NYC Transit Officer is a Focus in Pipe Bomb Case
New York City police were investigating yesterday whether the young off-duty transit officer who reported finding a burning backpack in the Times Square subway station on Monday night might have actually planted it there himself and detonated the pipe bomb inside, several police officials said.
The explosion panicked riders and shut down part of the busy station shortly after the evening rush.
On Monday night, the police had at first credited the officer with discovering the device, warning commuters away, and burning himself as he called for backup.
The officer has not been charged with any crime, and the police officials said they had no direct evidence tying him to the explosion. The officer, Joseph Rodriguez, 27, spent much of yesterday in Bellevue Hospital Center under observation and was later taken to the offices of the Manhattan Detective Borough, before being released. The officials said he had just been forced to retire on a psychological disability pension and yesterday was to have been his last day on the force, the end of a short four-year career.
Officer Rodriguez was accompanied by a lawyer from the firm representing the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police officers' union, and denied involvement in the explosion, a lawyer at the firm said.
The police began focusing on the officer soon after the blast about 8 p.m. on the mezzanine leading to the A, C and E lines. The officials said their interest in the officer was provoked by his troubled psychiatric history, as well as questions that arose about his version of the events surrounding the explosion. They were exploring, for instance, why he had not suffered more serious injuries given how close he told investigators he was to the burning bag. The officials offered no details about his psychiatric history.
The bomb - made from a length of plastic pipe 6 to 10 inches long and about an inch around, packed with black powder and BB's - caused little damage and no injuries beyond those suffered by the officer. But it rattled nerves and prompted a huge police response in a city gearing up for the Republican National Convention next month amid heavy security and oft-stated concerns about the potential for a subway attack.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, asked yesterday at a street-naming ceremony about whether any evidence pointed to the officer, would say only, "The whole situation is being examined at this point."
Officer Rodriguez had left the Manhattan Transit Task Force office in the Times Square station a few minutes before the end of his shift and, he later told the police, he saw a blue and black nylon backpack on fire near the stairway leading up to the southwest corner of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, officials said. But rather than call 911, or the task force offices, or return inside, the officer called the task force looking for a friend and fellow officer, a senior official said. He wound up being transferred several times before reaching his friend and notifying him of the burning bag, the official said.
As part of the investigation, which was being conducted by the department's Internal Affairs Bureau and detectives from the Midtown South Precinct, the police were conducting a series of forensic tests on the knapsack and clothing the officer was wearing when the bomb exploded, officials said. Technicians were trying to extract DNA from any sweat that may been left on the knapsacks' straps, although the bag was relatively new, one official said. The officer's clothes were also being checked for traces of unburned gunpowder, the official said.
Efforts to reach Officer Rodriguez at the hospital yesterday were unsuccessful, and a woman who answered the phone at his Lower Manhattan apartment and identified herself as his brother's fiancee declined to comment about the investigation into the officer's actions. Officer Rodriguez, who declined to make a statement to the police, was released after telling investigators that he was tired from the night and day in the hospital. He was accompanied by an unidentified lawyer, the official said.
Investigators were also checking videotapes from businesses near the subway entrance in an effort to determine whether anything useful had been captured by a camera. They were also trying to track down any witnesses who may have seen what was happening in the station in the minutes before the blast, another official said. Detectives yesterday had spoken to one of two commuters whom the officer ushered away from the bag in the moments before the blast. They were looking for the second, the official said.
Officer Rodriguez joined the Police Department on Sept. 29, 2000, just three days after his 24th birthday, officials said. When terrorists slammed two airplanes into the World Trade Center just under a year later, he had only been out of the Police Academy about six months.
Yesterday, several police officials referred to him as a hero for his actions in responding to the trade center disaster, saying he had been buried under rubble, although they were unable to provide details about precisely what his role was. One official said that it was his experiences on Sept. 11 that led to his psychological problems. The officer suffered a number of maladies afterward, including significant weight loss, a person familiar with his work history said.
Before joining the department, Officer Rodriguez had worked part-time at the John Jovino Company, a gun shop in Lower Manhattan that caters to police officers, according to Charlie Hu, who works there.
A person familiar with his tenure in the department said Officer Rodriguez had not wanted to leave the force, and was faced with the choice of being fired or taking the psychological disability pension. He had been on restricted duty for some time and was recently answering phones at the transit task force offices, one official said.
The pension was approved on July 14, another official said, and he had been expected to go to the department's pension section sometime this week to fill out the final paperwork.
Yesterday afternoon, outside Officer Rodriguez's building in Little Italy, detectives were stopping people who came in and out of the building and showing them a photograph of a man. It was unclear whether the picture was of the officer.
Isidro Rodriguez, 51, who identified himself as the officer's cousin, said outside the building late yesterday that he had just learned that he was in the hospital. "He's a good guy," he said. "He never had any problems."
An aunt, Rosa Rivas, who lives a few blocks away, said she had heard news reports about the investigation but had not been able to reach her nephew. "How can he do that? He's not that kind of guy," she said. "I don't know what's going on."