Bomb Scares Leave Scars at Florida A&M University
Two Explosions, Deemed Hate-Related, Have Rocked This Historically Black Campus and Spurred Debates Over Greater Security Measures
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Authorities charged an unemployed 41-year-old White man earlier this month with planting two small bombs on the Florida A&M University campus, casting a pall of fear and igniting a debate over security.
The two bombs rocked the campus detonated within a few weeks of each other in what authorities characterized as acts of racial hatred because they were accompanied by telephone calls laced with expletives about African Americans.
Lawrence M. Lombardi, an unemployed, married father of two, was arrested and being held without bail here on two counts of making bombs. Prosecutors say the charges carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Under Florida law, that could be upped to life if the crimes are found to motivated by hatred of African Americans. Lombardi’s attorney, R. Tim Jansen, says authorities have the wrong man. “He’s absolutely innocent,” Jansen says.
But authorities were confident they had their man. Florida A&M “does not face the threat that it did yesterday,” U.S. Attorney Michael Patterson said shortly after Lombardi’s arrest was announced.
The former vending company employee had easy access to campus: it was on his route and he had been issued a university identification card, authorities say. He serviced machines in the two buildings where bombs were detonated, they say.
A former coworker told investigators that Lombardi did not surrender the ID card when he left the company in July. Another told investigators that Lombardi had talked about finding bomb-making instructions on the Internet.
In all, three former co-workers identified Lombardi from a store surveillance tape and recognized his voice on a recording of the threatening phone calls that were made to a local television station here after each of the bombings.
FBI officials say that they matched bomb fragments with an uncommon type of heavy-duty PVC pipe that Lombardi bought at a home improvement store the day before the first explosion at the historically Black campus.
“The vending company employee described Lombardi as having no personality and as an individual who did not like Blacks and has used the ‘N’ word,” FBI investigators wrote in an affidavit filed in connection with the case.
In the wake of the bombings, college officials moved quickly to heighten security in hopes of allaying student and faculty fears here at Florida’s only predominately Black public university: setting up checkpoints, installing security cameras and adding dozens more patrol officers.
But even those measures brought backlash on the nerve-frayed campus where some students have demanded tighter security, others cautioned against it and everyone was being asked to present their identification cards in order to gain entry.
“We have to be careful what we ask for,” says Kristen Tucker, a graduate student and former student body president. “Blacks and police have never really gotten along very well. I don’t want people with a surveillance camera on me all the time.”
“I’m not here to come to school in a state of fear,” a shaken and teary-eyed Zelna Heriscar, a freshman student from south Florida, said shortly after the second bomb exploded. “Why would someone want to hurt us?”
That’s what a team of federal, state and local law enforcement officials assembled to patrol the campus and investigate the bombings had hoped to uncover ¾ and quickly. They said that $60,000 amassed as a reward may help.
In both blasts, an unidentified man called the local ABC television affiliate here to claim credit for the bombings. Each time, station officials say, he laced his comments with profanity and racial slurs.
The first bomb exploded early afternoon on Aug. 31, the second day of classes. It was planted in a men’s restroom on the first floor of the administration building that houses the president’s office.
The low-intensity explosion burned the bathroom floor but did little other damage. Bill Hurlburt, a Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent assigned to the case, says the initial week of the investigation yielded few leads.
Then, the second bomb detonated the morning of Sept. 22 in another men’s lavatory on the second of a four-story building that contains classrooms and the dean’s office for the university’s dean of engineering sciences technology and agriculture.
Classes were in session at the time. That blast, apparently more powerful, blew out lights and ceiling tiles and sounded a boom felt across the hall and down the corridor, authorities and witnesses interviewed at the scene reported.
“The only thing n——s know how to fix is turnip greens. Why the f—k do they need a school of agriculture at FAMU?” the man claiming to be the bomber reportedly told WTXL-TV minutes after the second blast. Station officials reported receiving a second call later in the afternoon warning of more danger to come.
Outrage and Concern
In an a strange twist, the second blast hit the campus the very week that President Clinton had designated as “Historically Black College Week.” He earlier had called for national appreciation of such institutions.
Dr. Frederick Humphries, the university’s president, said after the second blast that he was “extremely upset and concerned about the safety of our students. We must be allowed to carry out our education mission in a safe and secure environment that is conducive to learning.”
Humphries was in Washington, D.C., attending a White House-sponsored conference on historically Black colleges and universities when the second bomb exploded late last month but returned here immediately.
“I am outraged and appalled by what appears to be a purely racially motivated crime,” Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in a statement released a day after the second bombing in which he promised the harshest possible punishment for those deemed responsible.
“Terrorist actions of any shape, form or fashion in this state will not be tolerated,” Bush said. “We will move swiftly to find the person or persons responsible for this heinous crime.”
