friend’s apartment, ducked out to grab a beer at a bar near the train station here. Coming out of the bar, they spotted the bag.

“Being I’m homeless, I figured I could use a book pack,” Parker said in a telephone interview. “Well that book pack turned into a long evening.”

The men lugged the bag with them under the elevated train tracks, puzzled that it was so heavy. Since Parker wasn’t interested in the contents — only the bag itself — they decided to empty it.

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Out came what looked like decorator’s candles — at least at first glance.

“Forgive my naivete, but I knew decorator’s candles don’t have these long stems with wires attached so I knew something was not quite right,” Parker said.

So he and White headed to the police station in Elizabeth, where police and the FBI interviewed them until 4 a.m.

Investigators quickly discovered that the bag contained five pipe bombs, allegedly assembled by Ahmad Khan Rahami, who was suspected in Saturday’s bombings in New York and New Jersey. 

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Parker said he only became scared after police attempted to dismantle the bomb using a robot and set off an explosion.

“Now that robot’s in the scrapyard, and I’m alive, thank god,” Parker said.

He’s not only alive, but being celebrated as a homeless hero. It is unclear whether the bomber intended to blow up the train tracks or was only dumping the evidence in flight. The tracks are part of the Northeast corridor linking New York to Washington, the busiest route in the United States, carrying 10 million passengers per year for Amtrak alone.In addition, the discovery of the backpack led to the capture the next morning of Rahami, who lived nearby above a chicken restaurant. (Another important clue was an unexploded pressure cooker bomb discovered by a New York photographer outside the doorway of her apartment building.) 

Parker and White were initially reluctant to publicly reveal their identities. Friends said they were embarrassed about their circumstances. But an Elizabeth-based nonprofit, At Heart’s Length, which helps the underprivileged, set out to find and help the men.

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“We saw stories in the paper that said homeless men found the bombs,” said Lester Dominguez, president of the nonprofit. “Through a source, we found out one of them was Ivan, who we already knew and he put us in contact with Lee [Parker]. They are both very nice, sweet people.’’

White, who is a retired veteran, lives on a small fixed income, but contrary to initial reports, is not homeless. Parker has been homeless for about three years. The Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless is now finding an apartment for Parker and trying to help him get a job.

Next to the train station where the backpack was found is a small, dimly lit park where people from the neighborhood were sitting on benches, drinking miniature bottles of liquor and smoking cigarettes. Parker used to hang out at the park and several people there knew him.

“He’s a very good guy with some problems,’’ said Lana Thomas, a family friend who has known Parker for decades.

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She said Parker had been spending days at the public library using the Internet to try to find a job and nights sleeping in open-back trucks. “He sleeps wherever he can find a place,” she said.

On Tuesday night, Parker said he was staying in an efficiency hotel, courtesy of the nonprofit.

“I had a steak dinner. I haven’t eaten steak in a very long time,” Parker said. “Now I’ve got a room. I’m running the water and I’m going to take a long shower.”

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