Gloucester man was on police radar before Williamsburg blast

Contact Reporterjlarouejr@vagazette.com

Stephen James Powers was a familiar face around Williamsburg.

Powers was arrested Friday, a day after an improvised explosive device detonated in the parking lot behind Berret’s Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill. The Hayes man had worked in the maintenance department at Colonial Williamsburg for more than two years, according to documents filed in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court.

In the days prior to Thursday’s explosion, Powers had several interactions with Colonial Williamsburg security and Williamsburg police and fire personnel, according to the criminal complaint. None of those interactions warranted an arrest, but they placed Powers on police’s radar.

When his photograph was released along with information about his arrest, it got the attention of Binns of Williamsburg Vice President Thomas Smith.

Powers, 30, had performed work in the last week on the heating and ventilation system inside Binns, and was in and out of the building multiple times, Smith said. That’s what he said alarmed him and prompted a call to police Monday afternoon.

“It wasn’t until we saw his picture released that we knew he was someone who had been coming in and out of the building,” Smith said. “He would stop by on a regular basis to just talk to employees and say hello and check on things.”

But Williamsburg Police spokesman Maj. Greg Riley said Powers was also a familiar face elsewhere in the area.

“This is not the first time in the past several days that we’ve received similar calls and had a similar reaction,” Riley said.

“(Sunday) morning, a church located on Merrimac Trail — Mr. Powers attended some sort of function at the church last week, and exactly the same sort of concern was expressed and we did the exact same thing there,” Riley said.

The device

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Virginia State Police determined the device was a pipe bomb. They found the main body of the device about 75 yards from where the explosion occurred in the grass across the street; portions of the end caps to the pipe landed on the roof of Berret’s, the criminal complaint states.

The investigation centered around the parking lot between Francis Street and the back side of buildings that line Duke of Gloucester Street; the FBI and ATF spent much of Friday there.

Two people sitting in a car directly in front of the explosion were not injured, and one of them said she smelled fireworks or something similar to a rotten egg odor after the explosion, the criminal complaint stated.

Police said in the complaint that the pipe bomb appeared to have been placed in the mulch beneath a tree in the parking lot. Powers bought some materials used them to make the device — including three plastic jars of Benchmark Smokeless powder — at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Bass Pro Shop in Hampton while he was with his one-and-a-half-year-old son.

The buildup to the bomb

The investigation into Powers appears to have begun more than a week before the blast, according to the criminal complaint.

On Oct. 11, eight days before the detonation, the Williamsburg Fire Department and Colonial Williamsburg responded to the maintenance office in a basement below Chico's at 422 W. Duke of Gloucester St. for the smell of sulfur, the criminal complaint states.

Firefighters found a haze outside the building. The area was searched, but nothing of importance was found, the document states.

Powers told a fire department official he was checking the boilers in the Block 23 building, and a Chico's employee asked him to check an odor in the basement.

A day later, on Oct. 12, the Williamsburg Police Department was dispatched to the area behind Chico's; Powers was again at the scene and told police he found a handwritten note on the outside door that leads to the maintenance office which said, "I’m sorry my device did not work last night. — D”

Two days later, Powers reported another letter taped to the same door, mentioning the word “Adramelech,” and told police that only people he served with in Iraq would know that.

While Powers did serve in the military — on active duty in the Air Force as a dental technician from 2006 to 2007 — he fabricated the story about serving in Iraq, according to the criminal complaint.

“It is very unlikely that anyone other than Powers created the second letter since according to Powers, the only person who knows the significance of the word ‘Adramelech’ served with him in Iraq," the complaint states.

On Oct. 17, two days before the explosion, Powers was told by superiors not to report to work. The day before the blast, Powers reported receiving another letter in the mail.

Powers told investigators he had been traveling past Williamsburg on the Colonial Parkway on his way to pick up his wife at about 3:30 p.m. on the day of the blast.

The following day, investigators interviewed Powers at his home and found evidence of bomb-making materials, the criminal complaint states.

Powers was denied bond in a Monday morning hearing in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court. He will have another hearing in the same court at 2 p.m. Dec. 7, according to the court docket. He is charged with possessing and using an explosive device and committing an act of terrorism following the detonation of an improvised explosive device, Riley said.

The terrorism charge, according to Riley, is the first that he can recall in his 27 years with the Williamsburg Police Department.

Bankruptcy in Powers’ past

Powers and his wife, Tiffany Lynn Powers, filed for and received Chapter 7 bankruptcy from U.S. bankruptcy court in Newport News in February 2014. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, debtors are required to turn over their nonexempt property to a trustee, who sells the assets and uses the money to pay off creditors.

The Powers had $8,197 in assets and $44,881 in liabilities, primarily to creditors and for medical bills, according to the bankruptcy filing.

At the time, Stephen Powers was employed as a clerk in a 7-Eleven for six months, while Tiffany Powers had been working for two years at Tidewater Physicians Multispec Group in Newport News. The couple had monthly expenses of $2,885, and a monthly combined income of $2,842.

The aftermath

The aftermath of last Thursday's explosion did not scare people away from the College of William and Mary homecoming activities.

“The fact that they've already captured the guy gives a little bit of confidence,” said Bob Hesse, a 1984 William and Mary graduate who was in Merchants Square Saturday. “It sounded like they really had their ducks in a row, figured out exactly what the situation was, brought the pros in from the FBI and got the job done.”

But it made Williamsburg resident Larry Morning a little more leery about working in the area. Morning, who works as a custodian for Red Coats Inc., a Colonial Williamsburg contractor, could not access one of his work areas in the Henry Street Shops Friday while the investigation was ongoing.

“I was surprised, because little small town, lots of nice things are happening here, everybody smiling and all that, who would ever think something like that would have happened here?” Morning said. “But then, they say it’ll never happen in your town, but yet, when you look, there it is, right there.”

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at jlarouejr@vagazette.com or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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