OSI at 75: OSI Reservist Leads Investigation in the Mid-1980s

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On July 1, 1986, the wife of an Air Force sergeant assigned to Edwards Air Force Base, California, dropped off her vehicle at an auto repair shop located in Oakland.  In addition to the needed repairs, she also pointed out what she described as a loose “speaker wire” hanging below the vehicle’s frame.  Further inspection of the vehicle by the auto mechanics discovered that instead of being connected to the vehicle’s sound system, the “speaker wire” was connected to a large pipe bomb that was attached to the vehicle’s gas tank.  

The auto repair shop immediately contacted the Oakland Police Department, who relayed the call to field units over the radio.  Monitoring the radio broadcasts was a police captain who was, at the time, on patrol inspecting field activities in the vicinity of the auto repair shop.  

The police captain elected to report to the area to observe the field response.  The police captain was not just a member of the Oakland Police Department, he was also an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel who was assigned to OSI District 19, headquartered at Travis Air Force Base, California.  

At the scene, the responding officers cordoned off the area and began their investigation.  Shortly thereafter, the bomb squad arrived and made the device safe before transporting it to a disposal site.  Upon receiving a briefing that the vehicle belonged to the wife of an Air Force sergeant, this immediately caught the captain’s attention.  Subsequent interviews with the wife, determined that the Air Force sergeant was a potential suspect.

Recognizing the obvious Air Force interests in the matter, the captain notified OSI Detachment 1910, at Treasure Island, California, near Oakland.  When the investigation determined that it was likely that the pipe bomb had been placed on the car while it was parked at Edwards Air Force Base, OSI Detachment 1801was also notified.  The two detachments joined with the Oakland Police Department in conducting a joint investigation.

Technicians from the Oakland Police Department determined that the pipe bomb contained a significant quantity of gunpowder which was designed to explode upon receiving an electrical current from the auto’s ignition system.  The technicians also managed to pull a single latent fingerprint from the black electrical tape which was used to construct the pipe bomb. That fingerprint was subsequently matched to the Air Force sergeant.

Continuing the investigation, OSI Special Agents learned that the Air Force sergeant had been observed detonating practice bombs in the desert areas near Edwards Air Force Base.  Physical evidence recovered by Special Agents from these practice bomb sites matched the materials that were used to construct the pipe bomb that was affixed to the wife’s auto.  

Interviews with people who knew the Air Force sergeant also revealed that they had heard him having discussions regarding killing his wife and regarding pipe bomb construction. 

Based on all the available evidence, it was decided that the Air Force would handle the prosecution with expert assistance from the Oakland Police Department.  As part of this effort, the police captain was ordered to active duty and assisted with the arrest of the Air Force sergeant.  He remained on active duty and assisted the prosecution through the court martial.  

Following testimony provided by OSI Special Agents and Oakland Police Department experts, on Feb. 16, 1987, the Air Force sergeant was found guilty of attempted murder.  He was sentenced to 10 years confinement, a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and allowances and reduction in rank to airman basic. 

Incidentally, on Jan. 25, 1987, three weeks before the conviction, there was an explosion and fire at the auto repair shop in Oakland which had discovered and reported the pipe bomb that was planted by the Air Force sergeant.  This incident killed an auto mechanic who was one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.  

The trial was delayed by one week for an investigation with the fire department portion determining that the cause of the blast was an industrial accident.  The police department portion of the investigation, which was also led by the police captain OSI reservist, concluded that there was no foul play involved as well. 

Editor’s Note: OSI at 75 is an installment of OSI’s year-long commemoration of its 75th Anniversary Year based on the theme: “Inspired By Our Past – OSI’s Future Starts Today.”