'You don't forget something like that'

'You don't forget something like that'

At the First Assembly of God Church in Danville, there's no visible sign of the powerful bomb that exploded during a morning worship service on Memorial Day weekend nearly two decades ago.

But those who were there on May 24, 1998, still vividly remember the frightening boom, the smell of spent gunpowder and the gaping hole in the west wall of the building. And once they learned the blast was caused by an explosive device, they remember wondering: Who did this and why?

Some of them will reunite for a commemorative service at the church next Sunday.

"This is an opportunity to reconnect with people and remember this experience together," said Senior Pastor Ryan Harris, who vaguely remembers hearing about a church bombing in Illinois as a 14-year-old in Paducah, Ky.

The bombing was the second at a church in Vermilion County in a six-month period.

The first took the life of 46-year-old Brian Plawer — the Kickapoo State Park superintendent and father of three — outside Oakwood United Methodist on Dec. 30, 1997.

The second injured 34 Danville church members, many of whom belonged to the youth group, Extreme Faith, and usually sat on the west side of the sanctuary, closest to where the explosive device was placed.

The third killed 39-year-old Richard D. White — an Oakwood High School dropout with a long history of mental illness — and his pet German shepherd in his garage at 203 Grace St., Danville, just four days after the Danville church bombing.

Five months later, a Vermilion County grand jury implicated White in all three bombings.

 

Bill Adams had been pastor at Oakwood United Methodist for all of six months when the unthinkable happened. It was the week between Christmas and New Year's, 1997, a festive time.

ADAMS: "Wanda (Plawer) and her husband, Brian; my wife and I; and two other ladies were working at the church. Wanda was the editor of the church newsletter, and we working to get it mailed. We were in the fellowship hall. We had music playing. We were drinking coffee and hot cocoa and having a good time."

WANDA PLAWER, who lost her husband — a beloved community member — that day: "Bill and Cindy's daughter had come across the parking lot from the parsonage to ask her parents something. When she left, the back door to the church didn't close completely. Brian said, 'That's one of the things I really need to fix' because he did a lot of repair work at the church. He went to the door to pull it shut, then walked outside."

ADAMS: "Shortly after, we heard the explosion. It was very loud. It shook the building. Originally, I thought a car had hit the building."

PLAWER: "We went out the back door and immediately saw Brian lying on his right side. I could see that he had wounds on his left arm, but there wasn't any blood. I knew his heart had stopped. ... I ran over to him and knelt beside him."

ADAMS: "The initial instinct was to help Brian. As I knelt down, I knew there was no helping him at that time. I screamed for (Wanda) to call 911. Back then, no one had a cellphone. Then the EMTs and police officers came. Wanda stayed at the parsonage until her children arrived. As other people found out about it, they came to the parsonage as well. We probably had over 100 people there at one time.

GARY MILLER, then the Vermilion County sheriff's department's chief investigator: "We were in the investigators' office ... when we heard a call in Oakwood on the county frequency. They heard some type of explosion. When we got to the scene, the victim was lying near the sidewalk that led to the side door of the church. As we located some of the shrapnel ... and pieces of a cooler, it became obvious that some type of explosive device had gone off."

MICHAEL CLARY, then state's attorney: "It was a terribly cold night. When (my wife) Dana and I got there, it was pitch black. It seemed like they had half the town of Oakwood roped off. ... The more I found out about what happened, the more perplexing it was because Mr. Plawer was so well-liked by everyone who knew him. A motive was just nonexistent."

 

Later that night, Miller stopped by the parsonage to speak to the grieving widow. 'He said they were thinking it was a bomb of some sort, but they weren't closing any avenues of investigation,' Plawer recalls.

PLAWER: "They asked if there was anyone who would want to hurt Brian, but I couldn't think of anyone. I was like, 'This is Oakwood. Who would put a bomb in a little town like Oakwood?' Brian was very happy and engaging. Once you met him, you felt comfortable right away. He was always teasing and joking with people."

Local pastor PATTI WISE, who'd recruited Brian Plawer to the choir when she was Oakwood UMC's music director: "I remember asking Brian if he sang. He said he could sing solo (so low) or so high. He was a diamond in the rough. He sparkled. He was truly a light of Christ to his family and his community, and everything he did reflected that.

"I remember there were so many people who wanted to attend his funeral that it had to be moved to St. James (UMC in Danville). Even the balcony was full. The line from Danville to Stearns Cemetery was miles long."

 

Soon after, it was no longer just a local investigation.

