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Man Pleads Guilty in MLK Day Parade Bomb Case

MLK Day parade backpack bomb

A backpack found along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., contained a sophisticated explosive and detonator, the FBI said. (FBI, via AP)

A man with extensive ties to white supremacists pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges he planted a bomb along a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade route in Spokane, Wash., targeting minorities.

Kevin Harpham, 37, reached a deal with federal prosecutors for a recommended sentencing range of 27 to 32 years in prison just days before his trial was to begin in U.S. District Court.

The pipe bomb was loaded with lead fishing weights coated in a chemical, and could have caused mass casualties, prosecutors said.

Harpham told U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush that it took him about a month to build the bomb. He acknowledged placing the device along the parade route in an attempt to commit a hate crime.

The backpack bomb was discovered by parade workers and disabled before it could explode.

"This community was terrorized on Jan. 17 when this occurred," U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said after the hearing. "Hopefully the healing that needs to occur as a result of this happening can begin."

Harpham acted alone, Ormsby said.

"There is no evidence to suggest anyone else was involved in this event," he said.

Ormsby praised the various law enforcement agencies that gathered evidence leading to Harpham's arrest on March 9. There was no particular tip that led officers to Harpham, Ormsby said. Rather, it was evidence from the bomb itself, he said.

The detonator was a remote car starter purchased over the Internet. The shrapnel that would have maimed victims was lead fishing weights purchased from Walmart. Harpham's DNA was on the handle of the backpack that held the bomb. After the arrest, officers found deleted photos in a digital camera that included pictures of Harpham at the parade, pictures of young black children gathering for the march and of a Jewish man who was wearing a yarmulke.

A key was discovering huge numbers of postings by Harpham, using a pen name, over a period of years on a white supremacist website called Vanguard News Network.

"He told others he was a white supremacist and white separatist," said assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington.

The bomb was planted "to further his racist beliefs," Harrington told the judge.

The judge asked Harpham if he placed the bomb in an effort to hurt people because of their race, color or national origin.

"Yes," Harpham replied.

Ormsby said Harpham has offered no explanation for why he chose to commit a hate crime now.

The plea deal charged Harpham with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, and the hate crime of placing the bomb in an effort to target minorities. Harpham spoke in a clear voice when he said "guilty" to each of the two counts.

He will be sentenced Nov. 30.

"Hate-fueled incidents like this one have no place in a civilized society," said Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights. "Thankfully, no one was injured by this man's depraved act."

Public defender, Roger Peven, did not answer questions outside the courtroom and was not available for comment later.

Harpham originally was charged with committing a hate crime, using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction and unauthorized possession of an unregistered explosive device. He could have faced up to life in prison.

A resident of Addy, Harpham is an Army veteran who has extensive ties to white supremacist groups but no record of past crimes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has said that Harpham made more than 1,000 postings on the Vanguard News Network. The center also has said that Harpham belonged to a neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance.

Harpham served from 1996 to 1999 in the U.S. Army at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma. His lawyers have said Harpham had not been recently employed.

He has remained in the Spokane County Jail without bail since his arrest.

Federal prosecutors will argue for a 32-year sentence. Harpham's lawyers will seek 27 years. If Quackenbush recommends a higher or lower sentence, the case still could go to trial. Under the deal, Harpham would remain on probation for the rest of his life once he leaves prison.

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