Most of Bruce Avenue and the neighborhood around it slept right through the 4am May 5 bombing of a mailbox, including the owners of the mailbox.
Writer John Casey lives about 150 yards from the blasted mailbox and didn’t hear a thing. Paul Collinge’s house is three doors down from the bombed mailbox, and he didn’t wake up. In fact, most Bruce Avenue residents continued to sleep soundly that night, and many weren’t even aware of the bombing until they read about it in the paper.
Across-the-street neighbor David Murray seems to be the only one who was awake and who witnessed the explosion. The Cavalier Daily reports Murray was awakened by his border collie, Bandit, and heard rowdy UVA students parked outside his house mixing what Murray assumed were drinks.
What really set Murray off, says a neighbor, was the alleged bombers throwing trash– a toilet bowl cleaner bottle– in his yard.
A few seconds after a plastic bottle was stuffed into the mailbox, it exploded. Murray called the police and gave them a description of Jamie Hodges’ 1997 green Ford Explorer. Within minutes of the explosion, Hodges was arrested; his alleged accomplices, Gregory Van Wie and Christian Toraldo, were arrested the next day. All three have been charged with manufacturing a firebomb, a Class 5 felony that carries a penalty of up to 10 years. Hodges also was charged with driving under the influence after registering a blood alcohol level of .16.
When the bomb went off in UVA math professor Thann Ward’s mailbox, a jittery, terrorist-spooked neighborhood initially was concerned that he may have been deliberately targeted. However, Collinge points out that “if you blow up a mailbox on our street, you’re likely to hit a professor. There are six on our street.” And one source says none of the bombers had been in Ward’s classes.
Police concluded that Ward’s mailbox and another blown up on Rugby Place were random targets, and some Bruce Avenue neighbors speculate Ward’s mailbox was chosen because it was one of the few on the street.
The type of bomb allegedly used by the three suspects is known as the MacGyver, or soda-bottle, bomb. It’s a volatile concoction of household chemicals that explodes on impact or after pressure builds up.
So what possessed UVA students to set off a bomb that Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman describes as “amateurish but real”?
Was this a copycat of midwestern pipebomber/college student Lucas John Helder, who was trying to put a smiley face on the map with his mailbox bombings? “I have no comment,” Hodges responds.
“They must have been awfully drunk to do that in light of 9-11 and the midwest bombings,” says nearby Dairy Road resident David Nelson.
All three of the alleged bombers are members of Pi Kappa Alpha. Is bombing mailboxes the newest frat trend?
“We don’t like people acting like idiots,” says national Pi Kappa Alpha executive director Eric Wulf. “The chapter said, ‘Listen, this is completely unacceptable. You’re suspended from the house.’
“I’ve been here five years, and luckily can’t recall another incident that involves bombs, and I hope that trend continues,” Wulf adds.
Hodges, Van Wie, and Toraldo were suspended from UVA, and the name of Toraldo, a senior commerce major, did not appear in last Sunday’s graduation program. As for the fate of his buddies, architecture major Van Wie and engineering major Hodges, who are juniors, Penny Rue, dean of students, says that will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Neither Toraldo nor Van Wie returned The Hook’s calls.
The case was turned over to federal prosecutors May 17 and no federal charges have been filed as of press time. U.S. Attorney John Brownlee confirms that destroying a mailbox is a felony that can draw up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
And, while not commenting on specific federal charges, such as whether the three will be charged with manufacturing a bomb, Brownlee points out that federal penalties are usually more severe than the state’s.
Some City residents are outraged that they’ve heard so little about this case and by the perception that three white frat boys will get off easy for a crime that could have caused serious injury.
“If this were 21-year-olds from Garrett Square, how much light of day would they see in the next 10 to 15 years?” asks Mike Williams. “UVA students don’t recognize they have no special privileges here. These fraternity white boys have the hubris to think they can get off by saying, ‘I was drunk.’”
Williams finds it troubling that there’s been so little information about the explosives-wielding frat boys, while the Charlottesville High students who beat up UVA students were castigated nationally.
Did the UVA bombers get off easy? “They’re charged with pretty serious felonies,” says City spokesman Maurice Jones.
Certainly, facing up to 10 years in prison, the three students have irrevocably altered their lives. And senior Toraldo, who was reportedly heading to New York for a job in the financial district, has Williams wondering: “What’s that kid who’s going to work on Wall Street going to say about this reckless endangerment?”