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Tower Saboteur: I Was Only Pointing Out Flaws

by Barney Lerten
The Bend Bugle, November 2, 2003

Like hider of box-cutters on jets, suspect says
he was trying to show weaknesses in security

A Spokane, Wash., man wanted in connection with sabotage of up to 10 West Coast high-power electrical towers by removing or loosening their support bolts was arrested in Sacramento on Sunday when he visited a California Highway Patrol office, seeking directions to an FBI office where he reportedly planned to surrender.

Michael Poulin, arrested as he reportedly prepared to surrender to FBI in Sacramento, claims his swath of tower-power sabotage only was aimed at highlighting vulnerabilities in system. (Photo by: Bonneville Power Administration (Inset: FBI)) A CHP employee recognized Michael Devlyn Poulin, 62, from his wanted poster when he stopped at a patrol office in south Sacramento around 9 a.m., seeking directions to the FBI’s Sacramento office, said FBI Special Agent and spokeswoman Karen Ernst in Sacramento. He did not resist arrest – and earlier had called The Associated Press, claiming he was only trying to show security deficiencies in the nation’s electrical grid system.

Poulin later was taken into custody by members of the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force and transported to the Sacramento County Jail, Ernst said. He was scheduled for an initial court appearance in federal court in Sacramento on Monday afternoon.

In a statement, Ernst said the FBI appreciated the assistance of a variety of agencies in locating Poulin, including the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Washington.

Crews last Thursday had found bolts removed from three of four legs of a high-voltage power line tower south of Sacramento. It was the week’s second case of sabotage in that area and the 10th such incident along the West Coast in 10 days, as the FBI intensified its search for Poulin.

Bolts were discovered missing at a transmission tower operated by the Western Area Power Administration near Elk Grove Boulevard and Waterman Road in Elk Grove, Calif., just south of Sacramento, FBI agents said.

The FBI’s Sacramento Division last month obtained a federal arrest warrant charging Poulin with damaging or attempting to damage an energy facility, said Portland FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele. That carries a potential 20-year prison term, if convicted.

Hours before his arrest Sunday, Poulin called The AP and said his actions only were designed to highlight the lack of security at the nation’s electrical towers. He said he removed bolts at eight towers in four states to spotlight critical vulnerabilities in the power infrastructure, a system that could be breached easily.

“We have a situation of one person, one wrench,” Poulin told The AP. “The person in question is 62 years old, overweight, arthritic, diabetic, half-blind and a cancer patient living on a minimum of 12 medication pills a day.” He said the Bush administration’s hunt for overseas terrorists overlooked domestic security weaknesses.

“I guess I’m trying to alert the public to the fact that you don’t throw stones from glass houses,” he said

But the FBI’s Ernst said the alleged “good intentions” don’t make up for extremely hazardous and illegal actions.

“If you want to point out vulnerabilities, there’s other ways to do it,” she said.

Ernst said the domestic terrorism task force “covers a wide variety of violations, including civil rights-type charges involving white supremacist groups, hate groups, groups that have as part of their agenda the destruction of things to get their point across.”

But that doesn’t mean the alleged actions of Poulin are being labeled as terrorism, as the Anderson, Calif. police chief did. “People characterize it different ways,” Ernst said. “We are classifying it as possible terrorism-related activities. We’d have to know more of a motivation” to proceed further, the FBI spokeswoman said, stressing that Poulin so far was charged only in the one incident and had been wanted for questioning in the others.

Tower saboteur parallels box-cutter smuggler

It would appear, from Poulin’s comments, that his stated motives parallel those given by Nathaniel Heatwole, 21, a North Carolina college student who claimed he smuggled box-cutters, bleach and modeling clay onto two Southwest Airline planes in September, and hid them in a lavatory compartment. The discovery of the items, weeks later, prompted a nationwide search of planes last month.

Heatwole told officials he was trying to show weaknesses in the post-Sept. 11 airline security system – and indeed, he had written to the Transportation Security Administration weeks earlier, telling them what he was going to do, where and when. Now, he faces federal charges of carrying a concealed weapon aboard an aircraft, which carries a potential penalty of a 10-year prison term.

“It was not a test,” U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio said of Heatwole’s alleged crimes. “It was not a civil action. It was a very serious and foolish action.”

The warrant against Poulin accused him of removing or loosening bolts at a power line tower near Anderson, Calif., on Oct. 20. Since then, the Bonneville Power Administration and various energy companies have identified nine other towers that have had similar damage. They include two near Sacramento, The Dalles and McNary, Ore., and one each near Madras and Klamath Falls, Ore., and Benton City, Wash.

The BPA, meanwhile, offered a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever is responsible for damaging the high-voltage lines.

Poulin also told the wire service he tried through his attorney to arrange a surrender for the past two weeks.

“The attorney general, because this covers any number of jurisdictions, refuses to tell me what I’m facing,” Poulin said. “Because the threat of a terrorism charge hangs over me, I could end up in Guantanamo Bay.”

The suspect told the wire service he was planning to surrender because he was growing tired of life on the run. “I’m sort of getting a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder,” said Poulin, who took part in several anti-war rallies earlier this year and has been active in Spokane’s Peace and Justice Action league.

FBI said Poulin had been in Eugene

The FBI in Portland had reported last Thursday, “Information developed by investigators overnight leads the FBI to believe that Michael Devlyn Poulin was definitely in the Eugene area this week.” An announcement out of the FBI in Sacramento said new information suggested Poulin was in the Eugene area as recently as Wednesday.

The FBI said Thursday that Poulin might have changed the license plates on his truck, which was spotted and photographed near one of the California incidents, and might be driving a different vehicle altogether. He also could be using the name Michael Devlyn, as opposed to his full name, and might have attempted to alter his appearance.

“The FBI is asking for people in Lane County and throughout the Northwest to help in locating Poulin,” the agency said.

Five of the targeted towers are operated by the BPA, while the other one near Sacramento is a Pacific Gas and Electric line, the one near Anderson is operated by the Western Area Power Administration and the one near Klamath Falls is a PacifiCorp transmission line.

“Because all the sabotage attempts were similar, there is strong reason to believe that they may all be the work of the same perpetrator,” the BPA said in a news release announcing the award.

The Department of Homeland Security had issued a bulletin to power industry and government officials, warning of the bolt removals. It reported increased security by federal agencies, and urged utilities to do stepped-up patrols and to weld the bolts to the transmission tower legs. But it also said there was no indication the incidents were linked to terrorism.

Barney Lerten
Powerful Turnaround Helps BPA Build Funds
The Bend Bugle, November 2, 2003

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