Speculation surrounds FBI investigation of Panaca bombing

Questions were being raised Friday about what prompted the FBI to take the lead role in the investigation into the deadly bombing in Panaca.

FBI agents spent hours executing search warrants Thursday in the small Lincoln County town, including at the site of the bombing, the home of former nursing supervisor Joshua Cluff and his family.

A neighbor said the search there focused on a utility trailer just north of the damaged home.

Cluff was the friend and former boss of Glenn Franklin Jones, 59, who was killed in the bombing that authorities believe he carried out. No one else was seriously hurt when two explosive devices detonated seconds apart on July 13.

“It’s obvious that there seems to be a lot more than just some sort of isolated revenge motive there,” said longtime criminal defense attorney Thomas Pitaro, who has more than 40 years of experience sparring in court with the FBI. “I think they’re trying to see if there’s a connection other than this personal animosity arising out of them working together.”

Russell Marsh, a former criminal chief in the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office, said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives normally takes the lead in bombing investigations.

“The FBI has parallel jurisdiction in these cases and often will get involved, for example, if there is the potential of domestic terrorism,” Marsh said.

Though the main suspect died in the bombing, the discovery the next day of a large amount of explosives and bomb parts in Jones’ 25-foot motor home in Kingman, Arizona, caused concern among authorities.

But Marsh and other former federal prosecutors said it might be unfair to read too much into the decision to use search warrants to obtain evidence from the victims in this case.

“It would not be unusual for the FBI to obtain a search warrant out of an abundance of caution, because you don’t know where the investigation is going to lead,” Marsh said.

Paul Padda, another former federal prosecutor, said people should not automatically jump to “sinister conclusions.”

“The process of obtaining a search warrant requires judicial approval and, therefore, it is totally understandable that the FBI would want to make sure its actions comply with the law and judicial scrutiny,” he said.

Pitaro does not necessarily share that opinion. He said the FBI’s actions in Panaca seem “odd” to him.

“Generally, law enforcement are out there trying to aid victims,” he said. “When you serve a warrant like that, it may imply a lack of cooperation by the victim in the investigation.”

Former federal prosecutor Kathleen Bliss added, “It could simply be a matter that they believe there is evidence tied or relevant to some federal crime and the victim just doesn’t want to allow them access.”

Bliss said it is possible the evidence agents sought had nothing to do with the Cluffs.

The answer, according to Pitaro, is likely in the sworn affidavits FBI agents had to submit to a judge showing probable cause of evidence of a crime.

Those affidavits are sealed, and the FBI and the Cluffs are not talking to the media.

Authorities could be interested in Joshua Cluff’s ties to LaVoy Finicum, the slain spokesman for the occupiers of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The two are cousins.

Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon police at a roadblock Jan. 26 after he and other occupiers of the refuge tried to evade it. Authorities have alleged the takeover was led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

In a telephone interview this week, Finicum’s youngest brother, Jody, said he had not been questioned by the FBI about the Panaca bombings.

Jody Finicum, who lives in Ely, described Cluff as one of his best friends. He said he had met Jones “once or twice but can’t tell you what he looks like.”

He said he talked to Cluff the day after the bombings, and the family has no idea why Jones targeted the Cluff home.

Cluff’s profile picture on Facebook is an image of LaVoy Finicum’s cattle brand.

Going back to the beginning of the year, his Facebook page includes several posts a week opposing gun control and abortion, attacking the Obama Administration and Democrats in general, and celebrating family and the Mormon faith.

His page is also filled with shared memes and links to news stories about LaVoy Finicum’s death and the ongoing criminal cases against Bundy family members in Oregon and Nevada. Some of those posts accuse the FBI of executing LaVoy Finicum.

A number of the posts Cluff has shared come from groups classified as anti-government militias or widely associated with the patriot movement.

He appears to have made two publicly available posts since the July 13 bomb attack. One is an attack on Democrats and gun control, and the other is an ad for a T-shirt that reads: “I Just Want to Work in My Garden and Hang Out With My Chickens.”

Review-Journal writers Henry Brean and Keith Rogers contributed to this report.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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