A heart-pounding story of cops and their unsuccessful race against the delivery of deadly mail bombs is emerging here in the Michael T. Stevens mail-bomb trial.
Two months before the 1993 bombings that killed five people in Cheektowaga, West Valley and Rochester, police began to strongly suspect that an elusive bomber was at work, planning to strike in Western New York.
According to testimony in the Stevens case, they knew some things about their suspect, but not enough to catch him.
They had a good physical description of the man -- a gangly white male in his 50s, whose eyes looked in two different directions.
They knew he had at least 58 sticks of dynamite and some blasting caps. They had tracked his movements to Vermont and to Kentucky, where the dynamite and caps had been purchased the previous June.
They knew that, for some reason, the man had left 112 sticks of dynamite and some blasting caps in two trash bags outside a Ponderosa Steak House restaurant in Irondequoit, a Rochester suburb.
And they even came up with an identity for the man, Leslie Milbury.
But then they made a chilling discovery -- Milbury had been dead more than 44 years.
"When you find out that your prime suspect has been dead since 1949, that scares you. That really gets your attention," said one police official who was involved in the manhunt.
Mystery and questions have shrouded the dynamite found in Irondequoit since the day after Christmas 1993 that the mail bombs exploded.
Among the questions:
Why was the dynamite left next to a restaurant dumpster?
Why were police unable to find out who left the dynamite in Irondequoit?
How much -- if anything -- did police know about Stevens, Figley and their ties to the recovered dynamite before the bombings?
Could police have done more to find out?
Fifteen months later, Stevens, 54, is on trial here in the bombing deaths, and some answers about the dynamite are emerging. The defendant's alleged accomplice, Earl Figley, testified last week under a plea deal, as the key prosecution witness against Stevens.
Milbury, as it turned out, was really Figley, 57, a hard-drinking resident of a Canandaigua motel. But before police could locate him, the mail bombs were sent and five people were dead.
"For two months before the bombings, we knew somebody was out there, somewhere," said a police official, who asked not to be quoted by name because of a gag order issued by the judge in Stevens' trial. "We knew the
dynamite was out there. . . . We were asking everybody in Monroe County if they had seen this guy with the weird eyes. We couldn't locate this guy."
When the bombs went off on the night of Dec. 28, 1993, the officer said he had an immediate gut feeling that the blasts were the work of the mystery man police had been seeking. The officer had "a sick feeling inside."
The U.S. attorney's office completed its case against Stevens Wednesday. While 66 witnesses have testified for the purpose of convicting Stevens, another dramatic story is emerging from the evidence in this trial.
Testimonies from Figley, police officers and other witnesses show how on Sept. 21, 1993, police began a desperate manhunt for a bomber. On that date, the Ponderosa restaurant manager in Irondequoit made his strange discovery outside the dumpster.
The restaurant manager, who happened to be a former U.S. Marines explosives expert, called 911. Irondequoit police responded.
Police sealed off the area and called the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, said Capt. Robert Longdue. "They took the dynamite. They were able to use the serial numbers to find out where it had been purchased."
Longdue said Irondequoit and Rochester police assisted the federal bureau in the investigation. He said police initially suspected that the dynamite might have been stolen from an area construction site.
But within a day or two of the recovery, federal agents learned a lot more about the dynamite. They determined it had been purchased at the Kent Powder Co. near Lexington, Ky., by a man who identified himself as Leslie Milbury. The man, saying he needed explosives to build a water line, paid $223.17 for 170 sticks of dynamite and 50 blasting caps.
Federal agents interviewed Roger McClure, the man who sold the dynamite to Milbury. They found Milbury had a Vermont learner's permit. Agents then went to Vermont to look for Milbury.
There, they found out Leslie Milbury had died in 1949, but another man had been able to use the Milbury name to obtain a learner's permit.
They also found that, when the man who called himself Milbury obtained the permit, he was accompanied by a second, shorter man. That man obtained a permit in the name of a Maine resident, one who had died in 1950.
"Learning that, it really had us worried. It meant somebody bought dynamite with false ID and then had brought the dynamite to our area," said one investigator. "Why use false ID, unless you had something illegal in mind?
Police spent the next two months looking for Milbury and his friend, who they now allege to be Figley and Stevens. They didn't find them in time. Tragically, after the bombings, they found that Stevens' mother, Victoria, lives a few blocks from the Ponderosa restaurant where the dynamite was recovered.
Figley testified last week that he and Stevens had dumped the dynamite behind the restaurant because Stevens' brother, Ron, had found explosives in Victoria Stevens' basement.
Ron Stevens screamed at the two men, telling them to move the dynamite immediately, or he would call the police, Figley said.
Figley said he and Stevens put the dynamite next to the dumpster as a temporary measure, figuring they could get it back the next morning. When they arrived the next morning, police had sealed off the neighborhood.
Irondequoit police said they were "familiar" with Michael Stevens from previous encounters at the residence, but Longdue said he could not comment on the circumstances.
Longdue said police, particularly the ATF, made a strong effort trying to locate the source of the dynamite.
"The ATF spent a lot of time working on the case," he said.
Jurors in the case will not hear Stevens' side of the story. After telling reporters earlier this week he will take the witness stand in his own defense, Stevens told U.S. District Judge Michael A. Telesca late Wednesday he had changed his mind. Closing arguments are expected Friday.