Retired miner placed homemade pipe bombs near Michigan stores, FBI says

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Federal prosecutors Tuesday charged a retired underground miner with extortion and attempting to destroy a building and accused him of leaving pipe bombs and threatening letters in locations across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

John Douglas Allen, 75, of Whittemore was arrested late Monday following an FBI investigation of a dangerous crime involving homemade bombs, coded letters, spy cameras and counter-surveillance tactics ripped from a Hollywood thriller. FBI agents searched his home about 16 miles west of Tawas City before he was ordered held without bond pending a detention hearing in federal court in Bay City on Friday.

Federal court records allege Allen was motivated to plant the bombs at various cell towers because he was angry that telecommunications companies broadcast pornography, cursing and "immoral content."

If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison. His lawyer, Steven Jacobs, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Surveillance video shows a man who appears to be John Allen carrying  a box outside an AT&T store in Sault Ste. Marie on Sept. 15, according to court records. The box was wrapped in black tape and had a wire extending from the package.

The bombs, discovered earlier this month at cellphone stores in Cheboygan and Sault Ste. Marie, were stored inside boxes and contained handcuffs with either the nickname “Handcuff Johnny or the initials “HJ.” FBI investigators analyzed the bombs, which consisted of a metal pipe with two metal end caps containing explosive powder main charges. Metal spheres and nails were found within each device.

Allen was charged almost one month after the first of several letters was also found inside a polka-dotted envelope, packaged inside a sealed zip lock bag near a telecommunications tower in St. Ignace, north of the Mackinac Bridge.

The letter, which appeared to have been attached to a nearby fence but fell to the ground, contained a threat and extortion demand to AT&T, Verizon and other providers.

The next day on Aug. 26, investigators found a second letter approximately 62 miles northwest in Gould City inside a polka-dotted envelope, inside a sealed zip bag, tied to a fence. Investigators collected the letter but did not open the bag.

The same day, nearly four hours and 210 miles to the west, investigators learned a third letter was found in a polka-dotted envelope inside a sealed zip bag and tied to a fence in Ontonagon. The contents of the letter appeared to be identical to the St. Ignace letter.

The letters were sent from the “Coalition for Moral Telecommunication (CMT)” and addressed to several companies, including AT&T and Verizon.

The FBI provides an image of one of the bombs recovered during the investigation.

The letters claimed CMT had almost 30 members who were "prepared to travel throughout this Country and begin distroying (sic) inner city tower communication," unless several demands were followed, according to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court.

The demands included a $5 million payment and that the telecommunication companies cease distributing "immoral content," including pornography, cursing and "all manner of indecent communication."

Investigators found this letter during the investigation.

The letters also warned "your problems will begin" and the "price will go up one hundred times" if any CMT members were arrested.

At the bottom of the letter was the code “CMT 5101520TG.” 

Several weeks passed as concerns grew about an imminent attack.

On Sept. 15, a White man wearing a face mask, dark classes, pants, shirt and a distinctive vest was spotted on a surveillance camera inside a sporting goods store in Sault Ste. Marie.

The man was soon seen placing a box outside of an adjacent AT&T store along W. 8th Street in Sault Ste. Marie. The U.S. Postal Service box was wrapped in black tape and had a wire extending from the package.

Surveillance footage at the Mackinac Bridge provided one clue for FBI agents hunting an alleged bombmaker.

Surveillance footage man was driving a maroon Chevrolet Uplander with a license plate 5WFE503 that appeared to be from either California or Washington.

Based on the license plate, investigators started searching for that number on vehicles that crossed the nearby Mackinac Bridge. Surveillance footage showed an identical maroon-colored van traveling southbound across the bridge on Sept. 15.

A half-hour later, a surveillance camera at a Verizon store in Cheboygan 22 miles south of the bridge captured the image of the suspect leaving a box outside the retail shop’s front door. Again, the USPS box was wrapped in black tape and had a wire extending from the package.

A surveillance camera inside a Verizon store in Cheboygan showed the suspect leaving a box outside the front door on Sept. 15.

A Verizon employee found the box the next morning. A Michigan State Police bomb squad retrieved the package.

Six minutes later, back in Sault Ste. Marie, police were alerted to the box outside the AT&T store.

Both boxes were analyzed by FBI investigators who determined the packages contained improvised explosive devices filled with metal balls and nails.

“Hardened objects such as these enhance the explosive effect, propelling fragments of metal outwards at high velocities, which can cause additional damage and injuries,” an FBI agent wrote in the criminal filing.

Investigators found the second bag tied to a fence in Gould City on Aug. 26.

FBI agents, meanwhile, focused on identifying the man shown in the surveillance photos.

Mackinac Bridge surveillance footage provided one clue.

The Aug. 24 footage showed a clearer image of what appeared to be the same maroon Chevrolet van and a California license plate SWFE503. That’s the same plate number and vehicle spotted outside the AT&T store where investigators found a bomb in Sault Ste. Marie.

