Suspect ID'd in bomb threat at Kennewick courthouse

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMarch 21, 2013 

An Ohio man arrested this week on suspicion he used prepaid calling cards to phone in bomb threats at government buildings in five states might be responsible for the Nov. 15 evacuation of Kennewick's courthouse.

Lonny Lee Bristow, 39, of Mansfield, Ohio, waived a bond hearing Thursday during an appearance in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, according to FBI Special Agent Vicki D. Anderson.

Bristow currently faces one federal count of making a bomb threat by phone, knowing that it was false.

However, Anderson told the Herald that since there were a lot of bomb threats, agents still are trying to get them sorted out.

Bristow's charge is for a Tennessee threat, but he also is suspected of making calls from mid-November through December to courthouses and public buildings in Washington, Oregon, Nebraska and Mississippi.

"We do believe he probably is responsible for a number of bomb threats in those five states; that's why they were included in the affidavit," Anderson said. "But to specifically say, 'Yes this one' or 'No, not that one?' We're still looking into it."

Benton County Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Jones said Thursday that his agency isn't positive yet that Bristow is the lead suspect in their case.

County detectives have been working with other law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said.

A Benton County District Court clerk took a call at 3:15 p.m. Nov. 15 from a man who said, "You better start getting people out of there because there's some bombs in there that are set to go in about 20 minutes."

The clerk made notes about the phone call, including any identifying information on the man, then alerted Administrator Jacki Lahtinen, who immediately took it to authorities.

Within 10 minutes, a recorded message was played over loudspeakers, alerting all employees and citizens to evacuate the Benton County Justice Center.

More than 100 people streamed out all exits of the justice center and the adjacent sheriff's office and waited in nearby parking lots until it became clear the building would remain closed for the rest of the business day.

Inmates in the jail were locked down in their cells during the investigation.

A Hanford Patrol officer and his bomb-detecting dog spent about an hour inside the building but failed to turn up any explosive devices.

Lt. Jones at the time said such phone calls usually are hoaxes, but authorities have to treat them like they're real so nobody gets hurt.

Benton County was one of at least eight courthouses across the state to get bomb threats that afternoon. Calls reportedly also were received in Adams, Chelan, Thurston, Douglas, Clark, Columbia and Pacific counties.

The investigation into Bristow was announced Thursday in a news release from FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony and U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach, both with the Northern District of Ohio.

FBI agents in Knoxville discovered that prepaid calling cards used Nov. 27 to make bomb threat calls in Tennessee were purchased at a Walmart Supercenter in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, according to the release.

Cleveland FBI agents then joined the investigation and found that Bristow had bought a prepaid calling card on that date in the same Walmart, the release said. Upper Sandusky is about 40 miles from Mansfield.

Agents later learned that Bristow allegedly purchased several cards and those cards were traced to the false bomb threats.

"Lonny Bristow induced panic in hundreds of people across several states who were simply trying to do their work," Anthony said in the news release. "The FBI will continue efforts to aggressively pursue charge against anyone, such as Mr. Bristow, who chooses to make reckless and malicious bomb threats."

Dettelbach, who now is prosecuting Bristow, added that the FBI "did a tremendous job in piecing this case together."

During a search of Bristow's home Tuesday, agents seized computers, digital storage devices, other electronic equipment, documents, bank cards, weapons and ammunition.

Bristow was arrested Wednesday in his hometown area. He cooperated with authorities.

"I think he probably expected it after a search warrant on Tuesday," Anderson told the Herald.

She said it will take some time for agents to go through all of Bristow's equipment and MagicJack phone devices, which is why they can't yet confirm which courthouses he allegedly called.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that since Bristow waived his hearing, he will be locked up without bond while his case is pending.

A possible motive is not known at this time.

The Mansfield News Journal reported that in 1997 Bristow was labeled a "vexatious litigator." Since 1993, Bristow filed at least 137 lawsuits, targeting law enforcement personnel, judges, media outlets and others.

Although the lawsuits usually were tossed out of court, they added up to thousands of dollars in attorney fees, the newspaper reported.

The paper also reported that Bristow was the first inmate in Ohio to have his mail privileges revoked. He received a 13-year prison sentence for theft, retaliation, aiding an escape, harassment by an inmate and telephone harassment.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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