CLARY: "They called in the ATF and FBI. Around that time, there had been some church bombings in other parts of the country, and the Justice Department in Washington formed a church bombing task force to assist in any religious-based criminal cases. So at some point, a special prosecutor involved with the task force came. She was referred to by law enforcement as 'the church lady.'

"In the investigation, they were looking for possible suspects, anyone with a prior conviction like property damage or arson or fireworks. They started pulling names of people with those types of backgrounds and were interviewing anyone who may have had a problem with the church."

ADAMS: "There was a fear. My wife, who was working at the University of Illinois, had been involved in dismissing an employee and had received threatening letters and communications, which we shared with the authorities. They did check out that person and dismissed her as a suspect."

GARY MILLER: "One of the many leads were these juveniles from the area. We spent a lot of time looking into them. I thought they were potential suspects, but I wasn't convinced they had actually committed the crime. In my mind, I was sure we didn't have enough evidence to charge them."

 

Nearly five months pass without an arrest. Then, on May 24, 1998, tragedy struck again, this time at Danville's First Assembly of God Church.

NICOLE (LEWIS) MILLER, then a 14-year-old member of the church's Extreme Faith youth group: "I got home from my eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., around 2 (a.m.), but I told my mom to make sure to wake me up, so I could go to church. I wanted to see Stephen (Haas), my boyfriend at the time, and my friends. ... Pastor (Dennis Rogers) had just called the ushers up to take the offering, and he started to pray. I closed my eyes and bowed my head, and then my world changed."

RAMONA LOGAN, the church's piano player and head of women's ministries: "I was sitting at the piano, hands poised to play during the offering. Then there was a huge boom, and smoke filled the sanctuary. You heard people moaning, but there was no screaming or crying. No one panicked. I think we were all dazed."

ELIZABETH (RUSSIAN) JEFFERS, a 15-year-old Extreme Faith member: "I fell out of my seat. I remember opening my eyes, and I had a ringing in my ears. I was on the floor and trying to figure out what just happened. Did I fall asleep and fall out of my chair?"

NICOLE MILLER: "It blew a huge hole in the wall, and I could see the sun coming through. My first thought was, 'It's the rapture ... and Jesus is coming to take me home.' I looked to my right, and Stephen had blood on his face and a blank look on his face like when someone gets shot in the movies. Then his knees hit the floor. That's when I'm finally processing something is wrong."

DENNIS ROGERS, the pastor's son: "I saw the wall come apart. The next thing I knew, I was getting up off the floor, and I couldn't see the hand in front of my face. There was so much drywall dust and smoke. I was hit on the hand by a little piece of shrapnel but didn't realize it at the time. I took off to the front of the room to check on my dad.

"There was an altar that was bolted down, and I hit it so hard across the shins, I pulled it up. My dad was knocked backwards and was picking himself up. I threw my arm around him and said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'Yeah. Go check on your sister and mom and start getting everyone out of here.'"

 

Before Rogers could get to his mother and sister, his father grabbed the microphone and said, 'Everyone remain calm and leave out the back door. God is in control.'

ROGERS: "There was no screaming. There was no pandemonium. It was very calm."

JEFFERS: "I remember my dad picking me up and carrying me out into the foyer and laying me on a table. People were coming up around me. I knew I was injured, but I couldn't tell what was injured. I think when you're in shock, your body kind of protects you from feeling things. When I was lying on the table, that's when I started to hear sirens."

JENNIFER (BREWER) PARK, then 14 and working in the nursery that morning: "It was a beautiful day, then I thought I heard lightning hit the roof. All of the parents started coming down to get their kids. Somebody said there was an explosion. Nothing was different on my end of the building, so I wasn't worried until my mom and brother came down to check on me, and my mom was yelling at me to put my shoes on and get out of the building.

"When I went outside, my mom was in the parking lot holding an IV bag for a paramedic who was helping someone. Then I saw all of the fire trucks and ambulances. It kind of looked like a war zone."

RAMONA LOGAN: "We gathered in the parking lot. They were bringing people out. Some people were covered in blood. You could see the wall was missing and the car windows blown out. One of the things that's still so vivid in my mind is we're standing outside and here comes another church walking down Walnut Street to be with us and comfort us. (The minister) had everyone get in a circle and pray over us. You don't forget something like that."

NICOLE MILLER: "I went outside and felt something trickling down the left side of my face. I touched my head. It was more blood than I'd seen in my life, and I fainted. The next thing I remember is I'm on the blacktop, and the paramedics are around me. I asked them if I was going to die and if my friends were dead. That was probably the scariest moment because no one answered me."

