Terrorist Bomb Suspected in Close Call for Wife of Vincennes Skipper
SAN DIEGO (AP) _ FBI investigators tried to determine whether vengeful terrorists were behind the bombing of a van driven by the wife of the USS Vincennes skipper who mistakenly ordered the downing of an Iranian airliner.
Sharon Rogers, 50, the wife of Capt. Will Rogers III, narrowly escaped injury Friday when she got out of the van after it was rocked by what sounded like two backfires. Moments later, a pipe bomb explosion engulfed the vehicle in flames, authorities and witnesses said.
Concerned that terrorism may have penetrated America’s borders, the FBI began a massive investigation involving scores of investigators, said Tom Hughes, special agent in charge of the local FBI office.
″We’re going to be working this with every available resource of this division and other divisions if necessary,″ said Hughes.
Ted Royster, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Los Angeles office, said he has assigned six ATF agents to help the FBI.
″They view this incident as an act of retribution against Capt. Rogers for the incident in the Middle East,″ Royster said.
A Justice Department source in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said investigators suspect the bombing was the work of terrorists. However, local FBI investigators would not confirm that theory.
″We certainly do not rule out the potential retribution to Capt. Rogers for his ... command in the Navy,″ Hughes said. ″But on the same token this could have been perpetrated for some other reason unknown at this time.″
Mrs. Rogers received a threatening call last July, shortly after the Iranian jetliner was shot down, from someone she guessed might have been Middle Eastern, The New York Times reported today, quoting an unidentified Pentagon official. The caller said, ″Are you the wife of the murderer?″ frightening Mrs. Rogers into hanging up, the newspaper said.
An unidentified Justice Department source told The San Diego Union that Rogers and his family received at least two telephoned death threats from callers who said they were acting in response to the jetliner’s destruction.
One of the calls was placed to Rogers at the San Diego Naval Station the day before the December bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, The Union reported today.
Rogers’ reaction to the van bombing was one of disbelief, according to a friend, U.S. Rep. Bill Lowery. Rogers hadn’t expected his family to be exposed to danger on the homefront, said Lowery, R-Calif.
Rogers said military personnel stationed abroad realize they’re in peril, but ″no one expects you have to be worrying about your wives and kids back home,″ Lowery quoted Rogers as saying.
Sen. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., who also spoke with the couple, quoted Mrs. Rogers as saying, ″Thank God this did not happen on Thursday because (I) was carrying six children in the van that morning.″ She teaches fourth grade at La Jolla Country Day School.
Rogers was in command of the Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser based in San Diego, when it exchanged fire with Iranian speedboats in the Persian Gulf last July 3. During the battle, an aircraft that Rogers thought was an Iranian F-14 fighter appeared on the U.S. warship’s high-tech radar. After the plane failed to respond to warnings on civilian and military channels, Rogers gave the order to shoot it down.
The aircraft was actually an Iranian Airbus A300, a civilian jet wih 290 people aboard. All died when the plane was hit by a Vincennes missile.
Rogers later said he regretted the deaths but that his decision was made in defense of his ship and crew. The skipper was backed by the Reagan administration, which also decided to compensate the victims’ families.
But after the shooting, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for an all-out war against the United States. Speculation after the destruction of the Pan Am jetliner focused on whether that bombing was in retaliation for the Vincennes’ action.
Mrs. Rogers was driving alone to school and was stopped at a red light when the bomb exploded at about 7:45 a.m. Friday. The pipe bomb, pieces of which were recovered, was planted on the underside of the white Toyota van, police spokesman Bill Robinson said.
An unidentified official told the Los Angeles Times that Mrs. Rogers thought her van had been rear-ended when she heard the two popping noises and got out to look for damage.
″She got out just as it blew,″ said Kurt Lent, a construction worker.
Lent, who watched the van explode, said he heard a pair of backfires, separated by a 10-second interval, and then a loud explosion.
″It went ‘Boom 3/8’ ‘Boom 3/8’, then ’Bam 3/8‴ he said. ″It worked real quick.″
John Christy, a masonry contractor supervising a work crew near the blast scene, said he ran over to the burning vehicle and saw a woman standing near it.
″For what had just happened, she reacted (like) a real strong type of person,″ he said. ″I called her husband, he came down here maybe about four minutes later. They embraced and went from there.″
The couple was taken to an undisclosed and protected location, Navy spokesman Cmdr. David Dillon said. Their son, who attends Colgate University, was notified and offered protection, the FBI said.
The Navy increased its security at the San Diego Navy base and other facilities, Navy Chief Petty Officer Craig Huebler said. Other Vincennes crewmembers and their families were notified and they were urged to take whatever precautions they deemed necessary.
The Vincennes returned from its six-month Persian Gulf deployment last October. It remains in port and Rogers remains its skipper.