Bush also pledged $200,000 to pay for 50 more police officers to patrol the campus and to help cover the cost of installing surveillance cameras. That funding will come from the Florida State Emergency Fund.
Florida A&M officials canceled classes following the second blast and spent the next several days meeting with law enforcement officials, fielding a flurry of phone calls from worries parents and discussing upgraded security with the campus community. But campus offices resumed normal operations and classes were back in session the very next day.
Still, nothing was the same.
Kaneisha Harvey, a freshman from Miami, says she was in the building where the second explosion hit. Harvey says by the time she could call home, her concerned mother already had e-mailed her, paged her and telephoned her several times.
That’s in part because the bombing quickly made noon newscasts throughout the state. “My dad was ready to come get me,” Harvey says. “A lot of people just stayed off campus for a while.”
As Humphries and his staff met with law enforcement officials into the evening, about 200 of Florida A&M’s 12,000 students — mostly freshmen — rallied at the campus library to voice their concerns about lack of information over the day’s events.
They drafted a list of security suggestions for administrators, including: communicating information over the campus radio station; providing students with training on what to do in a bombing situation; increasing security at residence halls; installing a siren to sound throughout the campus during emergencies; and limiting access to dormitories and science buildings that contain explosive chemicals.
“I think they took it lightly the first time,” says Hubert Emile, a freshman from Miami says. “But this time, they need to do all this. At least the person knows it’s not easy anymore. I think the person will get caught. It’s just a matter of time.”
Others dislike the extra rigmarole. Tucker, the former student body president, attended an Ohio high school that used surveillance equipment. “It feels like prison,” she says. “I don’t like that aspect. I think that is only a temporary solution. There are other things they can do like locking the doors after a certain time at night.”
Still, she understands the added security is a necessary evil. “We have to be willing to make sacrifices just like the state and the university are making them to ensure our safety,” Tucker acknowledges.
A Close-to-the-Vest Investigation
Though Florida A&M officials say that the university has received bomb threats before, the two recent incidents mark the first time in the school’s 112-year history in which explosions have occurred.
The FBI led the investigation. But officials kept a tight lid on what, if any, details they had discovered about the bombs. Some said the first blast came from a pipe bomb and that the second device was more sophisticated.
This much was known: The two phone calls to the TV station following each bombing came from pay phones. And authorities said campus police received a bomb threat the afternoon of the second blast warning of a third impending explosion.
No explosives were found in an administration building where the caller claimed a bomb had been placed. The FBI’s Hurlburt said authorities at first treated the two blasts as separate incidents.
“There are no evidentiary links, but the same team is working both events,” Hurlburt told Black Issues In Higher Education, adding that catching the culprits won’t be easy on a 419-acre campus with 12,000 students and 800 employees.
“It is difficult to police a campus of that size,” he said. “It is an open campus like it should be. … It is a shame that this occurs in the fall when students are trying to focus on their studies. We regard it as a very serious matter.”
Reaction has been swift — regionally and nationally.
During a convocation speech at Howard University in Washington, D.C., late last month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson cast the bombings in the context of a long list of terrorist acts against people of African descent in the United States and elsewhere.
“No generation has the luxury of being detached from the struggle or the mere luxury of reflection,” said the civil rights activist, who visited the campus after the second bombing to lead a prayer vigil on Sept 26.
Jackson cautioned students here against letting “the dream busters” win and told them that retreating from campus only serves to reward the bomber.
Meanwhile, support has poured in from Tallahassee and the rest of Florida — ranging from support marches, visits, calls and pledges from local ministers to fellow students at nearby Florida State University to representatives of the state Board of Regents. Those pledges have swollen the reward from an initial $10,000 to $60,000.
The Campus Response
Humphries fears that “the sustained national publicity will hurt us. It will cost us some students not coming here because of this. We must comfort parents that their children will be safe on our campus.”
Dr. James Ammons, the university’s provost, says he still finds it “incredible that a human being would have such disregard for another human life. Somehow this person got through all we had done to bring back safety and security to campus.”
But administrators say they refuse to let any assailant beat them down. “We’ve done a lot of hard work to get where we are today,” Humphries says, referring to the college’s having been selected by Time magazine as College of the Year in 1997.
That honor was bestowed on the college after Black Issues In Higher Education revealed that the university had surpassed Howard University to grab the title of the nation’s top producer of Black baccalaureates.
Cornelius “Corny” Minor, student government president, believes that Florida A&M students will resurface from the incidents as a stronger student body and better prepared for their futures because of their resilience.
Most students interviewed say they plan to stay but say that a third blast could change their minds. “It’s kind of like you’re always keeping one eye open now, checking out your surroundings,” Harvey says.
“They say it’s racial,” Emile says. “But it could be anybody.”
Other students believe campus life soon will return to normal.
“There’s been a whole lot of chaos,” says Meredith Clark, a sophomore from Kentucky. “But everybody’s got a peaceful feeling that life’s going to go on.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com