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Man Held in Mail-Bomb Murders

November 08, 1990|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A Georgia man "obsessed" with a legal dispute was indicted Wednesday for the 1989 mail-bomb murders of federal appellate Judge Robert S. Vance and Robert E. Robinson, a Savannah, Ga., NAACP attorney.

A federal grand jury in Atlanta also charged Walter Leroy Moody Jr. in a 70-count indictment with sending other mail bombs to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the NAACP office at Jacksonville, Fla.

The counts also include civil rights violations and making assassination threats against all the judges on the 11th Circuit Court, as well as other people.

Moody, 56, is being held in Atlanta for trial on separate charges related to his attempt to overturn a 1972 conviction for possessing a pipe bomb--a case with which he is obsessed, federal agents said. Those charges include obstruction of justice, bribery and witness-tampering.

In announcing the grand jury action, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said the case "struck at the heart of our American concept of the rule of law."

He said that "tracking down the person responsible for these terrible murders and other acts of violence and threatened violence" has been a top Justice Department priority for 11 months.

But Thornburgh and FBI Director William S. Sessions sidestepped questions about whether the alleged motivation is racial or whether any other person is likely to be charged. Thornburgh did say no additional indictment is expected soon.

Vance died Dec. 16, 1989, when he opened a package sent to his home in Mountainbrook, Ala. His wife, Helen, was injured by the package containing a pipe bomb and bearing the return address of a fellow judge on the court.

Robinson, a black Savannah alderman, was killed two days later after opening a similar package sent to his law office.

Two other mail bombs sent to the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta and the Jacksonville, Fla., office of the NAACP were disarmed before they exploded. The incidents touched off intense concern about the possibility of an organized effort to attack the judiciary.

Thornburgh seemed intent on easing those fears in noting that no conspiracy is being charged and contending that the person responsible is in custody.

The indictment did not mention Robert W. O'Ferrell, an Enterprise, Ala., junk dealer and early suspect in the 11-month investigation. O'Ferrell's property was searched extensively by teams of FBI agents looking for a typewriter believed to be tied to the case. Thornburgh declined at the press conference to say that O'Ferrell had been cleared.

The indictment gave little hint to a possible Moody motivation except in a count involving Robinson's death, which charges Moody with interfering with federally protected activities. That count alleged that Moody attacked Robinson "because he was and had been affording . . . black litigants" the opportunity to participate in the U.S. court system.

A federal search warrant affidavit, made public Oct. 31, quoted a psychiatrist who treated Moody in 1967 and 1968 for "ambulatory schizophrenia" and described him as "extremely self-destructive."

"He thought violently about other people," Thomas M. Hall, the psychiatrist, said of Moody in papers that emerged in connection with his 1972 pipe bomb possession conviction.

"He thought in terms of knives and guns and things, not sufficiently so that he carried out any to my knowledge, but he thought that way," Hall wrote.

The search warrant affidavit also disclosed that the pipe bomb Moody built in 1972 and three of the four involved in the current case are highly similar. They were constructed in a manner unique among more than 10,000 explosive devices examined over the years by federal agents.

Vance was part of a panel that had initially ruled against Moody in his unsuccessful attempt to sue Florida for malicious prosecution and false arrest involving murder charges on which he was acquitted in 1983.

The 11th Circuit panel dismissed Moody's appeal on grounds that it was premature. Vance later joined two other judges in hearing Moody's second attempt to resurrect his suit. That case had not been decided when Vance died.

Moody's connection with Robinson appears tenuous: A colleague of Robinson's, Michael Ford, represented Moody in a bomb possession appeal before the 11th Circuit. Robinson and Ford worked for the same firm, Ford in the Atlanta office and Robinson in the firm's Savannah office.

Moody's lawyer, Bruce Harvey, said his client is innocent. "He intends to fight these charges, and we intend to show the people of the United States what really is going on," he said.

Seven of the counts against Moody carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment and the other 63 vary from five to 20 years in prison.

Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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