NEW YORK – In a city where the threat of terrorism looms large, the small pipe-bomb explosion in a Times Square subway station was enough to spread panic and halt trains.
The episode in July was mostly a false alarm. The real jolt was the arrest of the prime suspect: a police officer who had sacrificed his own safety — and some say his sanity — on Sept. 11, 2001.
Joseph Rodriguez (search), 28, was due in court sometime this week to face charges he planted the crude device the day before he was to retire from the New York Police Department (search) with a psychological disability. If convicted of felony arson, he faces a lengthy prison term.
For Rodriguez — who was initially credited with reporting the pipe bomb — the allegations hastened a downward spiral that began after he helped rescue victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
The officer suffered minor physical injuries amid the falling debris and bodies. Psychiatrists later diagnosed him with a chronic stress disorder. He never returned to full duty.
Rodriguez remains under medical care at Rikers Island (search), where he is being held without bail.
"He's under a tremendous amount of stress," said his attorney, Edgar DeLeon.
Rodriguez and his relatives declined interviews through DeLeon. Police and union officials, citing privacy issues, also refused to discuss the case.
A close associate of Rodriguez and a former supervisor at the NYPD agreed to detail his plight only on condition of anonymity. They portrayed the officer as a shy person who loved his job — and hated losing it — even though his post-Sept. 11 trauma was transparent.
"He had that thousand-yard stare and stilted speech," the associate said.
The supervisor claimed that following Sept. 11, the department allowed Rodriguez to drift — and deteriorate.
"There was no follow-up care," he said. "He fell through the cracks."
On the very day before the bombing, Rodriguez displayed a mix of dismay and denial over his imminent retirement, telling the associate, "I can't believe I can't be a police officer anymore."
Investigators have speculated the incident was a botched attempt to stage a career-saving act of heroism. But the motive remains a mystery.
Rodriguez's background offers no obvious clues: He grew up in Little Italy, earned an associate's degree and once worked at a Manhattan gun shop frequented by police officers. Shop manager Charlie Hu recalled him as a "skinny kid" with a fascination with weapons and law enforcement.
Rodriguez joined the NYPD in September 2000. After graduating from the police academy, he was assigned to subway patrol.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the rookie officer was en route to a court appearance when the twin towers came under attack. Police officials have confirmed that he showed courage by rushing to rescue victims, and even was briefly trapped in wreckage himself.
He was treated that day for a leg injury at a hospital where the police supervisor sought to comfort him. The officer, he recalled, appeared strangely calm except for his hands, which were "violently" tearing at a piece of gauze.
Rodriguez was taken home by his mother and stopped reporting for duty. For weeks, amid the post-attack chaos, he was recorded out sick.
In December 2001, police officials went to his apartment on Mulberry Street and found Rodriguez sitting alone inside. They decided to take his gun away and put him under psychiatric care while he worked a desk job.
When the department signaled it might dismiss the officer, union lawyers began lobbying for a "line of duty" pension. They claimed their client's Sept. 11 experience left him with post-traumatic stress syndrome — a condition aggravated by the sounds of sirens and jets flying overhead.
A review board signed off on a pension of about $30,000 a year, tax-free, for Rodriguez. His last day was to be July 20.
At about 8 p.m. on July 19, Rodriguez was working his final tour at a subway police station when a pipe bomb stashed in a black plastic bag exploded in a stairwell. When calm was restored, officials hailed him for spotting smoke coming from the bag and warning frightened commuters to stay away.
But investigators soon decided the story didn't add up.
Rodriguez, who was slightly injured, "denied handling the bag with his hands" before the explosion, a criminal complaint said. But police allege fingerprints lifted from pieces for shredded plastic were his.
Investigators also claim Rodriguez gave conflicting and confusing statements about his response to the bomb. A search of the officer's backpack produced a scrap of paper with the address for an explosives-recipe Web site scribbled on it.
Rodriguez disappeared from public view until his arrest in early August. At a court hearing, where he appeared in dark glasses and neck brace, he was ordered to undergo exams to determine if he's competent to stand trial.
Results were pending, and a new hearing was tenatively scheduled for Wednesday.