FBI Searches For Man In Failed Bombing Of Southwest Plaza

Small Fire Leads To Devices, Forces Evacuations Of Mall On Columbine Anniversary

An attempt to bomb a popular shopping mall less than 1½ miles from Columbine High School on the 12th anniversary of the Columbine shooting failed, and federal authorities released photos of a person of interest in the case.

First one, then a second homemade explosive device was found at Southwest Plaza Mall Wednesday afternoon, where thousands people were told to evacuate as a loud siren went off in the mall.

The attempted bombing of the mall in southwest Denver drew a large response from local and federal authorities.

Surveillance Photos Show Man With Gray Hair, Silver Mustache

Photos of a person of interest caught on a surveillance camera were released just before a 10 p.m. news conference outside the mall.

The two photos show a white man with graying hair and a silver mustache. He was wearing a dark colored cap with a light colored logo on the front, a gray and white horizontally striped shirt, a dark jacket with silver buttons, blue jeans, and dark colored shoes.

The man is seen carrying a white plastic shopping bag that appears to be a Target bag. A Target store is located just to the west of the mall and has its own security camera video system.

The man is standing inside an employee entrance of the mall.

"The public does have some level of access to the employee area of the mall," said Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

"But it's not an area where the public would normally go," added FBI media coordinator Dave S. Joly.

The photos were being released because authorities need help in identifying the person of interest. The time stamp on the video shows the photos were taken about nine minutes before the fire broke out.

"This individual possibly witnessed someone going in or out of the (door) or he is possibly involved," said Joly.

Anyone with information is asked to call a special tip line at 303-271-5615.

"We're trying to verify some really good tips that we have right now," Kelley said.

Fire Is First Sign Of Trouble

The incident began when a small fire broke out in the hallway near the mall's Food Court around 11:52 a.m., Kelley said.

It was extinguished within seven minutes and no one was hurt, Kelley said. Joly credited a mall security officer with quickly putting out the fire.

However, firefighters found two propane canisters next to an electrical box in the hallway where the fire started, Kelley said.

A further check later turned up another suspicious device, Kelley said.

She described the second device as a pipe bomb found near the propane tanks. She said she didn't know if the devices were set to go off simultaneously.

Kelley called the explosive device "potentially devastating."

Sources close to the investigation told CALL7 Investigators the pipe bomb was designed to be self-igniting and said it was "an attempt to hurt people." The source also said the propane canisters were rigged to explode during the fire.

When the Jefferson County Bomb Squad used a robot to move the pipe bomb to the parking lot, one end of the pipe bomb fell off, allowing investigators to look inside and see explosive material. Pipe bombs are usually filled with black gunpowder. Authorities would not give a size of the pipe bomb or describe it further.

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigation, Kelley said.

The head agents from the Denver FBI office were at the mall Wednesday evening, including the agents who led the Najibullah Zazi terrorism investigation.

Disturbing Parallels To Columbine

Although no connection has been made between the explosive devices at Southwest Plaza and Columbine, the mall is less 1¼ miles from the school, scene of the worst high school shooting in U.S. history, which occurred 12 years ago Wednesday.

The two teens responsible for the high school shooting also left propane tank bombs and pipe bombs in the school, but most of the devices failed to explode. The devices were also placed in a common eating area of the school during the first lunch period -- around 11:30 and noon.

"This was potentially devastating to a very high populated area …and very difficult to ignore the day that today is," Kelley said.

"We're not ignoring that. The date is significant in Colorado history, but it is it not something we are dismissing," said Joly.

About 25 Jefferson County Schools in the Chatfield, Dakota Ridge and Columbine area were on lockout for about 30 minutes as a precaution when the first device was discovered.

An email sent to parents from Jeffco Public Schools said, "Your child's school was on lockout for a short time because of a suspicious device that was located in the area of a fire at Southwest Plaza Mall this afternoon. The lockout was simply a precaution. A lockout means that all access into schools was restricted. However, schools will be dismissing as usual."

The lockout was implemented around 1:30 p.m. and lifted at 2 p.m., said Jeffco Public School spokeswoman Lynn Setzer.

There were no classes at Columbine High School on Wednesday.

First Device Found

Larry Juceum, a manager of a toy store in the mall, told 7NEWS that the canisters were camping canisters, and they had been next to the electrical panel. They did not explode.

Juceum said the hallway quickly filled with smoke but the fire alarm never went off because the alarm system was offline, undergoing testing at the time.

Mall Evacuated; 6,000-10,000 People Inside At Time

The entire mall was evacuated when the fire started and did not reopen Wednesday.

"I never even thought that the mall was somewhere we had to worry about the safety of our children," said parent Francie Nielsen.

The mall was expected to reopen on Thursday.

"We're hoping that things will return to normal (Thursday)," Kelley said.

About 300 employees from various stores as well as all of the customers were forced out into the parking lot when the first device was discovered, Kelley said. She estimated that there were between 6,000 and 10,000 people in the mall during lunchtime, which is typically one of the busiest times of the day.

A shopper, Mindy Hanson, described her experience in comments on this story:

I was there when it happened. It was very odd how it all came about. Shopping in one of the department stores and all of a sudden a mall security guard came in and said to the employee, "Please have the customers leave the building." The employee looked around, got on the escalator and left the area without saying a word. The PA system was making announcements about random upcoming sales but not a word about evacuating. We kept shopping assuming it was nothing and it was only 10 minutes or so later we wandered out and saw stores closing and locking up when we realized it was real. If this was a real threat they did NOT handle it well!"

Ciera Ortiz identified herself as a worker at the mall and described what happened to her.

"I actually work at the mall and when they evacuated us they told us it was an electrical fire. No one knew what was going on, but when the bomb squad showed up we started to wonder, but the police wouldn't tell us anything. They also wouldn't let any of the managers or employees with the store keys leave."

The mall employees who were told to wait outside were moved back even more after the second device was found.

School buses were sent to the area to get the evacuated workers out of the cold while they waited for investigators to give them the all clear, said Cindy Matthews, spokeswoman for West Metro Fire District.

Some employees were interviewed by investigators to see if they saw anything suspicious prior to the fire.

A Jefferson County bomb squad and several K-9 crews swept the entire mall to make sure there were no other devices or hazards. Other malls in the area were also alerted to be on the lookout for suspicious devices, as a precaution.

Employees Searched For Suspicious Devices

Employees were allowed to return to the mall around 5:30 p.m., although the mall remained closed. Some of the employees complained that they were told not to talk to the media while they waited outside for five hours. They said they were afraid of being fired if they did.

Juceam told 7NEWS deputies had him search his own store for anything suspicious.

"After you inspected your store, you were supposed to go out to the (deputy) that was in your hallway and tell them if you found anything," said Juceam. "What do I know? I sell toys. How would I ever possibly know if something was in that store? Sure, you don't know what's in my store, but you have a better idea of what a pipe bomb looks like. I don't. What do I know?"

He said deputies then used caution tape to tag the entrance of the store and the back door to indicate the store had been checked.

Location Map:View Southwest Plaza Mall in a larger map

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