Fernanda Santos | June 29, 2012
Phoenix. It is a law-enforcement mystery with bizarre overtones: flashlights dropped in seemingly random places that explode whenever someone tries to turn one on.
Three have been found since last month here and in suburban Glendale, causing only minor injuries so far, and countless other false alarms have prompted robust responses. The most recent, on Wednesday evening, spurred the authorities to shut an entire city block on the edge of downtown until the flashlight spotted there was deemed to be just a flashlight.
It lay in the middle of the street for about an hour, a beam of light illuminating the asphalt in front of the Phoenix Police Department headquarters.
Prank or provocation? Nefarious test run or tasteless fun?
“These devices are meant to hurt somebody,” said Sgt. Brent Coombs of Glendale, just northwest of the city, where the first detonations occurred.
Whatever the motive, these improvised explosive devices — as the authorities here will tell you, that is exactly what they are — have tried the investigative abilities of police officers and federal agents. Lacking decisive clues, they have not been able to find the person behind the crime. But they say one thing is certain: “There’s no indication whatsoever that this is any act of terrorism,” assured Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The first explosion happened May 13 in southern Glendale, after a woman turned on a flashlight she had found behind a tree while taking a walk. The next day, on the other side of town, a flashlight hissed and then blew up in the hands of a landscaper who had found it while installing sprinklers in a yard.
The Salvation Army has suspended donations of flashlights in the region since one exploded May 24 inside a bin at a distribution center here.
In all, five people have been injured, the authorities said.
Wednesday’s flashlight was different. It was on, while all the others were off. It was black, while the others were bright yellow. It had no handle, and unlike those that had exploded, it was not an Eveready.
The bomber has not issued threats, left notes or followed a recognizable pattern, Mangan said. It is almost as if the bomber dropped the flashlights at the easiest or most convenient place, giving little or no thought to the location, he said.
ATF agents have been left, then, to sift through the bombs’ components — materials like 9-volt batteries and wires — trying to trace their origin. They have interviewed vendors throughout the region and called national distribution centers, Mangan said, in case someone recalls a suspicious transaction.
There is a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
Although tips have been phoned in to the police in Phoenix and Glendale, as well as to the ATF and the Federal Bureau of Investigation here, “we really don’t have anything substantial that has moved us forward, nothing tangible, really, to help us solve this case,” Mangan said.
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