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The State

Man Sought in Power Grid Tampering

A suspect was seen removing bolts from electrical transmission towers in California and Oregon.

October 23, 2003|Eric Bailey and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Law officers in Northern California and Oregon were on the hunt Wednesday for a portly, gray-bearded man suspected of attempting to topple two electricity transmission towers in what police said smacked of domestic terrorism.

Authorities said the man tried to remove large bolts and nuts at the base of the steel structures in an apparent attempt to bring the 115-kilovolt electrical lines crashing down in a high wind.

"This is not your typical vandalism or some guy stealing bolts or a prank," said Police Chief Neil Purcell in Anderson, a town south of Redding where one of the huge, skeletal towers is located. "The wind could have come out and it wouldn't take much before you'd have a major problem on your hands."

The FBI issued a bulletin for police throughout Oregon and California to be on the lookout for the man, who was said to be driving a silver Toyota pickup outfitted with a white camper shell. A small, orange Honda motorcycle was strapped above the back bumper.

Karen Ernst, an FBI spokeswoman, said that no arrest warrant had been issued and that authorities were just seeking the man for questioning. She declined to identify the suspect by name, but described him as about 5 feet 11, with a hefty build, graying hair, a salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rim glasses.

Another law enforcement official said that, based on the truck's license and the man's description, they believe him to be Michael Poulin, 62, of Spokane, Wash. Poulin has a criminal record, with arrests on suspicion of attempted murder and arson. Police said he is considered armed and dangerous.

Police said a farmer checking his fields outside Klamath Falls, Ore., on Monday afternoon discovered a man using a large ratchet wrench to loosen nuts and bolts securing an electrical transmission tower that is part of the Western power grid.

About three hours later, a man matching the same description was discovered hunched at the base of a tower supporting high-voltage lines outside Anderson, about 150 miles south of Klamath Falls, by three workers from the nearby Sierra Pacific lumber mill who were driving by, authorities said.

Curious, the workers drove back toward the man, who wore a white hardhat. The man grabbed his tools, jumped over a barbed-wire fence and ran to his truck, authorities said. He sped away, nearly colliding with two other cars before reaching Interstate 5 and heading south, Purcell said.

The three lumber mill employees pursued the suspect on the freeway, getting close enough to snap a photograph of the truck. By the time the alert reached the California Highway Patrol, the suspect had "disappeared in the wind," Purcell said.

At least 18 nuts were removed from the tower supports, Purcell said. All of the nuts were gone from one support and about half were removed from another, he added. Two more legs were untouched.

Officials with the Western Area Power Administration, which oversees more than 16,000 miles of high-voltage power lines in California and other Western states, boosted foot and aerial patrols as a result of the episode.

LaVerne Kyriss, an administration spokeswoman, said it was unlikely the towers would blow over, even if all the bolts were removed. "It is possible -- if you got a 40 or 50 mile [per hour] wind, it could create some instability, and theoretically it could fall over," Kyriss said. "There's a possibility, though not a strong possibility."

And if a tower collapsed, there would not be a catastrophic electrical outage, she said. Since a pair of widespread blackouts rippled across the West in 1996, operators of the electrical grid have beefed up the system so power interruptions can be managed, avoiding interruptions, Kyriss said.

Law enforcement authorities were still trying to determine a motive for the sabotage. FBI officials declined to speculate, but Purcell said he suspects it was someone with an ax to grind.

"This could be a kook, it could be a disgruntled power worker, it could be someone in the Earth Liberation Front or one of those groups," said Purcell, who also expressed concern that the suspect might have used the motorcycle to reach far-flung transmission lines deep in the forests. He said witnesses described the small cycle as covered with mud and dirt.

In Spokane, Poulin's ex-wife and stepdaughter both said by phone that they did not know Poulin's whereabouts and were stunned to hear from the media that authorities were searching for him. "This is a shock," said the stepdaughter. "He left here about a week ago, and we don't know what he is doing."

The women, who refused to be identified by name, were hounded by reporters Wednesday but said the FBI had yet to contact them.

Public records indicate that the couple owned a coffeehouse that recently closed in the Spokane area and were active in the antiwar movement and some local issues, including an incorporation effort in Spokane Valley.

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Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.

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