Crime & Courts

How REI helped the FBI identify a man accused of placing a bomb at the Asheville airport

The FBI identified the man accused of placing a homemade bomb at Asheville Regional Airport and who vowed to “fight a war on U.S. soil” by tracking down the man’s REI membership, which he used to buy a backpack found in the woods near the airport.

Investigators found a Mason jar filled with explosive chemicals and nails near a terminal entrance at the Asheville airport on Oct. 6, the Associated Press reported, and the suspect, Michael Christopher Estes, was arrested the next day in downtown Asheville, NPR said.

Although the suspect used cash to buy the items to make the improvised explosive device, investigators were able to identify him at one of the stores where he bought supplies.

Airport surveillance footage showed a white man wearing black clothes and a black cap walking into the airport after midnight and leaving a bag inside, NPR reported.

Investigators found a new “Traverse 70” backpack —REI’s brand— in the woods near the airport. Inside the backpack were gloves, Sterno fuel, shotgun shells, Gorilla tape and “what appeared to be an alarm clock bell,” NPR and the Associated Press reported —the bell that seemed to be missing from the clock in the bomb that was placed in the airport. Investigators also found a gray, lightweight reusable polymer spoon.

Surveillance footage from a Walmart and a Lowe’s store in Arden, about 10 miles north of Asheville, showed a white man buying bomb-making supplies, NPR reported. He paid with cash at both places, and the FBI had yet to identify the suspect.

The FBI then checked with an REI store in Asheville and discovered a man had recently bought a Traverse 70 backpack and a gray, polymer spoon, according to the report. The items were bought with cash and an REI membership number, which gives members 10 percent back on annual purchases with store credit and other perks.

The membership number belonged to Michael Estes, NPR reported. Investigators arrested Estes in downtown Asheville after a still photo from the surveillance footage was released, according to the report.

Estes admitted leaving the bomb at the airport, the Associated Press reported, claiming he was ready to “fight a war on U.S. soil.”

The investigation revealed that the Mason jar contained ammonium nitrate, Sterno fuel, nails and a .410 gauge Winchester shotgun cartridge.

An alarm clock was taped to the outside of the jar, with matches attached to the arm that strikes the bells, according to court documents. The alarm had been set for Friday, Oct. 6.

Estes waived his Miranda rights, answering questions and admitting to building and planting the device.

“Estes described how he created the device ... and then rigged the alarm clock to strike the matches and cause the flame necessary to trigger the device,” according to a criminal complaint written by the FBI. “More specifically, the alarm clock would go off, the matches would strike, the Sterno would heat up, and then the Ammonium Nitrate would explode.”

However, Estes also claimed that he hadn’t actually set the device to go off, the complaint says. He told investigators that he had staged himself in the woods near the airport in the days before planting the device.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina__