Copyright 1997 The Atlanta Constitution
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
March 30, 1997, Sunday, ALL EDITIONS
SECTION: NATIONAL NEWS; Pg. 17A
LENGTH: 931 words
HEADLINE: Lab is nerve center for solving bombings
BYLINE: Ken Foskett; WASHINGTON BUREAU
DATELINE: Rockville, Md.
Surrounded by shelves of dusty chemistry books and brown jars of chemicals, Richard Strobel resembles a high school science teacher at work in a cluttered science lab.
But Strobel, a forensic expert for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is no ordinary scientist, and his workplace in suburban Washington is no run-of-the-mill laboratory.
Strewn atop the counters are jagged bits and pieces of some of the nation's most deadly bombs.
Pipe Bomb pieces that killed a Milwaukee paperboy have been partially reassembled. Evidence collected from a man suspected of nearly killing a Rochester, N.Y., girl with a package Bomb are zipped up in a plastic bag waiting for analysis.
Blasting caps, timers and remote control detonators of all shapes and sizes are scattered about in cardboard boxes.
"There isn't too much we haven't seen," says Strobel.
Bombings in the news
Strobel and his colleagues have worked on some of the country's highest-profile investigations: the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing and the still unexplained explosion aboard TWA flight 800 in July.
Pieces of the recent bombs that exploded at a Sandy Springs abortion clinic and a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta have also been examined here, although most of the forensic work on those cases is being conducted in the ATF's explosives lab in Atlanta.
Together with a third explosives lab in California, ATF Bomb specialists opened nearly 3,300 new arson and explosives investigations last year.
"We do more bombing investigations and examination of evidence than anyone," says ATF assistant director Patrick Hynes. "It's something that we do better than anyone else."
The ATF has long been considered the authority on arson investigations. The agency helped solve one-third of the church burnings that swept the South in the past two years, twice the average clearance rate for arson cases.
In the past 20 years, the ATF has played a leading role in developing techniques to secure Bomb scenes and collect evidence.
ATF explosives experts have been called in to help local law enforcement officials in about a dozen foreign countries.
The bureau's newest initiative is to create a clearinghouse of all bombing and arson cases nationwide, a computerized data base that will allow investigators to match similar crimes.
The ATF's forensic work in explosives cases has earned the grudging respect of the FBI, whose crime lab handles bombings involving international terrorism.
"Overall, they have done a good job," said Bob Quigley, the chief of the FBI's Bomb data center from 1983 to 1990. "The biggest problem is that they are not a solid investigative agency . . .They don't have the network that the FBI has established over 90 years."
"ATF's experience and accomplishments in the areas of arson and explosives is well-documented," counters Hynes. "They speak for themselves."
Bomb forensics is painstaking work. As late as the 1960s, Strobel says, forensic experts believed that bombs left no evidence, that fingerprints and other identifying evidence were literally destroyed in the explosion.
Forensic experts now realize that all bombs leave evidence. The trick is recognizing the pieces, putting them back together and then analyzing them for clues.
"How parts were blown up can determine if the pieces were part of the device or not," Strobel explains.
Bomb squads in the ATF's 22 regional offices, called national response teams, are the first to respond to a suspected bombing.
The teams secure the area and comb the ground for pieces of the device, putting evidence in empty paint cans. Agents are trained to distinguish Bomb parts in the chaotic aftermath of an explosion by looking for telltale markings created by intense heat and explosive force.
An ATF agent, for example, quickly identified the axle of the truck containing the World Trade Center Bomb in 1993, leading investigators directly to the car rental agency that leased the truck to the bombers.
Once collected, Bomb parts end up at one of the ATF's three explosives labs. In the lab here, Strobel and his colleagues can analyze the bomb's explosive residue, determining the type and strength of explosive powder.
They will examine the pieces for latent fingerprints and markings left by the Bomb maker's tools.
"We look for the tiniest of clues," Strobel says.
Similarities provide clues
In reality, investigators depend as much on the human nature of the bomber as they do on the physical evidence he or she leaves behind.
Like most people, bombers tend to be creatures of habit. They make their bombs the same way, using similar components.
It was force of habit that led an ATF forensic scientist in Atlanta to recognize the work of convicted mail bomber Walter Leroy Moody, who killed a Savannah civil rights lawyer and an Alabama federal judge.
Lloyd Erwin, who is now one of the lead forensic experts assigned to the abortion clinic and nightclub bombings in Atlanta, worked on a package Bomb that Moody sent in 1972, injuring a young woman.
The 1972 bomb used square end plates fastened together with a rod down the middle of the pipe, similar to the bombs used against Judge Robert Vance and Savannah lawyer Robbie Robinson 17 years later.
Erwin spotted the similarities and was the first to tip authorities to Moody, who was sentenced to death in Alabama last month for Vance's death.
"What propels us in these cases is thinking about the victims," Strobel says. "That's what really gets under your skin and drives you."
GRAPHIC: Richard Strobel, forensic expert for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms, examines remains of a detonator at the ATF Bomb lab in
Rockville, Md./ RICK McKAY / Washington Bureau
Photo: Richard Strobel examines wires of a detonator./ RICK McKAY /