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Iowa Reacts to Mailbox Bombs - 2002-05-26


A 21-year-old college student from the state of Minnesota awaits trial in U.S District Court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suspected of planting eighteen pipe bombs in rural mailboxes in five mid-western states, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas. Luke Helder told police he wanted the explosions to create the image of a smiley face on the U.S. map. Prosecutors call his plan an act of domestic terrorism. So far, Mr. Helder is charged with using an explosive to maliciously destroy property affecting interstate commerce - that would be the mailboxes - and with using a destructive device to commit a crime of violence. Those charges carry maximum penalties of life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Mr. Helder also faces a federal firearms charge.

The small farming community of Tipton, population 3,000, has received a good deal of attention from the major news networks over the past two weeks, ever since Delores Werling's roadside mailbox exploded when she opened it. The homemade pipe bomb was the first of six to be discovered in Iowa that day.

The 70-year-old homemaker and retired farmer says she thinks alleged bomber Luke Helder was inspired by the news coverage following the September terrorist attacks. "I think he saw what it could do to people. Put the fear into you and get his point across just from how it was handled then," she says. "It was all over I mean it was the limelight what happened in New York. So therefore let's try it again, let's see what happens. I truly believe because there is so much publicity on anything like this that happens that's where their ideas are coming from."

Her husband Bryce Werling, a retired farmer, agrees that media attention is partly to blame for these kinds of actions. "I had a couple of TV stations come after they had caught him and wondered if they were making heroes out of him. I think that's kind of, whether you do it deliberately or not but they play it so long and he's getting' so they arrested him and so they arrested him and they showed him laughing and smiling and this so, I haven't heard him say what his gripe was yet. That he said what was the gripe with the government," he says.

But many in Cedar County wonder whether at age 21 the suspect has been around long enough to build up any serious complaints against the government.

Stuart Clark, The editor and publisher of the local weekly newspaper, The Tipton Conservative, filled the front page of the May 8th edition with stories about the pipe bomb. He says he now has second thoughts about the main headline: "Terrorism Strikes Cedar County." "Now, in retrospect that headline seems even to be to me maybe a little strong based on what we know now about the person who's been arrested and allegedly did this," he says. "But in the immediate aftermath of the explosion based on everything that's happened since September 11th there I sensed this fear that there was some kind of terrorist out there. Probably a domestic one but I don't think most people if you talk to them thought it was gonna or could have possibly been a 21 year old college student from Minnesota."

Mr. Clark says the incident changed the way many in the community think about terrorism. "One thing I noticed immediately after it happened, several said well this just shows that this kind of thing doesn't have to happen in Chicago or New York City or Los Angeles," he says. "It can happen in a rural area. Who would have ever expected that you would have to go home and open up your mailbox with a broomstick or tie a piece of string around the door. It just showed that we can all be terrorized no matter where we live."

Tipton Mayor Don Young agrees, suggesting that every time someone gets publicity for a violent criminal act, it should remind everyone, even people in a quiet place like Cedar County, Iowa, to stay on their guard. "It's just something we're (going to) have to live with though. You're gonna get these kind of people that are gonna feed off of the 9-11 or off of this type of incident and say 'Hey, he got his name in the paper. I'm gonna give something else a try and see how it works.' So I think we've got to just be on the wary a lot more than we ever have been," he says.

In his office outside the ultra modern communications room at the Cedar County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Dan Hannes says his officers were ready to help people open and check their curbside mailboxes. But he says they did not receive the number of calls they expected. "Most residents went out and checked their mailboxes themselves," he says. "I heard 'em say well we're gonna still continue to do what we do. We put out for the news media anybody in our county that was concerned about opening their mail box and we would come and do it for them. We were going to start a list, which we did. We did have one person on that list. One person called in."

Like the residents of Cedar County, the Postal Service also continued doing what it does. On Saturday, the day following the discovery of the bombs, the post office did not make deliveries to its rural customers in the area. But by Monday, normal deliveries had resumed.

Still, the U.S. Postmaster for this region, Jim Laughlin, says letter carriers are being careful. "We're more aware of the potential threats. I think the people are a little more cautious and paying a little bit more attention to what might be strange about delivery than they were in the past," he says. "I don't think people are overly afraid. They're just cautious and on the lookout for anything that looks a little odd."

Mr. Laughlin says that if the person who booby-trapped the mailboxes was trying to make the letter carriers afraid, he failed. He says his employees are probably just irritated that they now have to be cautious around things that they have taken for granted in the past.

Delores Werling is making an impressive recovery from injuries to her hand, ears, and face, and says she has a good deal of sympathy for the family of the young man accused of setting the trap that hurt her. "I would like to fold them in my arms because I do know how tragic this must be for them. I feel very sorry for them because they have to live with this now for the rest of their lives. It's very hurting," she says. "It's your son that has done this and I would just like to tell them that I'm okay and I have no grievance against them whatsoever."

Since Luke Helder has twice confessed to planting the 18 pipe bombs, legal experts say there is a good chance that this case could end with his agreement to plead guilty, rather than a trial. The Werling family and their neighbors agree that while their time in the media spotlight has been interesting, they hope that the next time journalists descend on eastern Iowa, they're coming to report on something positive about their community.

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