Man accused of bombings goes to trial; ex-police technician charged with blasts
Henry K. Lee
(FREEMONT, Calif.) -- Three years after a series of bombings rocked the city, a former police evidence technician goes to trial today in what authorities have called a vengeful -- if not misdirected -- campaign against local police and a family with whom he had a grudge. Rodney Joel Blach, 54, an eccentric conspiracy theorist who once wrote that any person who wronged him was a "rightful victim" of his ire, is charged in a three-day wave of explosions that included firebombs left at the homes of Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler and City Councilman and former Police Chief Robert Wasserman and pipe-bomb blasts that rocked two exclusive homes.
No one was hurt in the bombings, but the blasts sparked the most intense criminal investigation in Fremont's history and shattered the normal tranquility of a city unaccustomed to such high-profile crimes.
Today, in the Hayward courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard, a six-man, six-woman jury will hear opening statements by Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Tom Rogers in a trial that could last up to four months.
Jurors will hear testimony that Blach, a former Chicago police evidence technician who remains in custody, had a long-standing grudge against Fremont resident Terry Lee Ritter, 48, and his wife, Shamim Siddiq Ritter, 42, a real-estate loan agent.
Blach believed that the Ritters were involved in real-estate fraud and police-sanctioned drug running as part of the "Afghan Mafia" and targeted them in one bombing after authorities did not believe his theories, prosecutors say. Blach's anger was also rooted in an unrequited crush on Mina Siddiq, Shamim Siddiq Ritter's sister-in-law, prosecutors said.
But defense attorney William Linehan of Hayward said prosecutors have built a largely circumstantial case against his client. "They have no evidence that Blach did these bombings," Linehan said.
Penny Coppernoll-Blach has maintained her husband's innocence since his October 1999 arrest in San Diego, where the couple moved from Fremont after Fremont police and agents with the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began focusing on him.
"It's all fluff," said Coppernoll-Blach, 50, a librarian. "It will only be character assassination, and it's all geared to discredit him."
An Alameda County grand jury in Oakland returned an 11-count indictment last year charging Blach with premeditated attempted murder of the Ritters and police officers as well as with arson and possessing explosives.
The blasts began on March 29, 1998, with the predawn firebombing of the home of Police Chief Steckler as he and his wife, Casey, slept inside. Hours later, police thwarted a firebombing outside Wasserman's home.
That night, time-delayed pipe-bomb blasts jolted a $1 million home on Corte del Sol in the city's exclusive Mission San Jose district. The intended victims of that bombing were the Ritters, who had made a bid on the home -- but never bought it, authorities say.
After Blach planted time-delayed pipe bombs underneath the home in September 1997, he learned that the Ritters would not be occupying it, authorities said. Instead, Chin-Chan Chi, 48, and his family moved in. When the bomb exploded, Chi's then-17-year-old daughter barely escaped injury, prosecutors said.
"I really did believe that my family could have been killed or severely injured," Ritter said.
Minutes after the blast, Blach allegedly used a voice-disguising device to warn police about another pipe bomb underneath a home under construction. That device, prosecutors say, was meant as a booby trap and detonated as a bomb squad tried to defuse it the next day.
On March 31, 1998, an exploded pipe bomb was found in a backpack near a water tower, an attempt by Blach, prosecutors say, to cast suspicion on his friend, Tim Rollisson, an Alameda County Water District board member who later steered authorities to the suspect. The blasts at the homes of Wasserman and Steckler were also meant as distractions, authorities said.
Blach has suggested that police planted evidence in a San Jose storage locker to pin the blame on him. Prosecutors counter that Blach kept bomb-making books, gunpowder and dangerous chemicals like picric in the locker, which was rented by a homeless man after Blach paid him.
"He's got a chance maybe of acquittal, but I think once everybody sees the evidence, it's going to be hard for anyone to believe that he was framed," Rollisson said.
Steckler, who has been in the unusual position of being both a crime victim and the top cop overseeing his department's investigation, adamantly denies Blach's claims of police corruption. "There's just no truth to it," the chief said.
The 100 witnesses at the trial will include county officials who had run-ins with Blach before the bombings and astrologer Vicki Hill, who testified that Blach prepared charts to calculate the most evil day to plan his alleged attacks. Blach timed the bombing at the would-be Ritter home to coincide with a Muslim holiday, authorities said.
"The defendant has a monomaniacal obsession with the Siddiqs," Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Paul Hora wrote in court documents. "He believed that the Siddiqs were involved in loan/insurance fraud, stealing vehicles and drug trafficking."
According to Rogers, Blach also harbored a grudge against a number of companies and people who he believed were responsible for perceived foundation problems at his former Fremont home.
Prosecutors will be allowed to call witnesses who will testify about alleged plans by Blach to deliver a safe filled with ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in bombs, to Western Relocation Management in Walnut Creek in 1996. Prosecutors say Blach had had dealings with the real estate firm in the past and had hoped to detonate the bomb by remote control and plant a transmitting box at a nearby Century 21 real estate office to make it look like Century 21 was responsible.
Blach also allegedly plotted to bomb the Washington state home of Michael Muench, a real estate agent who once lived in Blach's home. Blach also wanted to bomb the home of San Jose attorney Walter MacDonald Jr., who represented Muench, prosecutors say.
"I guess when I found out about it, I was concerned," MacDonald said. "I wish I never heard from this guy," he said of Blach.
These incidents, together with the Fremont bombing spree and copious notes that detailed his plans, paint a picture of a man "whose entire life was consumed with his errant thoughts of conspiracy," prosecutor Hora wrote.
At trial, jurors will also hear about the makeup of the bombs. The pipe bombs used Casio watches as timing circuits and sparkplugs as igniters, while the Wasserman and Steckler devices were hidden in Raley's grocery bags and included electric matches as igniters, authorities said.
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