Arlington Cemetary Visitor Detained as Terror Suspect

Posted by BBC News on Jun 18th, 2011 and filed under BBC News USA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

A Marine reservist taken into custody under suspicious circumstances at Arlington National Cemetery early Friday sparked a hostile police response that resulted in road closures near the Pentagon and massive traffic tie-ups throughout morning rush hour.

Although authorities eventually determined there was no immediate threat to the community, they said they could not manage to take a chance. They observed that the suspect, Yonathan Melaku, 22, originally fled from police, had dubious items in his backpack and even told officers that the bag contained bomb-making materials.

Soon after Melaku’s apprehension, agents on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force descended on the scene. Authorities closed ramps to Interstate 395 and roads throughout the Pentagon in order to avoid bystanders from getting too close to Melaku’s car, a red Nissan identified in a wooded area nearby the Pentagon.

At some part, the Arlington County bomb squad used a device to smash out the Nissan’s window to access the car. Police reported they found no explosives in the backpack or the vehicle.

“We need to regularly be vigilant in the D.C. area,” said Sgt. David Schlosser, a U.S. Park Police spokesperson.

By late morning hours, officers and agents were searching Melaku’s home in the Alexandria part of Fairfax County. It wasn’t clear what they might have found in the red-brick townhouse.

Authorities said the occurrence began about 1:30 a.m. when police spotted Melaku in the cemetery, which is closed to visitors overnight, and he ran from them. Melaku was then simply detained by U.S. Park Police, regulators said, and told officers that his backpack contained bomb-making materials, including ammonium nitrate, a compound used as a fertilizer and as a component of explosives, according to a law enforcement source, who requested anonymity since the investigation is ongoing.

First tests on several baggies in the backpack did not apparently reveal traces of the compound, the source said. Authorities explained the backpack and its contents were currently being sent to the FBI’s laboratory for further testing.

Police also identified a notebook, apparently related to a class Melaku was taking, in the backpack that had the words “Al Qaeda” and “Taliban” written on its pages, the source said.

Schlosser said authorities learned about the Nissan linked to Melaku and closed off roads while experts were introduced to examine the car. The closures snarled morning rush-hour all through the Arlington area and caused a significant back-up on I-395 North from the 14th Street bridge to the Springfield interchange.

U.S. Park Police failed to say whether charges would be registered. This is not Melaku’s first brush with law enforcement. Last month, he was charged in connection with the vandalism of 25 cars within the Leesburg area. His legal professional in that case, Robert May, did not react to phone messages seeking opinion.

The FBI reported that Melaku joined the Marine Corps Reserve on Sept. 4, 2007, and has been awarded the National Defense Service Medal plus the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal. He has not deployed overseas, the FBI said.

Johnny Briley, 54, who lives in Melaku’s townhouse development, said an older man who is a cab driver lives in the home authorities explored. Briley said he has seen Melaku coming and going at the townhouse. Another neighbor mentioned he has seen Melaku riding a bicycle in the community.

Briley asserted the residents of the townhouse are quiet and that they frequently have visitors. “A lot of commotion, people going in and out, but they kept to themselves,” he said.

“I hope this is just an great overreaction erring on the side of caution,” said a neighbor who declined to provide her name. “All the commotion is a touch unnerving, but I’m comfortable that we’re dependable.”

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