WOONSOCKET – Police used explosives to render a suspicious backpack found behind the Cass Avenue home of a Muslim family harmless on Saturday but now believe the left-behind item was not a hate-crime response to the terror-bombing of the Boston Marathon.
The backpack, which had a reference to “U.S. Bomb” among its several marking, contained items believed to have been stolen and is not believed to have been left as a threat to anyone, Detective Jamie L. Paone, Woonsocket Police Department spokeswoman, said yesterday afternoon.
“It was a case of something being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Paone said while noting the department’s investigation determined the bag was not intentionally placed as a threat to the residents of the building.
“The bag contained stolen items from vehicles in the neighborhood,” Paone said. The writings that had caused alarm over the weekend for the Muslim family living in the apartment building were actually the assorted names of punk rock bands printed on the now-tattered and torn bag.
The discovery of the bag by a resident of the neighborhood bordering Cass Park around 8 p.m. Saturday had prompted an immediate security response by Woonsocket Police and State Police. The state Bomb Squad responded to explode the backpack safely and the FBI was also reported to have been notified.
“It scared everybody,” said Melissa Sepulveda, a neighbor who watched the event unfold from a porch across the street. “The police pushed everybody back and that’s when we heard the controlled explosion.”
Nimer Ead, 55, a design engineer, lives on the ground floor with his wife and stepson. Ead and his family are Muslim.
“I have a lot of courage and I don’t get nervous that easily,’ Ead said. “But I do have fear for my family.”
Ead said he is originally from Palestine and has been a naturalized American citizen for 33 years.
The police, he said, told him the backpack contained a cell phone, some wires and “some other things you don’t need to know about.” They said it was necessary to perform a controlled detonation of the black-and-tan backpack so it could be safely handled.
Incredibly, news of the suspicious item made it all the way to the Washington, D.C.-based headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations before the police had even cleared the scene. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the organization, said CAIR immediately called upon the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime, inspired by the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15.
Three people were killed when two bombs fashioned from pressure cookers and fireworks detonated near the finish line of the marathon in Copley Square, and many others suffered gruesome, war-like wounds to their lower extremities that required their limbs to be amputated. The number of non-fatal casualties is now approaching the 300-mark, including reports of hearing loss.
The attacks were allegedly carried out by brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, immigrants from Chechnya that authorities say were inspired by radical Muslim elements tied to the breakaway Russian republic. Tamerlan, 26, was killed in a shootout with police three days after the bombings, while Dzhokhar, 19, is recovering from wounds he suffered during his capture at Fort Devens Medical Center in Ayer, Mass. He is facing federal terrorism charges.
Hooper said he believes there was been a “delayed backlash” to the marathon bombings because CAIR has just begun hearing about several potentially serious hate crimes during the last few days in different parts of the country, including that of a mosque in Oklahoma City, which has been twice vandalized since the Boston Marathon bombings.
Hooper said CAIR’s job is to protect the civil rights of Muslim Americans, and one way it does that is by responding to acts of aggression fueled by religious or ethnic bias. Some might dismiss the Woonsocket incident as a juvenile prank, Hooper said before the police announced their findings, but CAIR’s position is that such incidents must be identified and punished appropriately. Looking the other way is dangerous because it sends a tacit message that hate is acceptable and fosters an atmosphere in which more brazen acts of anti-Muslim bigotry are more likely.
“We challenge every incident of hate, big and small,” he said. “There have been a number of incidents in recent years, so we have to be very, very careful.”
Hooper said he was planning to make a formal request to the FBI to investigate the Woonsocket incident as a hate crime.
Paone said Monday that the WPD was in discussions with the FBI and the division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms about the case but it remained under review whether a crime had even been committed.
Although later finding the backpack to be involved in some type of breaking and entering incident, Paone said police have no suspects identified in that incident.
Meanwhile the episode has left not just Ead’s family rattled, but his neighbors, too.
As she walked her Pomeranian puppy on Cass Avenue Monday, Sepulveda, the neighbor who watched the controlled detonation from her porch, says she was already upset by back-to-back bomb threats at Woonsocket High School the previous week. One scare was phoned in, and another conveyed via a note found in a girl’s lavatory. Police cleared the school both times and did a room-by-room search, but they found nothing suspicious.
“From the two bomb scares at the high school last week and now this, I’m thinking it’s time for me to move out,” said Sepulveda.
Sadly, said another neighbor, it wouldn’t surprise him if the backpack drop was a hate crime inspired by the bombings. Given the current state of affairs, it could happen anywhere, said Rod Smith of Cass Avenue.
“Of course it bothers me, it’s very disturbing that there are hate crimes at all,” he said. “It trickles down to everywhere, that’s the problem.”