Federal Jury Deliberates Fate Of Man Accused Of Bombing Sheridan Office Building
Joel Elliott was desperate last year, a prosecutor told a jury in federal court in Casper on Thursday.
Elliott was desperate last year when he was looking at pleading guilty to a felony forgery count the next day in Sheridan County Court and desperate when he lied to a grand jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Healy III said during his closing arguments after three days of testimony.
In fact, Elliott was so desperate to "buy time," according to one of his statements, that he built an explosive device and poured gasoline throughout the Sheridan district attorney's office early June 4, 2014. The fire that erupted caused $900,000 in damage, according to testimony in the trial this week before U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl.
But whatever Elliott may have done, he didn't do exactly what the government's four-count indictment charged, his defense attorney Keith Nachbar said before the case went to the jury for deliberation.
The indictment charged Elliott with arson by means of an explosive of a building receiving federal funds creating a substantial risk of injury; using a firearm (in this case an incendiary bomb) during a crime of violence of a building receiving federal funds; possession of an unregistered firearm, namely a improvised incendiary bomb; and false declaration before a grand jury. If convicted on all counts, Elliott could face from 37 years to life imprisonment. (A count of using fire or an explosive to commit a felony was later dismissed.)
He was arraigned in April and pleaded not guilty in June.
Without admitting or denying Elliott did anything, Nachbar said everybody agrees that there was a fire, it was intentional, and it took about 10 minutes to extinguish. The fire was no more dangerous than any other fire, and the gasoline fumes had mostly dissipated at the time of ignition, he said.
Nachbar told the jury to look carefully at the language of the indictment and jury instructions because the prosecution had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, Sheridan County has received federal funding, but it goes to specific projects and not for government operations such as operating the county attorney's office, he said.
Nachbar also said the fire did not pose a "substantial risk," either, because it happened when no one was in the building.
The "destructive device" was PVC pipe a few inches long with a cap on one end and a piece of paper covering the other end, Nachbar said. "This is far from a pipe bomb."
Finally, he said the charge of perjury relies on a fellow inmate of Elliott's who admitted on the witness stand he has lied in other testimony, is a drug user and was known to exaggerate.
Healy had the last word.
He said other people confirmed Elliott lied to a grand jury.
And the device that set off the fire was an incendiary bomb, Healy said.
Regardless of how much damage it did or didn't cause, the device did pose a substantial risk to the building, the public and to firefighters, Healy said. "To say that it isn't an incendiary device is to suspend common sense."