IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — More than a decade after a string of mailbox bombings injured people in Midwestern states, a judge will reconsider whether the former college student accused of carrying out the terrifying campaign is mentally competent to stand trial.
U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett informed attorneys in March that he intends to order a competency hearing this year for Lucas Helder, 32, who has been committed to a federal institution for treatment since 2004, court records show. The hearing will examine whether Helder's mental health has improved enough to allow him to understand the proceedings and aid in his defense, a constitutional right guaranteed for every defendant.
Helder was a University of Wisconsin-Stout student when police say he embarked on a five-day, cross-country spree in May 2002 that frightened a nation still on edge from the Sept. 11 attacks and an anthrax-laced mailing campaign. The FBI says Helder made bombs by attaching 9-volt batteries to pipes, and placed them rural mailboxes along with notes espousing bizarre anti-government beliefs and the warning, "mailboxes are exploding." Six detonated when mailboxes were opened, injuring four postal carriers in Illinois and Iowa and two Iowa women.
More bombs were discovered in Nebraska, Colorado and Texas but weren't rigged to explode. Helder was captured after a high-speed chase in Nevada, where authorities say he told them that the bombs were placed in a pattern to create a giant, connect-the-dots "smiley face," earning him the moniker the "smiley face bomber." During the scare, the U.S. Postal Service briefly suspended service to some customers and asked others to keep their mailboxes open or remove their doors so that carriers could look inside.
Among those hoping Helder eventually stands trial is Richard Zimmerman, a retired farmer of Anamosa, Iowa, whose wife, Doris, was left with a mangled hand, hearing loss and a permanent bump on her leg when their mailbox exploded as she mailed a letter.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's guilty as hell of everything, and I think he ought to serve some time for it," Zimmerman said Wednesday.
Federal officials in Iowa's northern district have taken the lead in prosecuting Helder, who also faces indictments in Illinois and Nevada. Prosecutors in Nebraska and Iowa's southern district have dismissed charges against him.
Helder was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder that caused delusions and feelings of grandiosity, and Bennett ruled in 2004 that he was unfit to stand trial. Federal authorities then sought to have him indefinitely committed, saying he would present a danger if released.
A judge ordered Helder held at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., which is near his hometown of Pine Island, until he no longer presented a risk or until federal officials could place him in a state institution. Helder remains at the center. Spokeswoman Julie Miller said she could not release information on Helder's condition or what efforts have been made to find suitable state custody, which federal law requires. "We are fully complying with the requirements of the statute," she said.
Periodic evaluations have concluded that Helder has remained incompetent to stand trial, including one that Bennett ordered in 2006 after prosecutors said they had been informed that Helder's condition was improving. It isn't clear what prompted Bennett to announce plans for the competency hearing in March, or for a magistrate judge to order some documents in the case to be unsealed the next day.
At the request of The Associated Press, the clerk's office unsealed a 10-count indictment Tuesday that charges Helder with making the bombs that injured Zimmerman, Tipton resident Delores Werling, and Dubuque letter carrier Ken Dolphin. The indictment had been shielded since 2007, when it was returned shortly before a five-year statute of limitations for bringing charges expired. Helder is charged with using and transporting explosives during a violent crime, and willfully destroying property. He could face life in prison.
Acting U.S. Attorney Sean Berry said he could not discuss the developments.
The case is moving forward despite Helder's need for a new attorney, as his current public defender, Jane Kelly, is becoming a federal appeals court judge. Bennett said he would schedule additional proceedings once Helder's new counsel gets up to speed. At the competency hearing, Bennett will decide whether Helder would be able to consult with his lawyer "with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and comprehend the trial proceedings.
If Helder is ever deemed fit for trial, he's expected to use an insanity defense. Doctors have said that Helder was under the delusion that he had a "moral obligation" to enlighten others about his views, including that death did not exist because people simply enter higher dimensions. Police say Helder claimed the "smiley face" would communicate that his message was one of love and that people shouldn't be alarmed.
Dolphin, who needed surgery after shrapnel tore through his arm, declined comment on the prospect of a trial, saying: "I've put this behind me."
But Richard Zimmerman said he looked forward to that day, and that he doubted an insanity defense would fly.
"He couldn't have been too insane, because he put a lot of thought into it," he said.
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