Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity March Case

January 13, 2012

A crowd of thousands who gathered in Spokane, Washington to bring attention to the non-violent message of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had no idea that one among them planned to send a radically different message.

Audio Transcript

Mollie Halpern: A crowd of thousands were gathering for the 2011 annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Unity March in Spokane, Washington. They wanted to bring attention to the non-violent message of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. They had no idea that one among them planned to send a radically different message.

A black backpack was placed at the corner of West Main Avenue and North Washington Street—which was along the intended march route. Inside the backpack was a weapon of mass destruction. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Frank Harrill, who has been involved in bombing cases both in the United States and abroad, says he had never seen this type of improvised explosive device.

Frank Harrill: Essentially what it was, was a device set to fire over 120 large, egg-shaped fishing weights coated in anti-coagulant, propelled by an explosive charge.

Halpern: City workers found the backpack before the start of the parade. The Spokane Police Department re-routed the event as a precaution. The Spokane Explosives Disposal Unit—which is comprised of members from the Spokane Police, Spokane County Sheriff’s Department, and the FBI—quickly responded to the scene and disarmed the bomb.

Harrill: …and did so in a way that preserved the majority of the device in terms of its physical construction, which provided a great deal of forensic material for the FBI Laboratory to later dissect and exploit.

Halpern: Bomb experts at The FBI Lab reconstructed the device. This sound of the bomb when it was detonated gives you an idea of its power [sound of bomb exploding]…

It blew up with such a high velocity that human-shaped targets were blown over and a tall metal filing cabinet was filled with holes.

Harrill: Harpham was attempting to use an extremely lethal, very destructive weapon, and clearly targeting individuals because of their race and perhaps their religion as well. He was indiscriminately willing to wreak havoc among a crowd of innocents.

Halpern: The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, in Spokane determined there had been three purchases of the same fishing weights used to make the bomb from a store located about an hour north of Spokane. A debit card was used in one of the three transactions, and it matched an account belonging to a man named Kevin Harpham.

A second match was also discovered. Using cyber resources and the work of another FBI field office, Harrill and his team learned that Harpham is a self-declared white supremacist affiliated with the Neo-Nazi group National Alliance.

At that point, the JTTF worked with the United States Department of Defense. They learned that Harpham had been an artilleryman in the Army. That’s when the FBI learned of a third match…

Harrill: The DOD provided us a blood sample from which DNA could be extracted. The FBI Laboratory did a great job of obtaining one small component of DNA from the handle of the backpack that encased the device, and that turned out to be a match with Harpham.

Halpern: Online postings showed Harpham had a bunker mentality. He stored a cache of weapons and food near a remote cabin in the small unincorporated community of Addy, Washington.

On March 9, less than two months since the Unity March, The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team devised a ruse to lure Harpham outside. As soon as Harpham fell for it, they arrested him without any problems.

Harrill: It was a good thing because, as we suspected, Harpham was armed with an assault rifle and a handgun at the time he was taken into custody. But, great care was taken to distract him to ensure he could not mount a violent resistance.

Halpern: Harrill credits team work for the quick resolution of the case.

Harrill: And that started from the citizens that found the device, to the police department that responded, to the integration of all agencies in terms of the investigation, and, ultimately, the prosecuting skill of the U.S. Attorney’s office in bringing this to a successful conclusion.

Halpern: This case exemplifies the many investigative tools of the FBI.

Harrill: I really can’t think of a tool that the FBI can bring to bear that wasn’t applied in this case. And, every single one of them, from the forensic audio/video unit on down the line—the Laboratory, certainly the DNA unit, the explosives unit, you name it, to the Hostage Rescue Team, to negotiation, behavioral science—all of them were employed; all of them made a critical difference.

Halpern: There was a mountain of evidence against Harpham, who pled guilty to the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempt to commit a federal hate crime. He later tried to withdraw his plea, but that was unsuccessful. He was sentenced to 32 years in federal prison.

Harrill: At the end, he refused to take responsibility, and ultimately, acts like these are acts of cowardice. This was a prototypical hate crime.

Halpern: I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and this has been Inside the FBI. For more information about the FBI’s role in investigating hate crimes, visit

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