JASON HERZOG, then the church's youth minister: "Pastor Rogers wanted me to go to the hospital. I would go back in the emergency room and get information on the kids and then relay it back to the people in the waiting room. They set up an area for the families there. When I first saw the kids, there were a couple who I thought might not make it. There were a few kids whose injuries were so severe that they were sent on to (Carle Foundation Hospital)."

JEFFERS: "I remember waking up in the hospital in Urbana. That's when I was told a nail went head first into my right calf. Some of my left heel was ripped open, so I had to have that stitched back up. The reason why I was transferred from Danville to Urbana was I had some head trauma on my left side behind my left ear."

NICOLE MILLER: "I remember waking up in the ambulance going over (to Carle). I had tubes down my throat, and I remember thinking, 'Am I paralyzed?' When I woke up at Carle the next day, I was sharing a room with Elizabeth, which was comforting. I'd had a couple of surgeries to my head. I had a fractured temporal bone and over 200 stitches on my head. I still have the scar. They wanted to do plastic surgery afterward. I didn't do it because my hair covers it up — and it's a conversation starter."

 

Doug Miller, then a Danville police lieutenant, was on his way to his cabin — across the Indiana state line on the Wabash River, where the family frequently spent holidays — when he got the call to turn around and hustle back.

DOUG MILLER: "By the time I got there, they had the whole area cordoned off and secured. Everyone assumed it was a bomb because of the nature of the damage and what witnesses told us."

GARY MILLER: "I was at home, and communications called me and said we had another explosion at a church in Danville. I went down and met with (Sheriff Pat) Hartshorn and Doug Miller at the scene. I remember being concerned about what we had here. There had never been anything like that in my 31 years, and there's never been anything like it to this day. You're obviously 99.9 percent sure it's connected (to the Oakwood church bombing). You don't have two church bombs within the confines of Vermilion County, and they're not connected."

DOUG MILLER: "We set up a temporary command post at the old Win C. Smith dealership. After three days, we moved it to the basement of the Public Safety Building. We teamed up some of (the ATF and FBI) people with our people because they were unfamiliar with the territory and didn't have a lot of contacts. We were interviewing people and looking for witnesses who may have seen something. We had so much information to process. ... We didn't know if it was random or someone was targeted. I remember getting calls from the community: There was a suspicious package or suitcase. We had a lot of people calling in: You ought to check out this person."

RAMONA LOGAN: "Everyone from the church had to go in for an interview at our given time slot. They wanted to know, 'Where were you sitting? Do you have any thoughts on what could have happened?' I said no."

LLOYD 'BUD' LOGAN, Ramona's husband and then the principal of Danville Christian Academy, run by the church: "It was John Fitzsimmons who first began putting it all together. He was head of the men's ministry at the time. He remembered that guy had been there several times. He sat in the front row with his arms crossed. He'd been turned down for a membership."

 

Four days after the second church bombing, a third explosion shook the area, this time at a home in a Danville neighborhood. A person of interest — Richard D. White — was said to be living at 203 Grace Street. Authorities wanted to ask him a few questions.

DOUG MILLER: "I was at the public safety building meeting with the FBI and ATF supervisors when someone said there was some kind of explosion at a garage. We went down immediately. Our main concern was clearing the area and searching for any other secondary devices and making sure nobody else was injured."

KEN REFFETT, who lived close by: "I was in my kitchen when I heard a big blast. I went outside to see what it was. I looked down the alley and saw smoke coming from the roof of a garage. I didn't know who lived there. When I walked down the alley, the police were there."

CLARY: "When I got there, I couldn't get past all of the TV satellite trucks and media to get to the actual scene. They were blocking everything. When I got to the address, there was a little, old standalone garage that had been damaged. The walls were no longer straight. I found Doug Miller. I remember he was filling me in on what happened when somebody came over and said, 'You guys have to move now. See that branch above you?' There was a pipe bomb or there may be a pipe bomb in that tree. So we moved over."

DOUG MILLER: "(White's) name was on a list of many people to interview. His name came up at being at the church. He lived in Florida prior to this happening and moved back to Danville. We had an address for him, but it was old. The two officers assigned to interview him went to that address, but he wasn't there. A relative lived there. They said he was living with his mom and gave us another address. The relative called and said, 'The police are coming to talk to you.'"

