And He Couldn’t Use the Discount Anyway

The Asheville North Carolina metropolitan area is home to about 425,000 people, making it the largest metro area in western North Carolina. If you’re a fan of the outdoors, it’s a good place to be — the region sits in the Blue Mountains and the city of Asheville itself is at the confluence of two large regional rivers. Be it hiking, camping, fishing, or anything similar, you’ll probably find a place to explore.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that REI has a multi-story store in Asheville. Founded in 1938, REI — it’s short for “Recreational Equipment, Inc.” — describes itself as “your local outdoor co-op, working to help you experience the transformational power of nature.” Basically, they sell a lot of stuff that you’d want to buy if you were looking to spend a lot of leisure time outdoors. 

And they’re also good for discovering the identity of would-be terrorists. But only if the bad guy really likes a bargain.

In 2017, authorities at Asheville Regional Airport were alerted to a suspicious-looking item apparently left unattended. Out of an abundance of caution, security came to inspect and found that this wasn’t a false alarm. It was an IED — an improvised explosive device. As NPR reported, “analysts determined that the bomb was powered by ammonium nitrate, packed with nails to serve as shrapnel, and set to go off on a timer — an alarm clock, minus its bells, set to 6 o’clock.” The bomb squad was able to defuse the bomb before it went off and no one was hurt. 

The FBI arrived on the scene to investigate. They reviewed the surveillance footage and were able to determine that the suspect was a white male wearing black clothes, which wasn’t much to go on; the Asheville area is roughly 90% white. They traced the materials in the bomb itself back to purchases made at nearby Walmart and Lowe’s (using surveillance tape from those stores), but the suspect paid cash, leaving no record of his identity behind. The FBI also found a backpack abandoned in the woods nearby, which contained some gloves, tape, and importantly, “what appeared to be an alarm clock bell consistent with the bell missing from the clock” according to the criminal complaint later filed against the suspect. The backpack was made by REI, so the FBI visited the local REI store as well. The REI lead looked to be a dead-end as well — while the backpack and some of the other items were sold to the suspect there, REI didn’t have a surveillance tape. And according to the store records, whoever made the purchase paid in cash. 

But he made a mistake. REI has a member discount program — for a $30 annual fee, members get a bunch of perks, including 10% back for all eligible purchases. And, perhaps without thinking, when the suspect bought the backpack and other terrorist tools, he provided the store with his member identification number. The store was able to cross-reference that ID number with his name, and the FBI was able to track him down rather easily after that.

The suspect, named Michael Christopher Estes, confessed after being captured. Per the Justice Department, he “told law enforcement that his intention was not to hurt the public but to devise a training scenario.  He also said that he placed the device at the airport so it would be picked up by law enforcement so that law enforcement would ‘now know how’ to make a similar device.” 

Either way, he was off to prison. Estes pled guilty to one count of unlawful possession of an explosive in an airport and was sentenced to 46 months behind bars and two years probation. It’s unclear if REI gave him the 10% back for the backpack, but in any event, there’s no opportunity to go hiking when you’re in prison.

Bonus fact: If you’re in Asheville and hungry, great news! You can just eat from the trees. In 1997, the city created the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park, a “food forest” featuring “more than 40 varieties of fruit and nut trees.” Visitors to the park are welcome to walk through and grab a snack off the branches. That said, as the park’s Facebook page says, “while visitors are encouraged to enjoy freshly picked produce from the park, they are discouraged from taking more than their fair share.”

From the Archives: Someone Set Us Up The Bomb: Fake bomb, real crime.