‘Sigh of relief’ after 18 months
By Fariba Nawa
October 6, 1999
Fremont Argus/Oakland Tribune/ANG Newspapers
Fremont — After an 18-month investigation that took local police and federal agents halfway across the country, authorities believe they have the Fremont bomber behind bars.
Rodney Blach, 53, was arrested Tuesday morning near his San Diego home in connection with the six bombings that shocked Fremont residents in March 1998.
“A lot of people in Fremont are breathing a sigh of relief,” Fremont police Capt. Ron Hunt said. “I think there’s a huge sense of relief and sense of accomplishment (for authorities).”
Blach, who became the main focus of the investigation two weeks after the explosions, was taken into custody quietly as he walked from his house to a car about 9:10 a.m. He moved from his house from Fremont to San Diego several weeks after the bombings.
About a dozen federal agents, San Diego police officers and Fremont detectives — wearing civilian clothes and police raid jackets — waited until Blach’s wife, Penny -Coppernoll-Blach, left for work before arresting the suspect, police said. Then authorities searched his San Diego house for the third time, Hunt said.
Blach did not resist the arrest and was not armed, Hunt said.
He was in San Diego county jail on a no-bail warrant Tuesday and was expected to be transported to Santa Rita county jail in Dublin today.
Blach is facing state charges that could confine him to prison for life, according to a source at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Blach, a former crime lab evidence specialist, may be arraigned Thursday or Friday at the Fremont Hall of Justice, authorities said.
He faces 11 felony counts, including premeditated attempted murder, explosion of destructive devices with attempt to commit murder and arson, police said.
Beginning March 29, 1998, the series of bombings that week targeted Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler, former Police Chief Bob Wasserman — now a city council member — and a Mission Hills neighborhood. No one was injured in the explosions, but two million-dollar houses were severely damaged. A 17-year-old girl sleeping in one of the homes was rescued by a neighbor.
Fremont police — with the aid of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — gathered a roomful of evidence in one of the most intensive investigations in Fremont’s history and presented it to the district attorney’s office.
Officials in the district attorney’s office decided there was enough evidence against Blach to make a case. Fremont Superior Judge Donald Squires said he signed the arrest warrant for Blach last week.
Hunt said it was a collection of evidence and not one piece in particular that led to the arrest. Most of the evidence is circumstantial, he said, but he refused to elaborate.
“I think we have to recognize that we’ve been working pretty intensively on this investigation for 18 months and nobody’s stopped working on it,” the captain said. “We got to a point where we said we have enough to charge him. We’ve been putting loose ends together and are still doing so.”
In the last 18 months, investigators followed leads from Fremont to San Diego to Tucson, Ariz., where Blach’s sister lives, to Chicago, where the suspect was an evidence specialist for the Chicago Police Department 20 years ago. Blach has been unemployed for the last 20 years. A federal grand jury was formed to look into the case but Blach is not facing any federal charges yet, Hunt said.
Making an arrest took so long for the same reasons most bombing cases do, Hunt said: Much of the evidence is destroyed when the bomb goes off.
The Fremont investigation included countless interviews, paperwork, trailing cash register receipts, and tracing bomb parts. Initially, 10 local investigators and 60 federal agents were working on the case.
Police began trailing Blach after his name, along with several others, was given by tipsters, Hunt said.
“We do know that Mr. Blach had expressed some antagonism against some persons in town, including the police chief and retired police chief,” he said.
The FBI and local police kept a periodic surveillance on Blach, serving at least four search warrants on his former Fremont and San Diego homes. Hunt said Blach implicated himself in the bombings by talking a lot to police officers and reporters.
But the police investigation is not over. Although Hunt said Blach is the sole suspect in the case, detectives continue to seek more evidence.
The initial $87,000 reward for information leading to the bomber still is available. Any one who has information about the location of a storage locker where police believe the bombs were made should contact police, he said.