CLARY: "The agents said as they got close to the house, there was an explosion and this person had blown himself up. He had a big dog that was his constant companion with him, and the way it looked, he held his dog close to him, put their heads together and set the bomb off close to their faces. He had a big, old car that was pretty beat up."

 

Almost immediately, the state's attorney thought: I've seen this guy before.

CLARY: "When I saw the car and heard (law enforcement) talk about his big dog, I remembered I'd seen him at Radio Shack when I had been at Radio Shack. His dog was sitting behind the steering wheel of his car. That hadn't been too far before that. ATF called Radio Shack 'Bombs R Us' because that's where you get parts for bombs."

DALLAS DAVIS, who lived at 217 Grace: "I never met the guy who blew himself up, and we lived there going on 30 years. We were at Douglas Park with the kids when we heard the explosion. I told my wife, 'That came from our direction.' When we went home, the police had the street roped off. There were at least three fire trucks and six to eight cop cars. They wouldn't let anybody go home in case there was another (explosion). My insurance company paid for us to stay in a hotel."

ROGERS: "Everyone made the assumption that this was the bomber before they really knew. My dad offered to do his funeral. Some people asked him, 'Why would you do that?' He didn't blame the family. The guy was sick and needed help. Unfortunately, it ended the way it did."

 

As those injured in the bombings struggled to turn the page, investigators began to learn more about their chief suspect.

CLARY: "They found out this man had a little shack in Florida, which was quite similar to the Unabomber. He apparently went back and forth between Florida and Illinois. When they searched it, they found bomb-making parts, which they sent to the ATF's lab in Quantico, Virginia, to be analyzed. The lab reports coming in connected what they found in Florida to all three bombs here."

GARY MILLER: "There was no question in my mind that this guy was our bomber. I don't think it was a question in any law enforcement's mind. But with something as important as this, something that put such a scare in the community, we needed a way to present all of the evidence to an impartial body, let them determine whether or not he did it."

CLARY: "We went to the U.S. attorney (Frances Hulen), and she refused. She said she would call a press conference and tell everyone he's the guy, and we don't have to worry anymore. Our group's consensus was, 'That's fine. You can have your press conference, but we think there are other reasons we need to have a grand jury.' In order to get the federal law enforcement officers to come to the grand jury in state court, the U.S. attorney has to give permission, and she refused. She said, 'I'm not going to let you call these federal agents ... because you're just doing this as a campaign stunt to get elected judge.' I contacted Senator (Dick) Durbin and explained the situation and through his efforts, all of the federal law enforcement agencies cooperated with us.

"In September, I started contacting the various people we would need. We wanted the two young men who implicated themselves in the Oakwood bombing to come in and testify, so they could make a finding as to whether or not they were involved. They were not the easiest to get to come, but they came. We also had to have the field agents that were tracking down White and the expert witnesses who analyzed the crime scene material. The main goals were to get everyone's statements under oath, have the grand jury come to a resolution and preserve the record, in case it was ever needed. The general finding was White had committed all three bombings. Additionally, they determined the two young men from Oakwood were not involved. I was relieved at that point."

 

'When you spend a career in law enforcement,' Gary Miller says, 'there are always a few cases that never leave you.' Twenty years later, this remains one of them.

NICOLE MILLER: "After I got home (from the hospital) and the circus kind of calmed down, that's when some of the anxiety set in. I would only sleep on the couch and that was only if my mom was there with me. I think it's caused me to be a little paranoid about certain situations, weird things like crossing railroad tracks or bridges that go up and down. ... But it's also taught me how to handle a lot of heavy situations. I'm a big advocate for peace, and I try to look for the positive things in life. I'm trying to raise my girls to know that bad things are going to happen, but to look for the good things."

JEFFERS: "Now that I'm a mom, it makes me want to protect them as much as I can. I think there's a healthy way to be protective and not instill fear in them. We still have to live life and enjoy life, and I still have faith in God."

RAMONA LOGAN: "When I see tragedies on TV — the school shootings, the Las Vegas shooting, anything involving a large crowd — it does bring you back and sometimes makes you feel you're not safe. We need to live in a way we know we're ready."

PLAWER: "To this day, I want to know why. The only explanation I have is he was paranoid schizophrenic. Having a nursing background and knowing that condition does give me a little insight into maybe what he was thinking or the voices he was hearing. I have forgiven him because not forgiving can eat you up. ... But I still have no closure. I live with Brian's absence every day. Nothing will be able to completely fill that void, but other things have grown in and around it. You go on because that's what Brian would have wanted."