By Amy Hunter
Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier
Published: March 17, 2009
BLUFF CITY, Tenn. – By the time John Michael Leonard was found unresponsive and wired to an elaborate bomb Sunday, those at the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office were well acquainted with the 25-year-old.
Just over the weekend, they dealt with him twice, the night before and the morning of a dangerous bomb scare that resulted in the evacuation of more than 100 of his neighbors.
“I told [the Sheriff’s Office] what was gonna happen, and that’s exactly what happened,” Jeff Leonard, Michael Leonard’s father, said Monday. “This all could have been avoided.”
Leonard was taken to Peninsula, a mental health facility in Knoxville, after the evacuation of the entire neighborhood around his Hillview Street mobile home during a seven-hour standoff with federal, state and local authorities who worked to defuse the explosive situation.
Around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, deputies found Leonard lying on the couch inside the mobile home holding a wire attached to a bomb they said he constructed using oxygen tanks, gas tanks, a pressurized gas sprayer and a large cylinder filled with black gunpowder. The materials were connected by wires, PVC pipe, metal pipe and tape, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson said.
Carrie Plank, Leonard’s older sister, also said she wasn’t surprised when she heard about the incident.
“Not with the way he’d been acting the last two days,” she said. “[Making bombs] was a hobby of his, a fascination. I don’t know why; I guess because he was good at it.”
Authorities said they arrested Leonard around 9 p.m., when he left the trailer to go to his car. Afterward, bomb squad crews worked into the early morning hours to try unsuccessfully to defuse the device he created, Anderson said.
The bomb eventually detonated inside the trailer, destroying it. No one was injured.
Afterward, the evacuees from the 59 nearby homes were allowed to go home.
On Monday, members of the Leonard family talked about Sunday’s incident and their loved one from the living room of the family home on Mount Holston Road, where Michael Leonard’s parents, Jeff and Malinda, live.
“Something needs to be done because he could have killed a lot of people,” Malinda Leonard said. “Michael would never have wanted to hurt anyone other than himself.”
She was talking about the 24 hours preceding the incident, during which her son, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was acting irrationally and erratically – warning signs of what would come, she said.
Michael Leonard, who has suffered from emotional problems and mental illness since his freshman year in high school, began acting abnormally Saturday night while at his parents’ home, they said.
“He was agitated, kept getting madder – I don’t know what he was getting aggressive about,” Jeff Leonard said about the behavior that started around 9 p.m. Saturday. “He was stomping through the house, he hit the door.”
The elder Leonard said he told his son to calm down, to which Michael Leonard responded, “Why? What are you gonna do?”
The father asked his son to step outside because Michael Leonard’s children, ages 4 and 2, were inside.
“It was so unexpected, he just grabbed me, punched me and then left,” Jeff Leonard said of what happened next outside.
After hitting his father in the eye, he said, his son left and headed toward his sister’s house.
“Mom called me when he left, and while we were talking I actually saw Michael crash into a telephone pole, knocking it in half,” Plank said. “It was so bad, I didn’t think he could have lived.”
Plank, made aware of her brother’s mental state, sent her husband to check on the accident. After she called police, Plank went to the accident scene and approached her brother, who was violent, she said. He held a bat and threatened to hurt anyone who tried to get near him, she said.
When officers arrived, Michael Leonard was sitting on or near his car holding the bat, which deputies confiscated, Plank said.
At that point, Malinda Leonard arrived and pleaded with officers to take her son, saying he hit his father and could be dangerous.
However, the deputies said they could not arrest him.
Greg Simcox, operations manager at the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, said on Monday, “We can’t just go out and arrest people because someone else said they need to get arrested. He wasn’t agitated then, when deputies were there.”
Anderson elaborated: “He wasn’t intoxicated, he wasn’t irate with officers and he had a valid driver’s license,” he said, explaining why no arrest was made.
Deputies did take Michael Leonard back to the family home so he could get some of his belongings, and then drove him to the trailer on Hillview Street, Malinda Leonard said.
The trailer, owned by Jeff and Malinda Leonard, had been unoccupied since before Christmas, she said. Both the electricity and power had been shut off.
Her son used to live there with his wife and two kids, but moved back into his parents’ house when the couple split in December and Leonard’s wife took their children to live with her in Damascus, Va., Malinda Leonard said.
At about 10 a.m. Sunday, a car pulled into the parents’ driveway and their son got out. They said they don’t know who dropped him off.
Immediately, Jeff Leonard called the police, in case the situation escalated, the couple said.
“Jeff told officers to lock him up because of his mental state,” Malinda Leonard said of her husband, who wore sunglasses Monday to cover his black eye.
“He needs some help,” Jeff Leonard said he told police. “He needs some help before he does something else.”
