Asheville Airport bombing suspect pleads guilty to possession of explosives

GUILTY PLEA: Michael Christopher Estes pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful possession of explosive material in connection with the October 2017 incident at the Asheville Regional Airport. Photo courtesy of Asheville Police Department
GUILTY PLEA: Michael Christopher Estes pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful possession of explosive material in connection with the October 2017 incident at the Asheville Regional Airport. Photo courtesy of Asheville Police Department

Press release from R. Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina:

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Michael Christopher Estes, 46, formerly of Tazewell, Tennessee, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell today and pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful possession of explosive material, in connection with the October 2017 incident at the Asheville Regional Airport, announced R. Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.

U.S. Attorney Murray is joined in making today’s announcement by John A. Strong, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division and Chief Tammy Hooper of the Asheville Police Department.

According to today’s plea hearing and documents filed with the court, shortly after 12:30 a.m. on October 6, 2017, Estes walked onto the grounds of the Asheville Regional Airport carrying a package containing an explosive device he had constructed. The explosive device was inside two plastic bags, each tied in a knot, which Estes placed outside the entrance of the airport’s baggage claim area.

According to court documents, Estes constructed the device using material that is known to explode violently when coming in contact with a flame or other ignition source. Court records show that the explosive device also contained nails and a shotgun cartridge. Shrapnel, nails or ball bearings often are added to such devices to increase the devastation inflicted by the explosion. According to plea documents, the words “FOR GOD & COUNTRY” were written on the strike strip of a matchbox attached to the device. Another message, “FOR ALL THE V/N VETS OUT THERE!!!,” was written on the tape attaching a portion of a clock to the device. The alarm on the clock was positioned to go off at 6:00, but it was not actually set.

At approximately 6:30 a.m. on October 6, 2017, the Asheville Regional Airport Authority Department of Public Safety was alerted to the presence of a “suspicious bag” outside the terminal building. Law enforcement responded to the scene and evacuated passengers and employees from the baggage claim area. According to court documents, bomb technicians rendered the device safe
and it tested positive for explosive material. Law enforcement released a photograph of Estes, and arrested the defendant the following day in an area not far from the airport.

Estes admitted in court today that he purchased the material and constructed the explosive device he placed at the airport. Court documents show that Estes told law enforcement that we were getting ready to “fight a war on U.S. soil,” and that terrorists were coming to the United States. Estes told law enforcement that he believed that federal agencies were unprepared to fight the terrorists. Estes also told law enforcement that his intention was not to hurt the public but to devise a training scenario. He also said that he placed the device at the airport so it would be picked up by law enforcement, so that law enforcement would “now know how” to make a similar device. Estes also admitted to staging a backpack in the woods across from the airport. Law enforcement located the backpack, which contained some of the material Estes used to construct the device.

Estes is currently in federal custody. The maximum penalty for unlawful possession of explosive material at an airport is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A sentencing date for the defendant has not been set yet.

The investigation was led by the FBI and the Asheville Police Department. In making today’s announcement U.S. Attorney Murray thanks the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Asheville Regional Airport Authority Department of Public Safety for their invaluable assistance and coordination in this case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Kent of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville is in charge of the prosecution.

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