Investigation continues as Mission district victims rebuild their lives
By Fariba Nawa
March 28, 1999
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four articles in a series that probes into the unsolved Fremont bombings investigation.
Fremont — A year after a round of bombings terrorized the city and made national headlines, there are signs the investigation may be revving up again. Bomb evidence finally has been processed and a federal grand jury has been formed to look into the case, say sources close to the investigation.
But officials won’t talk about tests on evidence taken from bomb sites or the role the grand jury many be playing. The latest activity could lead to an indictment or a dead end. “This is a sensitive, difficult investigation. There’s no need to share most aspects of it with the public,” said George Grotz, FBI spokesman.
One year ago, a shared sense of shock consumed the public during a 53-hour period rocked by a series of explosions.
In the early morning hours of March 29, 1998, the first bomb went off at the Mission San Jose home of Police Chief Craig Steckler. Later that day, another bomb was found and defused at the home of former police chief and current Councilmember Bob Wasserman.
That night, two bombs gutted $1.5 million home on Corte del Sol off Hunter Lane. A 17-year-old girl sleeping in the house was awakened by the blast and was rescued by a neighbor.
BOMBS: MOST INTENSIVE INVESTIGATION IN CITY’S HISTORY LAUNCHED
A block away, another bomb was discovered the next day at a house under construction on Vista del Sol. It exploded while being defused, but no one was injured. The sixth bomb already had exploded when found March 31 in a backpack on a water tank in the hills above those neighborhoods.
The bombs that went off caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage to the million-dollar homes off Hunter Lane and to Steckler’s porch, inspectors said.
The incidents launched the most intense investigation in the city’s 42-year history, even though no one was injured. And residents wondered why their peaceful city had become a target of terror.
Now, victims say, while they want the bomber or bombers caught, they have moved on with their lives. Most say they have overcome the shock, anger, and fear they felt then, but they continue to take extra security precautions.
At one time, about 10 local investigators and 60 federal agents were working on the case. Now, three local and three federal investigators continue to work on the case, though Steckler said that catching the bomber or bombers remains one of the the Police Department’s highest priorities.
No suspects have been charged and rewards totaling $87,000 remain unclaimed.
Now, however, the formation of a grand jury — standard for federal felony crimes — may be a sign that the case is progressing, legal experts said.
While sources close to the investigation confirm that a grand jury has been formed, no one connected with the case will say what role it is playing.
“Unless a grand jury returns and indictment, its existence and deliberations are a secret, I could go to jail if I tell you about it,” said Matt Jacobs, assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco, speaking about the grand jury process in general.
A grand jury can either hear evidence to indict a suspect or it can be used by federal prosecutors to gather more evidence, said Charles Weisselberg, a professor at Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. A grand jury has broad subpoena power, greater protection for the people involved in a case, and less potential for abuse since the hearing isn’t public, Weisselberg said.
The deliberations could result in an arrest or lead nowhere, he said.
In the last year, authorities have focused on a former mission San Jose man, but no arrests have been made. Police have refused to name anyone as a suspect, and have never identified the Mission San Jose man.
According to news report by KTVU Channel 2, however, a search warrant was served at the former Fremont home of Rodney Blach last May. Investigators served another search warrant at his current residence in San Diego last September. Boxes of evidence — including handwritten notes in the garbage that said “arrange bomb stuff, assemble map collage and do moustache” — were reportedly confiscated in the May search, according to KTVU.
Investigators also found baseball caps, including one with the slogan “Fremont Bombs-R-Us,” as well as computers and several items that could be used to make bombs, such as wires, drills and batteries, according to the television report.
Blach is a chemical engineer who worked as a micro analyst in the Chicago Police Department from 1974 to 1979. He could not be reached for comment.
Tracy Hite, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that the forensic evidence police were hoping would lead to an arrest has been analyzed. Hite would not say when the results came in or discuss the findings. The evidence included explosive particles taken from the crime scenes.
“There was a mountain of evidence and debris. It took quite awhile to sort through and cross analyze,” Hite said.
TASK FORCE STILL IN PLACE
An ATF task force — including chemists and explosive enforcement officers — formed soon after the incidents is still in place, Hite said. In the last few weeks, several more people have been assisting the two AFT agents who are working with police and an FBI agent on the case full time.
“We’re still following leads on various aspects of the case,” she said. A hot line ( 510-494-4856 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 510-494-4856 end_of_the_skype_highlighting ) set up to take tips was inundated with calls immediately after the bombings. Now, the phone rarely rings, Fremont Detective Dennis Madsen said. Many pieces of the case were put together in the first few months following the explosions. All six bombs were linked, although the first two were made differently form the other four, police said last year.
The first pair were sophisticated incendiary devices with timers, while the other four were pipe bombs, police said.
Some of the victims said they believe the bombs were not meant to kill Steckler’s wife, Casey, said she believes they were only a threat. Investigators agree, one source said. Wasserman, who said authorities update him on the case once in a while, last heard from them in late February. There doesn’t seem to be many more leads, he said.
“There’s certainly a very solid suspect. The primary effort is to find some direct evidence … more than circumstantial,” Wasserman said.
Many residents are wondering if the bomber — or bombers — will ever be caught. But Tim Rollisson, Alameda County Water District board member and a witness during the investigation, said he is sure the case will be solved.
“I’m thoroughly confident that they will arrest parties involved,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind at all. The wheels of justice just take time.”
CASE MAY BE UNSOLVED
However, criminologist Marc Neithercut suggested that if forensic evidence has not yielded an arrest yet, the case may remain a mystery for a long time.
Neithercut, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Hayward, who has researched bombing investigations, said people tip law enforcement agencies on who a culprit is, but forensic evidence is what convicts the bomber in most cases.
“The bombing cases that get solved, get solved quickly. The ones that don’t go on and on,” he said.
A similar assessment of the Fremont case was made in April 1998, three weeks after the bombings, by police Sgt. Greg Gerhard: “We may need to face up to the fact that this may never be solved.”