Cases read like Ozzie and Harriet at terrorism school Manufacturers of bombs might live next door


DEMING, Wash. -- The house painter who lives in this little country town is a family man, his neighbor Sharon Pietila says. "Middle class, very clean; he wouldn't blow anyone up," she said of John I. Pitner.

Pitner has been in jail for nearly a month, joined by a chimney sweep, two Boeing Co. workers, a mason, a religious teacher, a television repairman and assorted odd jobbers. They are being held without bail in Seattle, indicted this month on federal charges of conspiring to make bombs for use against the U.S. government and the United Nations.

The case against them reads, in part, like Ozzie and Harriet going to terrorism school. Pipe bombs capable of shattering a courtroom were stashed in barbecues, and transported by bicycle, according to the indictment. At potluck dinners, they learned how to pack black gunpowder into metal cylinders and to make fertilizer do considerably more than spur tomato growth.

Like the members of an Arizona paramilitary group arrested last month on charges of conspiring to blow up government buildings, the eight men and one woman indicted in Seattle do not fit the stereotype of a foreign menace trying to blow up U.S. targets. Increasingly, officials say, the face of domestic terrorism is a bomber next door.

Across the nation, bombings and attempted bombings are soaring. They increased by more than 50 percent in the past five years, and have nearly tripled over the past decade. The number of criminal explosions and attempts went from 1,103 in 1985 to 3,163 in 1994.

Cases such as the explosion in New York's World Trade Center in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing last year and the Unabomber attacks have been receiving most of the attention from law enforcement. But in small towns and suburban neighborhoods, as well among inner-city street gangs, there has been a proliferation of a sort of garden-variety bomber.

In the past two months alone, federal officials have arrested groups of mostly white, lower-middle-class people in Georgia, Arizona and Washington state.

In Spokane, the very picture of middle-class American life, a series of unsolved bombings at City Hall, the office of the local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, and other targets has put the city in eastern Washington on edge. One blast in late April sprayed 3-inch nails at a site where, just a few days later, nearly 50,000 runners gathered at the finish line of an annual foot race. Another explosion, last month, blew out walls at the Planned Parenthood office.

It has always been relatively easy to find materials to assemble a bomb. But what has changed in recent years is the ease of finding bomb-building information, particularly through the Internet, law-enforcement officials say.

Recipes, newsgroup discussions and step-by-step manuals on assembling powerful explosives can be found with the click of a computer mouse.

"I don't want to call it a fad, but it almost seems like that's what is going on with these bombers," said Steve Ott, a supervisor with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Ott was involved in the Phoenix case, in which an undercover agent infiltrated the Arizona Vipers, a paramilitary group. "It's spreading, and the Internet is a big part of the reason why," he said.

Lawyers for the people arrested in Washington state and in Arizona said their clients were being charged with little more than talk. Family members of many of the people arrested in Washington say there was no plan to harm anyone.

Still, only one of the nine people arrested has been let out on bail. In denying them bail, a federal magistrate, David Wilson, said that pipe bombs are "dangerous weapons for which no peaceful purpose is presented."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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