Before officers arrived Sunday morning, Michael Leonard said he planned to kill himself, his mother said. But because her son did not say this directly to police, there was nothing they could do, she said the deputies informed her.
“They need to change that law,” she said. “Something needs to be done.”
Again, the officers drove Michael Leonard to the Hillview Street trailer.
A next-door neighbor and longtime friend of Malinda Leonard’s called and said Michael Leonard was “just out there, mumbling some off-the-wall stuff,” Malinda Leonard said.
Then, in a fit, he smashed the windows of a family truck parked at the trailer.
That’s when the next-door neighbor called deputies, who said they found Michael Leonard wired to the bomb in the trailer.
“They asked me if he had the knowledge to build a bomb. I said yes. They asked if he had materials to build a bomb. I said yes,” Malinda Leonard said. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think he’d come out of there alive.”
Michael Leonard was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007, after he tried to commit suicide by locking himself in the Hillview Street trailer and trying to set it on fire, family members said. It was late July 2007 when he lit the curtains inside the mobile home on fire after breaking all the windows and physically throwing his sister across the room when she approached him, she said.
He had one year of probation left to serve for a crime he committed years earlier, which the family described as an isolated incident.
He was 21 when he and a friend stole some jewelry from a flea market, Malinda Leonard said. He later turned himself in to police and was put on probation for four years.
In 2007, he was charged with three felony reckless endangerment counts stemming from the suicide attempt. Later, his punishment was reduced to probation, Plank said.
The 2007 incident made them realize the seriousness of Michael Leonard’s mental illness, family members said. He was hospitalized at Lakeshore Mental Hospital in Knoxville for a short while and placed on a series of medications, his mother said.
On Sunday, Michael Leonard was taking prescription medication, Effexor, Klonopin and Trileptal, to manage his manic depression, his parents said. Additionally, he gets counseling once every three months, his mother said.
Dr. Thomas Olmsted, chief of psychiatry at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Va., spoke generally Monday about bipolar disorder. He was not familiar with Michael Leonard or Sunday’s bomb incident.
“Bipolar and schizophrenia are the two major psychiatric illnesses,” he said. “Bipolar is a genetic disorder. Just having personality changes, or feeling angry one minute or sad the next, doesn’t make you bipolar.”
Olmsted said the onset of the illness normally occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood.
Michael Leonard first showed signs of the illness while in high school, his mother said. He managed to graduate with a special education diploma, which hindered his ability to go to college and find work, she said.
In fact, he hasn’t worked since the 2007 incident. His felony charges have made getting work difficult, and his mental state, his mother said, was not stable enough for him to hold a job.
In the last six months, Michael Leonard’s six-year marriage dissolved and a close friend died, his sister said.
“I had the false impression that he was doing well. I thought he was handling all that had happened very well,” Plank said.
Marsha Litton-Baker, with Mountain State Health Alliance, said bipolar disorder involves manic and depressive mental states, which can be triggered by situations and events.
“A person in a manic state has rapid thought processes and typically gets very little sleep or no sleep,” she said. “They can be easily irritated and easily distracted. Sometimes, an individual who is manic may have unrealistic beliefs about what they can do, show poor judgment or make poor decisions,” she said.
Malinda Leonard doesn’t know what triggered Sunday’s episode.
“With all these drugs, we never know,” she said.
Simcox, the operations manager for the Sheriff’s Office who was at the scene throughout Sunday, said he doesn’t know why Leonard made the device or what led to his recent problems. Investigators have not had a chance to interview him in detail and won’t until he is treated, he said.
However, he does not believe that Michael Leonard could have constructed the device in an overnight frenzy.
“He didn’t build this bomb on Sunday; this thing was elaborate, this thing took time,” he said. “I think he built it with intention. There were nails in it, all kinds of explosive canisters, and I think it was large enough that picking it up and transporting it would have been difficult.”
The Leonards don’t know for sure when it was built, but Malinda Leonard guessed it was done overnight.
She also speculated that her son likely got the equipment from an elderly family friend who he had been helping recently.
But, she was not surprised it was there, she said. His fascination with explosives started with fireworks displays when he was a child. From there, it grew.
“He liked seeing things go boom!” Plank said.
None of the family members were concerned that his hobby could lead to trouble.
Leonard is now using a wheelchair at the hospital because of injuries he sustained over the weekend. The nature and cause of those injuries were not clear Monday.
He faces a multitude of federal and state charges, but his legal trouble will take a back seat to his mental illness for now, authorities said.
On Monday morning, he called his mother from the hospital.
“He was crying, and he said, ‘Will you talk to me?’ ” Malinda Leonard said. “And I said, ‘Of course I will, Michael. Are you OK?’ ”
At the end of the conversation, his caseworker got on the telephone and asked if the family would travel to Knoxville for group counseling and to admit their son for long-term treatment.
“I said yes,” Malinda Leonard said.
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