Boy’s missing backpack causes bomb alert

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer August 01, 2012 08:43 am

Oregon State Police bomb squad personnel prepare “Andros” to pick up a backpack found at credit union. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Oregon State Police bomb squad personnel prepare “Andros” to pick up a backpack found at credit union. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Sheriff John Bishop called in the state bomb squad after a “suspicious package” was found at Chetco Financial Credit Union’s main branch in Harbor Monday morning.

The package was a backpack with a monofilament fishing line-like string sticking from it, Bishop said. A bank manager opening the facility for the day noticed the backpack next to a shrub east of the main entrance and called 911 around 8 a.m. 

The credit union, its parking lot and surrounding lots were secured by sheriff’s officers and volunteers from the Harbor Fire Department until the Oregon State Police squad arrived from Medford about three hours later.

The black and blue backpack belonged to a 16-year-old Harbor resident, who was walking home from the Chetco Pelican Players “Clankers” play with friends last Saturday when he accidentally ran into a post and was knocked unconscious, his mother said.

His friends left him, and when the teen awoke, he continued home – sans backpack. The family reported the backpack as lost with the Brookings Police and Curry County Sheriff, the family said. Notice was also posted on Facebook.

Sheriff’s officers on scene didn’t know the backpack was reported lost until the bomb squad was halfway to Harbor – and out of cellphone service range. At that point, the teen arrived at the bank parking lot with his mother.

“All that’s in it is his cell phone, his iPod, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter,” the mother said while waiting behind crime scene tape for the robot to retrieve the backpack. “I first heard about it when Facebook alerted us, then the Pilot (website) says ‘There’s a bomb,’ and then, there’s his backpack. Well … we’ve been looking for it.”

The Oregon State Patrol Explosives Unit arrived just before noon and put a remote-activated bomb detection robot, “Andros,” into action. The wheeled and treaded machine lurched across the lot to the backpack, took it behind a trash bin to shield people from possible explosives, and shook it a few times. 

“A bomb didn’t go off,” Bishop said.

In the meantime, officers stopped traffic in both directions along Highway 101 and wouldn’t allow pedestrians and bicyclists to pass through the area.

Explosives unit detectives then went through the contents of the backpack – clothing, a cell phone, an iPad, cigarettes and a lighter – before calling the scene safe at 12:45 p.m. 

The sheriff’s office kept the backpack, however, as it also contained “evidence of alcohol and marijuana consumption.” The backpack was given to officials at the juvenile department for follow up. The monofilament line was fishing line the youth said he’d picked up at the port so kids or animals wouldn’t get entangled in it.

Sheriff’s Detective Dave Gardiner said they can’t be too careful; “Andros” bears two Purple Heart stickers from being damaged in the line of duty, both incidents involving pipe bombs in Grants Pass.

“Better it than us,” said Explosives Unit Detective Gaylon Couch. “It’s earned its keep.”

And Gardiner said they’d received a call earlier in the day from a man who said he’d been drinking and doing drugs the night before and had misplaced his black backpack.

“He described it somewhat in detail,” Gardiner said. “He forgot a couple things. So … I don’t want to be the one who makes national news by picking up a backpack that goes ‘Boom.’” 

Suspicious packages aren’t common, however. 

The last one Gardiner recalls was more than a year ago on Benham Lane where a man cutting hedges found what looked like a grenade. It turned out to be a replica, but that wasn’t determined until the bomb squad confiscated it for evaluation.

“We come across some stuff from time to time, but not very often,” Gardiner said. “But with regard with what went on in Aurora, Colo., the bomb people were, ‘We’re just going to be real extra careful with this.’”

“From time to time, we get threats,” Bishop said. “This is just to be cautious. The one time we’re not cautious and it explodes, everyone’s mad.”

Representatives of the Brookings Police Department went to CFCU’s Brookings branch to ensure people there were safe in case a threat in Harbor was merely a distraction. And neighbors in the neighboring RV park were notified of the situation and given the choice to vacate the area.

The Brookings branch of the credit union was open Monday and Harbor area customers were sent there to conduct business until the Harbor office opened later that afternoon.