MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. — The U.S. Marshals Service on Sunday warned federal judges throughout the nation to be on their guard in opening mail and packages after a package bomb killed federal appeals court Judge Robert S. Vance and seriously injured his wife, Helen.
FBI Director William S. Sessions immediately dispatched technicians from the bureau's laboratory to assist in the investigation of Saturday's bombing at Vance's home in this affluent Birmingham suburb.
Late Sunday, the area around Vance's white-columned, two-story brick home was cordoned off, guarded by a single police cruiser, and a half-dozen vehicles belonging to federal and local investigators were parked in the driveway. Residents of the quiet neighborhood were stunned, and expressions of shock and sympathy poured into the community.
At a news conference here, FBI officials said they and postal officials had questioned Vance's wife, who remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition. She "has provided information that will be helpful," said Allen P. Whitaker, FBI special agent in charge. He refused to be more specific.
FBI Special Agent Tom Moore described her as "coherent and helpful." He added that she had telephoned a neighbor after the explosion, which occurred at 2:51 p.m. Saturday, and was outside the house in her van when paramedics arrived.
She had been in the house when the bomb exploded in the kitchen.
The device was far too powerful to be a letter bomb, Moore said. "You can deduce from the force and thrust" that it was much larger, he said, adding that it had seriously injured Helen Vance even though she was in another room. Authorities believe the package bomb was delivered by the regular mail carrier, Moore said.
Asked about security for other federal judges, Moore said: "They have been warned." He would not say if any were under guard. One federal judge in Birmingham, giving interviews to the news media, did not appear to be accompanied by security personnel.
While there was speculation that Vance's murder may be linked to the heavy volume of drug cases handled by the 11th judicial circuit on which he served, an official involved in the probe termed it "very unusual" for an appellate judge to be attacked because he is fairly remote from defendants, compared with trial judges.
However, Moore said that Vance, 58, "does handle many drug cases," adding that possible retaliation against him is among other possibilities that investigators are probing.
If Vance's killing did turn out to be drug-related, it would be particularly ominous because of the possibility that the Colombian drug cartels' war on judges had spread to the United States.
Vance, a moderate named to the bench in 1977 by then-President Jimmy Carter, died instantly Saturday when the package, said by one source to be a "nail bomb," exploded.
The warning to judges reiterated cautionary advice the marshals have given to jurists in the past, a marshals official said. Vance was under no special protection by the marshals and had received no threats, he added.
In addition to the FBI, Marshals and Postal Service, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and local police and sheriff's deputies are taking part in the investigation.
Vance was only the third federal judge to be killed this century.
U.S. District Judge Richard Daronco was shot to death at his home in May, 1988, by a former New York City police officer unhappy over the judge's dismissal of a sex discrimination suit filed by the ex-policeman's daughter. Charles Koster, the former officer, killed himself after shooting Daronco.
In 1979, U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. was killed by a sniper outside his San Antonio home. FBI Director Sessions, then a federal judge in Texas, presided over the trial of Charles V. Harrelson, who was convicted of the drug-related contract killing and is serving two life sentences.
In 1986, there was an attempt to kill Chief U.S. District Judge Paul Benson with a pipe bomb in Fargo, N. D., but a law clerk became suspicious about the package containing the bomb and it was successfully deactivated. The bomb appeared similar to one that exploded two days earlier at a nearby post office, injuring four workers.
The Benson case has not been solved.
In the Vance neighborhood, where Christmas decorations adorn huge homes and roadside mailboxes, residents expressed outrage at the killing and praise for Vance.
"He was extremely well thought of," said Mary Dean Gray, who lives around the corner. "You don't hear about things like this in Mountain Brook. Maybe in New York, Philadelphia or L.A., but not Mountain Brook."
"I couldn't believe it," said her husband, Jim Gray. Both said many here believe the bombing was connected with drug cases the judge had handled.
Frank Lindstrom, who lives two houses away from the Vance home, called the bombing shocking. Vance, he said, was "just a nice guy."