Ten years. One fingerprint. How police nabbed man who set off bomb in an NC Walmart

A Missouri man sentenced Thursday for the 2007 bombing of a Walmart store in Sylva.
A Missouri man sentenced Thursday for the 2007 bombing of a Walmart store in Sylva. Associated Press

It took 10 years – and a lone fingerprint on a Walmart shopping cart – to catch convicted bomber Larry Bowlsby. Now he’s got 10 years to serve.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Asheville sent the 49-year-old Missouri man to prison for setting off a pipe bomb in 2007. His target: the Walmart store in tiny Sylva, a picturesque mountain town west of Asheville. His motive: Unclear, except as you will see, Bowlsby had this thing about Walmarts.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the bomb was placed strategically by the propane cylinders in the camping supplies section of the store. Five people were injured, and the store was damaged.

A surveillance video showed a man, accompanied by a teenage girl and boy entering the store. The man took the bomb out of the girl’s backpack, put it in his shopping cart, then parked the cart near the camping stoves. After the bomb went off, the threesome left the store, joined by a woman in a Mercury Marquis, and drove away, court documents say.

Prosecutors say the bomber in the video was Bowlsby – they just didn’t know his name yet. He was joined by his son and his stepdaughter, while his wife waited in the car.

Investigators did get one early break: They came across a fingerprint on the shopping cart, documents say. But when they ran it through the national crime database, they didn’t get a match.

Not yet anyway.

Fast forward a year: A Colorado state trooper pulls over a blue Mercury. There’s a man, a woman and two teenagers inside, documents say. There are also four tennis balls that have been turned into bombs with black powder, tape and fuses.

A suspect, Larry Dean Bowlsby, is arrested and later pleads guilty to the related charges, documents say. More importantly for our story, officers also took his fingerprints.

Eight years later and 1,500 miles east, North Carolina investigators are still gummed up by the unsolved Sylva bombing case. That is, until they happen to run the old print they lifted from the shopping cart. This time they get a match. Bowlsby pleaded guilty in October.

Investigators also learned that Bowlsby and his family displayed what might be described as a criminal brand loyalty to the Walmart chain. Between 2009 and 2014, he or his children were arrested or detained for shoplifting incidents in the discount stores in Oregon, South Dakota, Nevada and Wyoming.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS