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Failed Martin Luther King Day parade bomber gets 32-year sentence

The white supremacist who pleaded guilty to attempting to bomb a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Wash., was sentenced Tuesday. The FBI says the story is a cautionary tale about the threat of 'lone wolf' attacks. 

By Staff writer / December 20, 2011

Benjamin Todd Jealous (c.) president and CEO of the NAACP, leads several hundred marchers, including Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King in Spokane, Wash., on April 3, 2011. A white supremacist that targeted the march was sentenced Tuesday.

J. Bart Rayniak/The Spokesman-Review/AP/File

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A self-professed white supremacist was sentenced to 32 years in prison on Tuesday after admitting that he left an explosive device in a backpack near the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day Unity March in Spokane, Wash.

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The device was packed with 128 0.25-ounce fishing weights coated with the anticoagulant brodifacoum, an active ingredient in rat poison, according to court documents.

The device, discovered on Jan. 17, did not detonate.

Kevin William Harpham of Colville, Wash., was arrested two months later. He pleaded guilty in September to two of four counts in his federal indictment: attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, and attempting to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of the race, color, or national origin of a targeted person.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, Mr. Harpham avoided a potential life sentence. Following his 32-year prison sentence, Harpham has been ordered to serve probation for the rest of his life.

Roughly 2,000 people, many of them minorities, were set to participate in the unity parade. The backpack and explosive device were found by alert city workers prior to the event.

Officials say the incident underscores the importance of citizens remaining vigilant. But they add it also points up a lingering vulnerability in the US to homegrown terrorists.

“A prototypical ‘lone wolf’ such as Mr. Harpham presents a particularly vexing threat – with nothing foreshadowing a carefully planned attack,” said Laura Laughlin of the FBI’s Seattle office.

Harpham’s device consisted of a steel pipe with one end welded shut and the other open, like a mortar. In addition to the make-shift shrapnel, it was assembled with 100 grams of black powder, a model rocket igniter, and a remote-control triggering system. The device was designed to propel shrapnel out the tube and, allegedly, into the crowd.

The FBI offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible.

Agents eventually discovered that some of the fishing weights had been purchased using a bank card that belonged to Harpham.

Harpham had no prior criminal record and had served in the US Army from 1996 to 1999. At his sentencing hearing, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea, but the judge would not allow it.

“For most of his 36 years on this planet, he lived an exemplary life,” Federal Defender Kailey Moran wrote in a sentencing memorandum to the judge. “He cared for others, he worked hard, and paid his debts, and he served his country through military service where he received an honorable discharge.”

Ms. Moran said friends and family described him as “a kind-hearted and gentle soul who would go to any length to help someone in need.”

Federal agents working on the case discovered a different version of Harpham. They found that he was a member of the National Alliance, a white supremacy group, and that he participated in an online Internet forum at the Vanguard News Network, a white supremacist website. According to the FBI, Harpham used the online moniker “Joe Snuffy.”

In June 2006, “Joe Snuffy” posted a disparaging comment about supermodel Heidi Klum and her interracial marriage. His last posting on the Vanguard News website was Jan. 15, two days before the backpack was discovered, according to the FBI.

Investigators were also able to link Harpham to the backpack by comparing trace DNA found on the handle and shoulder straps of the backpack to a DNA sample on file with the Department of Defense dating from his years of Army service.

When agents raided his home, they discovered racist books and magazines, and information about domestic terrorism, according to prosecutors. They also seized an AK-47 assault rifle, a handgun, and a digital clock that had been modified as a timing device.

“Acts of hate like this one have no place in our country in the year 2011, but yet, unfortunately, we continue to see attempted violence in our communities due to racial animus,” said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, in a statement.

“This case underscores the continuing threat from those who seek to express their hatred through violence and the serious consequences these individuals face for such actions,” added Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security.

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