CATHLAMET, Wash. — Newly released police records show that a bizarre July bomb-scare in Wahkiakum County was linked to the case of Sam Valdez.
The former Altoona Pillar Rock Road resident was sentenced this month to nearly 21 years in prison for plotting to kill his former wife, burning down his neighbors’ home, and unlawfully manufacturing large quantities of marijuana oil at his home.
The new documents show police suspected Valdez of at least one additional crime that he was never charged with.
On the morning of July 20, a woman — whose name was not released at the time — drove to Cathlamet to deliver a strange package to the Wahkiakum County Sheriff’s Office. She gave the deputies a roughly one-pound brick of silver-gray material, covered in a paper and wax wrapper that was printed with Cyrillic writing. She said she found the brick in the shed of her vacation cabin, located in another county.
Suspecting that it was a form of dangerous plastic explosive, Sheriff Mark Howie called the Portland office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Washington State Patrol bomb squad.
At the time, Howie and Wahkiakum County Prosecutor Daniel Bigelow said the woman brought it from out of town because it was likely connected to a significant local criminal case. However, Bigelow and Howie would not say which crime they referred to, or who was involved, because the case was still open. Under Washington law, police do not have to share information that could compromise active investigations.
“I just can’t say anything about this. Any little thing could just completely change the destiny of this case,” Howie explained in August when a Chinook Observer reporter asked if it was related to Valdez’s early July arrest.
Now that Valdez, 64, looks likely to spend most or all of his remaining years in a state prison, police appear to have decided there is little point in investigating other potential charges against him. At the conclusion of the March sentencing hearing, Bigelow said the Sheriff’s Office had officially closed the investigation, and provided a Washington State Patrol incident report and lab analysis that had previously been off-limits to reporters.
According to a trooper’s August report, the woman who found the brick of explosive plastic was Elizabeth Robbins, Valdez’s former wife, and the would-be victim of his murder scheme. Robbins told police that she discovered the suspicious object at a property she and Valdez had owned together. She found it stuffed inside of a duct that had recently been repaired or installed, and decided to call the police after using the Internet to look up some of the words on the packaging.
During field tests in July, the bomb squad could not identify the substance, though the look and smell led police to believe that it was one of several malleable explosives manufactured in former Eastern Bloc countries.
Later that evening, a special agent with ATF told the Washington State Patrol and local police that he had consulted with experts at the ATF National Center for Explosives Training and Research. According to the report, the experts “believed the block might be Russian TNT.”
About a week later, forensic scientists at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Tacoma found that the brick contained three chemicals, that, when combined, form a powerful explosive that can be detonated with a blasting cap.
According to the report, “When a portion of the material was exposed to a flame it ignited with a quick white flash which is consistent with an explosive mixture.”
The report does not say where the explosive originated, or how a person in Washington acquired it.
It is clear that police suspected Valdez of placing the explosive in the shed — Deputy Prosecutor Sue Bauer, who led the state’s case against Valdez, asked to have the brick tested for fingerprints, and he is listed as the “suspect” on the lab report.
The forensics team used high-tech fingerprinting techniques to try and figure out who had handled the explosive. However, the results were inconclusive. The malleable wax surface of the packaging made testing difficult, and the team did not find any fingerprints that were “of value for further analysis.”