A 46-year-old man is facing federal charges accusing him of leaving a jar filled with explosives at a North Carolina airport as part of a war he pledged to fight on U.S. soil.
Michael Christopher Estes was arrested October 7 and charged with attempted malicious use of explosive materials and unlawful possession of explosive materials in an airport, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday.
The improvised explosive device, or IED, was found inside a jar at the Asheville Regional Airport about 7 a.m. on October 6, the FBI said in the complaint. Bomb technicians from the Asheville Police Department rendered the device safe. The baggage claim and lobby area of the airport were evacuated and shut down for about 2 hours. No one was injured.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Mason Jar Bomb Was Filled With Shrapnel & Had an Alarm Clock Taped to It Set to Go Off at 6:00
The improvised explosive device was found at the Asheville Regional Airport about 6:30 a.m. on October 6, the FBI said in court documents.
After the device was rendered safe by bomb technicians, “A TSA officer tested the substance in the device using an Explosive Trace Detector or ETD and it was positive for Ammonium Nitrate – a widely used and regulated bulk industrial explosive,” the FBI said. “Thereafter a ‘bomb dog,’ i.e. a dog specially trained to detect explosive materials, approached the device and ‘signaled,’ indicating the presence of an explosive material.”
According to court documents, investigators described the IED as an “Ammonium nitrate/fuel oil or “AN/FO” type explosive device:
Ammonium Nitrate acts as an oxidizing agent and absorbent for the fuel source. AN/FO type explosive devices have been used in a number of terrorist related incidents around the world in the past. When AN/FO comes into contact with a flame or other ignition source it explodes violently. Shrapnel or nails or ball bearings are often times added to the device so as to increase the devastation inflicted by the explosion.
The FBI said the Asheville device, “consisted of a glass Mason type jar with a lid that was locked-down by an incorporated locking device.” According to the FBI:
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There were prills – pellets or solid globules of a substance formed by the congealing of a liquid during processing – inside the jar and two plastic cups containing an unknown liquid substance – believed to be the fuel source. There were pieces of cold compress packs inside the jar. Ammonium Nitrate can be removed from cold compress packs and will congeal or form into prills during processing. Once the Ammonium Nitrate forms into prills, it can absorb the fuel oil necessary to the explosive process.
The mason jar was also filled with “steel wool that was then wrapped around nails and one shotgun cartridge,” the FBI said.
“There was an alarm clock taped to the outside of the jar. There was then a grouping of matches taped to the strike arm positioned between the bells. The alarm clock bells were removed from the clock. One of the alarm clock bells was taped between the glass of the jar and the matches – appearing to create a hard surface against which the matches could strike,” the FBI said. “The clock was set to go off at 6:00.”
2. Estes Told Investigators He Was ‘Getting Ready to Fight a War on U.S. Soil’ & Had Been ‘Staging’ Near the Airport
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Estes was taken into custody Saturday and interviewed at Asheville Police Department headquarters, according to court records. He waived his rights and agreed to answer questions, and “admitted that he placed the explosive device at the Asheville Airport,” according to the criminal complaint.
“He also explained that he bought the precursor materials at Walmart and Lowe’s,” the FBI said in the complaint. “Estes described how he created the device using Ammonium Nitrate and the Sterno as a fuel source and then rigged the alarm clock to strike the matches and cause the flame necessary to trigger the device. Estes admitted to putting the nails in the device as well. More specifically, the alarm clock would go off, the matches would strike, the Sterno would heat up and then the Ammonium Nitrate would explode.”
Estes told the investigators he was “getting ready to ‘fight a war on U.S. soil,’ but “also claimed that he did not actually set the alarm clock,” the FBI said.
He told investigators he had “‘staged’ in the woods a couple of days before placing the device at the Asheville Airport.”
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3. He Was Arrested Saturday After Police Identified Him as a Person of Interest
Estes was arrested by local police on the morning of Saturday, October 7, as he walked along Airport Road in Asheville, WSPA-TV reported. The Asheville Police Department had asked for the public’s help in finding Estes, naming him as a person of interest in a Facebook post Friday night.
“Estes is described as a white male with brown hair and brown eyes. He is 5’7″ tall and weighs approximately 200 pounds. He has multiple tattoos on his arms and wrists,” police said in the post. Police had previously released a surveillance photo in an attempt to identify Estes, writing, “We are requesting public assistance to locate a person of interest in this incident. The white male has been seen in multiple locations along Airport Road since Tuesday, October 3. We encourage anyone with information regarding the identity of this person of interest, or if anyone has seen a person matching this description, to please not approach him and immediately call 9-1-1.”
