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Question of motive remains unanswered in 2016 Panaca bombing

PANACA — Weeds choke a now-empty lot where the horror unfolded one year ago Thursday.

The shattered home was cleared away months ago, but the evidence of what happened here is easy to find. The property is strewn with tail-light plastic, kernels of automotive glass and wadded strips of yellow caution tape.

The houses on either side are still undergoing major structural repairs. One of the places across the street still has plywood where its front window used to be.

Troubling questions also linger.

Why did an out-of-work nurse set off two powerful bombs at the house of a friend in this small, tight-knit town 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas?

Where did he get the explosives he used?

Did he act alone?

If federal investigators know any of these answers, they aren’t saying.

The FBI has refused from the start to discuss its investigation publicly, and local authorities say they have not been briefed by anyone from the bureau in months.

After repeated requests for information over the past four weeks, the agency’s Las Vegas field office finally responded to the Review-Journal on Tuesday with this: “It is the policy of the FBI not to confirm or deny whether or not it is conducting an investigation.”

Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said the last time he got “what the FBI considered an update” was late last year.

“It was nothing new and about two paragraphs long,” he said. “It was, ‘We came, we saw, we left.’”

The Investigation Division of the Nevada Department of Public Safety also has refused to provide the Review-Journal with any records related to the bombing, citing its ongoing investigation.

‘We just escaped the big one’

Here’s what is known, based on investigative reports and interviews with law enforcement officials in Lincoln County: On the evening of July 13, Glenn Franklin Jones, 59, drove a rented 2016 Ford Flex loaded with bombs to Joshua and Tiffany Cluff’s new home on Fifth Street in Panaca.

When Tiffany and her young daughters discovered Jones at the house, he told them he was there to kill himself and blow the place up.

The family fled to a neighbor’s house and called 911. Joshua Cluff was still at work at the Caliente Youth Center, 15 miles away.

Jones lit one bomb in the back of the house, drove the vehicle to the front of the house, lit a second bomb and shot himself before the explosives detonated.

The sun was still up in Panaca, and people were out mowing their lawns and walking around when the first bomb went off.

“It took my breath away, literally,” said Sheriff Lee, who was in his backyard with his dog about a block and a half away.

Mike Bivins, who lives directly across the street from the scene of the attack, stayed inside watching “The Walking Dead” after the first explosion. The Air Force frequently trains in the area, so Bivins thought the concussion was a sonic boom from a fighter jet.

Then the second bomb detonated, mangling the back of the Cluffs’ house.

That’s the blast that blew out six of Bivins’ windows and sent the dishes spilling out of his cupboards and onto the floor. Bivins ran outside to find body parts and pieces of a handgun in his yard.

Lincoln County District Attorney Daniel Hooge, who also lives in the neighborhood, said he thought his front door had been kicked in.

“I ran outside, and there was just this big mushroom cloud of smoke,” he said. “I thought maybe one of the Air Force planes had gone down or something.”

The explosions smashed the Cluffs’ house and obliterated Jones’ rented vehicle, leaving behind a crater in the dirt about 3 feet deep.

Heavy bomb shrapnel rained down on Panaca. Chunks of metal could be heard thudding against the roofs up to half a mile away.

Many of the volunteer firefighters in town were on the way to the scene before the page went out, because they knew something disastrous had happened.

Lee initially told dispatch to prepare for 20 to 30 casualties.

The only patient turned out to be a 9-year-old boy on a bicycle who was hit with a piece of debris that didn’t break the skin. The only person killed was the bomber himself.

“We just escaped the big one,” Lee said. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been a mass casualty.”

Strange tattoo, no clear motive

Despite the lack of information from federal investigators, both Lee and Hooge think a personal grudge between Jones and Joshua Cluff prompted the attack.

The two worked together at Grover C. Dils Medical Center in Caliente, and they stayed friends after Jones voluntarily left his nursing position at the hospital in August 2015 and eventually moved to an RV park in Kingman, Arizona.

Jones listed Joshua Cluff as his emergency contact when he registered at the RV park.

That’s where Jones was living in March 2016 when Nevada regulators stripped him of his state nursing license for mishandling morphine during his time at Lincoln County’s only hospital.

At some point during their friendship, Jones reportedly gave Joshua Cluff a “significant amount” of money, Hooge said, and there was a dispute about whether it was a loan or a gift.

Just hours before Jones blew the house up, he told two local men — including a bishop at the local church — that Joshua Cluff owed him money and he wanted it back, Hooge said.

“We’re pretty sure that was the motive, because he mentioned it twice that same day to people,” the district attorney said. “I could see him being the quiet type that just kind of lets things build up, and then he snapped and really wanted to do something big.”

Hooge and Lee said they didn’t know where Jones got the bombs he used, but they described them as modified military-type weapons, possibly mortar rounds or artillery shells.

After the bombing, authorities in Arizona removed more than a dozen explosive devices from Jones’ RV and recovered several of his journals and notebooks, including one describing plans to blow up a Bureau of Land Management facility.

Joshua Cluff told police he last saw Jones about two weeks before the attack, when the man showed up acting strangely and sporting a new tattoo.

When asked about it recently, Lee had to look at the crime scene photos to confirm what the tattoo said. On the upper left side of Jones’ chest were the letters “DNR,” as in “do not resuscitate.” Above that was Joshua Cluff’s phone number.

Small town life goes on

About a month after the bombing, a demolition crew tore down and hauled away what was left of the house on Fifth Street.

County records still list Joshua and Tiffany Cluff as the owners of the vacant property, but the family moved to Idaho sometime last year.

The Cluffs could not be reached for comment on this story.

Hooge said he hasn’t heard from them since they left town.

Lee said the last time he spoke to Joshua Cluff was in late October, when the sheriff arranged a tense meeting between the man and the FBI so Cluff could get back some personal property that was confiscated during the investigation.

Despite all the unanswered questions about the attack, Hooge said Panaca seems to have moved on, too.

“Every once in a while you’ll have someone find a piece of shrapnel or something like that. It’s almost like collectively we kind of forget about it until someone brings something up,” he said. “It’s almost like it never happened.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter. Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Wesley Juhl and photographer Elizabeth Brumley contributed to this story.

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