California Department of Motor Vehicles, however, failed to provide any information because their records only go back five years, the FBI agent wrote.

But in the rear driver's side of the van, investigators noticed the dealership name: Richardson Chevrolet Buick in Standish.

On Sept. 18, a dealership employee provided information about similar vehicles sold at that location.

Investigators researched each buyer and quickly dismissed several who did not match the suspect's description or because the vehicle had been destroyed. One vehicle, however, a 2006 maroon Chevrolet Uplander belonged to Allen, and his driver's license photo matched the description of the person shown on surveillance footage with the bombs.

Michigan vehicle records showed Allen had a disability license plate, which intrigued investigators because the suspect shown on surveillance footage walked with a limp, according to the court filing.

Investigators next ran Allen's Michigan license plate through a law enforcement database that tracked when the plate showed up across a network of government surveillance cameras. The plate and what appeared to be the maroon Chevrolet van appeared in the southbound lane of the Mackinac Bridge on Aug. 24.

That's the same date surveillance footage showed the maroon van traveling northbound across the bridge, but with the California license plate.

Mackinac Bridge surveillance footage shows the same maroon Chevrolet van with Michigan (top) and California (bottom) license plates in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid detection by law enforcement.

On Sept. 15, the maroon van traveled across the bridge and investigators believe Allen was behind the wheel based on surveillance footage. Again, the van had Allen's Michigan plate while traveling northbound and the California plate during the southbound trip, according to the FBI.

"Based on my training and experience, suspected criminals engage in this type of tactic to avoid detection by law enforcement," the agent wrote.

Investigators continued backgrounding Allen.

His LinkedIn account lists him as a retired underground miner for TG Chemicals. Investigators took note of the company name because the initials TG were at the end of the coded message “CMT 5101520TG” included in threatening letters left across the U.P.

Investigators started surveilling his home Saturday in the small town of less than 400 people and spotted a maroon van parked outside, according to the court filing. On Monday, investigators watched a man matching Allen’s description get in the van and drive away.

FBI agents raided the home Monday and questioned his wife. She was shown images from surveillance footage and said she was “95%” sure the man shown in the images was Allen, the FBI agent wrote.

She also told investigators that during the search they would find polka-dotted envelopes just like the ones that contained threatening letters left in spots across the U.P., according to the government.

Allen also agreed to talk to investigators.

He admitted creating three or four letters signed by the “Coalition for Telecommunication” and left them at cell towers across the U.P., the FBI agent wrote. And Allen admitted sending letters to AT&T headquarters.

“Allen confirmed he switched the plates on his vehicle to avoid detection by law enforcement,” the agent wrote. “Additionally, he tried to disguise his vehicle further by removing the hitch attached to it."

Allen told investigators he bought the California plate at a flea market in Bay City.

“However, John Allen stated that he realized that he had made a mistake when he noticed the emblem for the auto dealership on the rear of the vehicle could not be removed,” the agent wrote.

Allen said he bought the bomb components at hardware stores approximately one year ago and paid in cash to avoid law enforcement detection, according to the court filing.

“For the past year, the bombs were in a box at his property,” the agent wrote. “He waited a year to build up the courage to place them.”

Allen also admitted leaving the bombs in Cheboygan and Sault Ste. Marie, according to the government. He used the nickname “Handcuff Johnny” because Allen believed he “would end up in handcuffs as a result of his actions.”

Allen said he acted alone.

“Allen stated that he created and placed the letters and bombs because he became dissatisfied with all of the immoral content, including pornography, on phones and cable television,” the agent wrote. “He stated that he only made the two bombs…”

Whittemore is one of the smallest towns in Michigan, and it did not take long for the FBI’s presence to create a buzz throughout the city.

Mayor Bob Leslie felt the impact immediately Monday night.

He was leaving City Hall after a parks and recreation meeting Monday night when his car was struck by a member of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force who was involved in a search at Allen's home nearby.

“With that going on, it kept the phones hopping,” Leslie said. “When you’re a town of 354 people and you’ve got numerous federal agents and state police in town, it doesn’t take but minutes for everybody to get an idea right, wrong or indifferent about what’s going on.”

Area residents described Allen as a quiet, subdued person, a familiar face at Whittemore Party Store who lives a few blocks north of Whittemore Speedway race track.

Leslie has known Allen and wife Rose for years.

“I never knew him to be a bad person of any type,” Leslie said. “He seemed to be a good guy.”

Allen’s wife, in fact, was attending the same parks and recreation meeting Monday night while FBI agents were searching her home.

“I can read Rosie pretty good, I’ve known her forever, she didn’t seem to know anything was going on,” Leslie said. “We left the meeting, and I’m pretty sure she turned into the driveway with a whole bunch of FBI agents.”

Twitter: @robertsnellnews