Sullivan authorities arrest man who allegedly planned to blow himself up; home evacuated near Bristol

Jeff Bobo • Mar 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Charges are pending against a Sullivan County man who allegedly planned to blow himself up, and possibly his neighbors as well, Sunday evening in a mobile home south of Bristol.

Around 2:30 p.m., Sullivan County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a welfare check at the mobile home of John Michael Leonard, 25, 116 Hillview St., near Weaver Pike.

When deputies noticed Leonard through the window on a couch with a suspicious device that appeared to be a bomb, they backed down and initiated an evacuation of approximately 50 nearby residences.

Within two hours police had evacuated a quarter-mile radius around Leonard’s trailer, with approximately 100 residents taking shelter at Sullivan East High School.

By 9 p.m. SCSO SWAT members had been staged around the residence for around three hours. That’s when officers noticed Leonard apparently trying to light something.

The lighter didn’t work. Leonard went outside, leaving the alleged bomb in the residence. He was headed toward a van when SWAT members grabbed him.

“We think he might have been going after another lighter in the van,” SCSO Capt. Keith Elton said. “We can’t say that with 100 percent certainty, but I think that may be the case. He was trying to light something, either a fuse on the device, or to burn the trailer, and when his lighter didn’t work he went to get another one.

“He didn’t know anyone (police officers) was outside his residence, and when they saw their chance the SWAT team members took him down.”

Leonard was taken to the Bristol Regional Medical Center instead of the Sullivan County Correctional Facility because he stated that he had taken some pills. As a precaution his medical condition will be evaluated prior to going to jail.

Charges will likely be filed today.

After Leonard’s arrest, bomb squads from Bristol and Johnson City then began working on defusing the bomb, which was reportedly made with a gas can, oxygen tanks and gunpowder.

“It is definitely a homemade bomb, so we are still keeping people out of the area until they can get this thing defused,” Elton said. “There were several homes close to Mr. Leonard’s residence. It is a very dangerous device.

“We’ll be able to say more about the device itself tomorrow, but I think it’s safe to say that surrounding residences would have been impacted by an explosion.”

Police weren’t in a position late Sunday night to speculate on Leonard’s motive. Family members were called to the scene, and according to Elton some reportedly told police that Leonard “had some problems” and “...he was interested in making some explosive devices.”

Elton said the motive may be more apparent today after Leonard has been questioned.

Early reports indicated that Leonard appeared “semiconscious” when deputies first arrived. He didn’t have a phone or electricity, and police didn’t communicate with Leonard throughout the ordeal.

“We had the luxury of being able to get all the people evacuated, get our people in place, and deal with this situation on our schedule,” Elton said. “This area is really blessed with people who know what they’re doing from the local volunteer fire departments to the rescue squads, EMS, road deputies, SWAT team and bomb squads. This is a situation that we all train for over and over and over, hoping it never really happens.

“Today it really happened and all that training and preparation paid off.”

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