FAMU bombing trial begins today

Published June 19, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

Few at Florida A&M University were all that frightened by a small pipe bomb that went off Aug. 31 in a bathroom. No one was hurt and hardly any damage was done.

The next day, everyone went back to the usual grind of a just-started year at college.

Then, on Sept. 22, another pipe bomb went off. And that one was accompanied by a racist phone call.

Although no one was injured, the call _ and the prospect that a campaign of terror was beginning _ lowered a pall of fear over the predominantly black college.

The students were relieved when an out-of-work former embalmer was arrested in October.

No bombs have gone off since then.

The suspect, Lawrence Lombardi, who is white, goes on trial today in federal court in Pensacola. The trial was moved there because of U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle's fears that some potential jurors in Tallahassee might let concerns over race relations in the community slip into their minds when considering Lombardi's guilt or innocence.

Lombardi, 42, is charged with setting off two pipe bombs and with committing a hate crime. The first blast went off in a restroom at an administration building. The second, nearly a month later, in a restroom of a classroom building.

After that explosion, a call came in to a local television station, laced with profanity and racial slurs. Ominously, the caller warned: "This is just the beginning."

The idyllic city-on-the-hill atmosphere of the college was interrupted, as real-world tension invaded. There were police checkpoints and officers with dogs on campus. Private security guards were hired to watch the buildings, which were swept each morning for explosives.

At the time, FAMU President Frederick Humphries said the 12,000-student campus was trying hard not to adopt a siege mentality. But he said, "It's playing with the very life of our university."

As prosecutors prepare to ask jurors 175 miles away to convict Lombardi, a former Marine who once had a snack delivery route that took him to the FAMU campus, the terror wrought by a bomber has faded. "I haven't heard a conversation about the bombing in so long," said Derric Heck, a senior architecture major from Brunswick, Ga., and the student body president. Last year, as vice president, Heck was one of the most visible students during the crisis.

"I've kind of forgotten about most of that," he said last week.

But people whose eyes have seen more threats and violence against minorities over the years haven't forgotten it.

"A lot of people will be paying attention to this court case," Humphries said recently. "People are paying attention with an eye toward: When is this kind of stuff going to end? And when are we going to respect each other?"

The evidence prosecutors will present to jurors is secret so far. Most of the court file in the case is sealed. The federal judge in Tallahassee who made that decision said some of the material is unlikely to be admissible.

In such a widely publicized case, the judge feared potential jurors might hear about evidence that may not be allowed in court.

Prosecutors aren't saying anything. Lombardi's attorney, Tim Jansen, also said last week he couldn't comment.

Lombardi could face life in prison if convicted on all charges.

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