Multimedia reporter

Trashy Treasure Leads to Felony False-Bomb Charge

THE NEW YORK TIMES, published 20 May, 2009

Robert’s Version from Damiano Beltrami on Vimeo.

As Robert Lopez tells it, his trouble began nearly two years ago when he plucked a bundle of fake dynamite from the trash in Brooklyn and took it home with plans to turn it into a piggy bank.

Now Mr. Lopez, 38, a career maintenance man with no criminal record beyond a 10-year-old marijuana possession violation, is set to appear in court on Thursday on false-bomb charges that could put him in prison for up to four years.

He is one of several people brought up on similar charges since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, after which the offense of placing a false bomb was upgraded to a felony from a misdemeanor.

“On 9/11, from my roof of my building I could see the top of the towers smoking,” Mr. Lopez said in tears the other day. “I’m not that kind of a person. I’m not a terrorist. I wouldn’t hurt nobody like that. Never.”

On July 22, 2007, Mr. Lopez was on the job, taking out the trash at the Cadman Towers apartments on Clark Street in Brooklyn Heights, when he found what he said was a bundle of clearly fake dynamite sticks attached to a clock.

“I thought it was cool,” he said.

The building resident who threw out the assemblage described it Wednesday as “just an old clock.” She declined to elaborate.

Mr. Lopez’s boss advised him to put his find back in the trash. But he decided to take it back to his home in Fort Greene, figuring hollow sticks were perfect for storing quarters. He was on his way when two transit workers saw what he was carrying and called the police.

“My partner and I saw it and thought, ‘God,’ ” Colvern Peters, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee, said recently.

By the time Mr. Lopez got back to his house on St. Felix Street, he was tired. It was a hot afternoon. He sat down on the stoop. Five minutes later, he said, “I’m turning around to go upstairs and already this squad car, 88th Precinct, is driving up St. Felix the opposite way.”

Officers jumped out, guns drawn. They did not seem to believe him when he told them the dynamite was fake. “This one officer got nervous,” Mr. Lopez said. “He was like, ‘Do you wanna get shot?’ ”Another officer, Mr. Lopez said, grabbed him by the neck.

David Lincoln, a photographer who lives nearby, snapped pictures of the incident.

“I tried with no luck to tell the police that the thing was not real,” Mr. Lincoln said. “Should taxpayers spend money to incarcerate someone like Lopez? Common sense is really swept under the rug.”

Mr. Lopez spent a couple of days on Rikers Island until his family posted bail.

“I was in a cell with 60 men,” he said. “When they found out what I did, they all were afraid of me. They just started to call me the Mad Bomber.”

He was indicted on charges of “placing a false bomb or hazardous substance” in the first degree, a felony that carries up to four years in prison. He has a date in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Thursday; his trial, which has not been scheduled yet, could begin immediately.

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which described the device in court papers as “cardboard cylinders digital clock with wires [theatrical prop],” declined to comment on Mr. Lopez’s case.

Mr. Lopez’s lawyer, Joshua Horowitz, said that out of every 100 cases he sees, “You have two that are really crazy.”

“This is definitely one of those two,” he said.

Mr. Horowitz said that prosecutors had not offered Mr. Lopez a plea deal but that he was not interested in one. “Lopez has never done anything wrong,” he said. “He will not accept a criminal record for something he did not do.”

If another case could qualify for Mr. Horowitz’s list, perhaps it would be the curiously similar one of Craig Cimmino, who in 2002 threw out a nearly identical fake explosive on Schermerhorn Street — just nine blocks from where Mr. Lopez found his — and was briefly charged with the same felony.

Mr. Cimmino, an advertising art director who had made his device for a college class, said Wednesday that he was released from his holding cell after his family hired a lawyer and he gave an interview to The New York Times.

“After they knew it was going to be in the paper the next day, and that it was looking favorable, they basically knew that there was really no case,” said Mr. Cimmino, 35. “They brought me upstairs and let me out the back door and basically told me not to talk to anyone from the news for a week or two.”

Mr. Lopez was not so fortunate. He coincidentally lost his job a few months after his arrest. He recently found a job cleaning up at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn, but has been homeless for more than a month.

Andy Newman contributed reporting.