According to court documents, Estes was spotted on surveillance video “walking onto the airport grounds at 12:39 a.m. on October 6, 2017. (He) appeared to be a white male and was wearing black pants, a black jacket and a black cap and he appeared to be carrying a bag.” Investigators said Estes walked near the entrance to the airport terminal, “went out of sight momentarily” and was then seen leaving the area without the bag.
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An airport maintenance employee told investigators he had seen a man come out of a wooded area across the street and to the east of the airport on October 4 or 5 wearing a black shirt, black shorts and a black cap. Authorities began to search the area to try to find any evidence, and located a “green backpack leaning up against a tree, partially covered in leaves, as if someone had intentionally tried to conceal it from plain view. The backpack, a “Traverse 70,” appeared new and unused, and a separate black tool bag was underneath it.
According to court documents, investigators found Gorilla Tape, consistent with tape used on the IED, along with Kobalt gloves and Sterno fire starter gel, believed to be the likely fuel source for the device found at the airport. They also found an alarm clock bell consistent with the bell missing from the clock found on the device. They also found a bag of shotgun shells similar to the one found in the device.
Federal investigators were then able to trace Estes steps in the days before the device was left at the airport and say he purchased the items used to make the device and those found in the tool bag at local stores.
They first went to a Walmart in Arden, North Carolina, where a man had purchased Gorilla tape, firestarter gel, a glass Mason jar, matches, cold compress packs and an alarm clock on October 3, according to court documents. Surveillance video from the store showed that the man matched the description of the man seen on the airport video.
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They then went to a Lowe’s store, also in Arden, where on October 3, a man had bought a pair of Kobalt gloves and on October 4 had bought a black tool bag. Again, surveillance video matched up with the other footage investigators had seen.
Finally, investigators found that a Traverse 70 backpack had been bought on October 1 at an REI store in Asheville on October 1. The purchaser bought the bag with cash, but used an REI membership number when paying. The number was registered to Michael C. Estes, according to court documents.
You can read the full criminal complaint below:
4. Estes, Who Says on Facebook He Is ‘Retired Military,’ Is Originally From Tennessee
Little information is known so far about Michael Christopher Estes. His Facebook profile does not include any pictures and provides few details about his life. Federal authorities have not disclosed a possible motive for the attempted bombing.
Public records show that Estes last known address was in Tazewell, Tennessee. According to The Associated Press, a man who answered the phone listed for that address said he did not know Estes. He has also had P.O. boxes in Huntsville, Tennessee, and Jones, Oklahoma, in recent years.
Estes has also lived in Oak Ridge, Pioneer, Clinton and Knoxville, Tennessee, along with Shawnee and Bethany Oklahoma.
On Facebook, Estes describes himself as “retired military,” and claims to have been retired from the Armed Forces since 2014. It has not been confirmed that he served in the military, and details about his service, if he served, were not immediately available. He also writes on Facebook that he graduated from Claiborne County High School.
Estes does not have any posts about politics or like any pages associated with specific beliefs on Facebook. His only two “likes” are Tennessee football and a local news reporter who is now the communications director for a Republican gubernatorial candidate.
Though he was described as being white in police press releases while they were searching for him, online jail records list his ethnicity as being a Native American.
His criminal record was not immediately available, though police used recent arrest photographs from Buncombe County to identify him as being the man seen on video footage, and released a mugshot from another arrest.
5. He Is Being Held at the Buncombe County Jail Without Bail & Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison
Michael Estes is being held without bail on a federal detainer at the Buncombe County Jail, online records show. He made his first appearance in the Western District of North Carolina federal court on October 10.
According to court records, Estes was advised of his rights and charges and he moved for appointment of counsel and filed a financial affidavit claiming indigence, which was granted by the judge. The government motioned for Estes to be detained until trial and Estes waived a preliminary hearing and detention hearing. He is being represented by Fredilyn Sison, of the federal defenders of Western North Carolina. Sison could not be reached for comment.
Estes faces between 5 to 20 years in federal prison on the attempted malicious use of explosive materials charge and up to 5 years in prison on the unlawful possession of explosive materials in an airport charge.