NEW YORK — Police arrested a badly burned 49-year-old unemployed computer consultant at his hospital bed Thursday and charged him with carrying the firebomb that exploded aboard a New York subway train, injuring 45 passengers.
Police said they believe that Edward J. Leary was plotting to extort money from the city's Transit Authority. After searches of Leary's car, his co-op apartments in Brooklyn and his home in Scotch Plains, N.J., authorities charged him with enough counts of first-degree assault that if convicted, he will remain in a state prison for the rest of his life.
An investigation was under way to determine whether Leary may have been responsible for another subway firebombing incident six days earlier in Harlem. Three teen-agers were badly burned in that incident, and detectives said the explosive devices in both cases used similar materials.
"Based on some of the evidence that has been retrieved . . . it would appear that the motive was an extortion scheme, and it has nothing to do with terrorism or any international forces," said Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. "That is still preliminary. We are still going through some of the evidence."
It was understood that investigators had found a memorandum Leary had written to himself outlining future actions, including a draft of an extortion note he apparently planned to send. The target was not spelled out.
Other law enforcement sources said articles on explosives, boxes of batteries, copper wires, timers and several canisters of gasoline were found in Leary's house in New Jersey.
The Transit Authority operates the city's 842-mile subway system. Investigators were working on the theory that Leary planned an escalating campaign of terror to panic passengers and to scare Transit Authority officials into paying huge sums of money for subway peace.
Although Leary had not made any threats to the Transit Authority, a series of firebombings would certainly add credibility to a future extortion demand, authorities said.
Bratton, appearing with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and other officials at City Hall, said federal authorities and forensic experts found materials in Leary's suburban New Jersey home that "are consistent" with both of the devices that detonated on subway trains. Leary, who was listed in critical condition with burns over 40% of his body, is an unemployed computer technician who was working as a consultant.
In Scotch Plains, neighbors said Leary; his wife, who is a nurse-practitioner; and their son had moved into their two-story white frame house about a year ago and recently decorated it for Christmas. Other neighbors said they believed that Leary became unemployed several months ago.
Neighbors of Leary's Brooklyn apartments said he apparently had been out of work for most of the year and was trying to sell two of the three apartments he owns. He lost his most recent job in January when the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., where he had worked as a senior systems architect, fired him for "performance reasons."
Investigators said Leary appeared to have a sophisticated knowledge of electronics. That knowledge, detectives said, sharply contrasted with the crudeness of the firebomb he is charged with carrying on the subway--a jar filled with gasoline designed to be detonated by an external timing device.
The firebomb that flared through the crowded subway car brought both panic and heroism. People bolted from the train seeking to escape the flames and smoke, and in some of their minds, another bomb--a report that proved to be unfounded. Some riders staggered in flames to a station platform. Disregarding danger, other passengers threw themselves upon some of the burning victims, smothering the flames.
As the smoke and flames engulfed the subway car, Leary apparently escaped and took another train underneath the East River to the Clark Street Station in Brooklyn.
There, he approached a transit police officer, James McNamara.
"The first thing he said to me was: 'Officer, I need an ambulance.' I looked at the condition of this man and he was burned very bad from his knees down. I could actually see his toes."
As police prepared to escort an ambulance carrying Leary to the burn unit of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, officers realized that he fit eyewitnesses' description of the suspect in the firebombing.
The blaze aboard the train on Wednesday left a dozen people in New York Hospital's burn unit. Four, including Leary, were in critical condition.
New Jersey officials, who also attended the City Hall news conference, said they were reviewing firebombing incidents in the Garden State in an effort to link them to Leary. They declined to be specific.
Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau, who praised the speed and efficiency of the investigation, said the minimum charge Leary could face would be first-degree assault, carrying a sentence of five to 15 years. But since there will be 45 different assault charges--one for each of the victims--he would spend the rest of his life in prison, if convicted.