May 9, 2002 -- The grinning suspect charged in a string of 18 pipe-bomb incidents over the past week told police he was attempting to map out a giant "smiley face" across the heart of the nation, police said today.
The first 16 bombs discovered in the string, which began last Friday, were arranged in two circles of eight, one straddling Illinois and Iowa, the other in Nebraska.
The circles could represent eyes.
The last two of the 18 bombs were found in Colorado and northern Texas, perhaps the start of an arc that would have had to end in Kentucky or Tennessee in order to resemble a smile.
The suspect, Luke Helder, 21, was arrested Tuesday night in Nevada, well to the west of the direction the smile would have to go.
"There was a comment made to one of my officers about his hope to make a smiley face when he was all finished," Pershing County Sheriff Ron Skinner told The Associated Press. Another officer confirmed the remark was made to a member of a task force investigating the case.
Suspect Meets With Parents
Helder's parents met with their son today for the first time since he was arrested.
"We are here to see our son in his hour of need," Cameron Helder said outside the jail in Reno, Nev., where the suspect is being held. "We told him we love him. I feel better, a lot better, after speaking to him."
Cameron Helder, of Pine Island, Minn., was instrumental in helping the FBI identify his son as a suspect. He called the FBI on Monday night after he received a letter from his son postmarked in Omaha, Neb., in which he seemed to take responsibility for the bombs.
The suspect's father extended his sympathy to the six people who were injured by the bombs, and thanked the FBI for helping him to see his son "so we have a better understanding of what is going through his mind and what is happening."
On Wednesday, a federal court judge in Reno, Nev., denied a request to release Helder into the custody of his parents, calling him a flight risk and a potential danger to the community.
Helder, an industrial art student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, was ordered held without bail until Friday, when he is to be transferred to Iowa, where one of the devices exploded and injured an elderly woman.
The judge also denied a request from Helder's attorney to transfer him to Minnesota so he could be closer to his family.
According to law enforcement sources, Helder has at least twice confessed to planting the bombs. In a tense cell-phone conversation during the high-speed car chase that led to his arrest Tuesday evening, Helder told of his alleged five-state spree, and did so again during interviews with police after his arrest, sources said.
FBI sources said Helder admitted making 24 pipe bombs and used a map to show authorities where he planted some of them.
Six more devices were recovered from Helder's car, along with two guns, including a shotgun he allegedly said he bought to use to kill himself, Nevada law enforcement officials said. Helder was holding the shotgun to his head when Nevada police finally stopped him on Tuesday, but then dropped the gun out the window of the car after talking to FBI hostage negotiators.
Learn more about Luke Helder
U.S. Magistrate Robert McQuaid Jr. also expressed concern about Helder's mental state, referring to the suicide threats the young man allegedly made.
"I'm sure his parents feel very badly about the situation and would do anything to help him out. Any parent would," McQuaid said. "But I don't think that is the test here. I believe he suffers from some apparent mental health problems in regard to statements about taking his own life."
Just a Prank?
Despite his alleged threat of suicide before his arrest, Helder presented the same kind of easygoing demeanor in the courtroom as he showed when he was escorted into jail after his arrest and as he was brought out of the court on Wednesday, smiling and nodding at the gathered reporters.
During the hearing he answered McQuaid, "Most definitely," when the judge asked him if he understood his rights, and said, "For sure," in response to the question of whether he understood that anything he said could be used against him.
A clergyman close to the family, however, said Helder apparently doesn't understand the gravity of his situation.
"The son doesn't realize the implications of what's happening here and I still don't think he does," the Rev. Dennis Kampa, who has counseled the family for the last 12 years, said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "He thinks that perhaps this was just some kind of a prank."
‘Mailboxes Are Exploding’
In Iowa, Helder faces charges of using an explosive to maliciously destroy property affecting interstate commerce, and with using a destructive device to commit a crime of violence. Charges have also been filed in Illinois and Nebraska. The Iowa charges alone carry penalties of up to life in prison and fines of $250,000.
A total of six people were injured in Iowa and Illinois, and devices were also left in Nebraska, Texas and Colorado.
According to a complaint filed Wednesday in federal court in Iowa, a letter sent by Helder to his father contained the phrase "Mailboxes are exploding" — the same chilling words officials say were found on letters left with the bombs, which were planted in rural mailboxes.
Luke Helder's college roommate at the University of Wisconsin-Stout had also called the suspect's parents to tell about a bag he found under Luke's bed that contained what he suspected were bomb-making materials.
Though Cameron Helder called authorities about his son, the realization that the young man could be behind the bombings "devastated" him and his wife, Kampa said.
"First of all they couldn't believe it was their son, and secondly, they had no indications that something like this could happen," he said.
The only unusual behavior they had noticed from their son recently was that when he came home for his mother's birthday, he asked for her Bible and then sat and read it for an hour, something they had never seen him do before, Kampa said.
When they spoke to their son after his arrest, he apologized for causing them any grief.
"The son said he was sorry for what happened and what he was causing them to go through," Kampa said. "He said to his sister, Jenna, 'Take care of the family.'"
ABCNEWS' David Wright, Pierre Thomas, Ariane DeVogue and ABCNEWS.com's Oliver Libaw and Bryan Robinson contributed to this report.