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Nashville police defend response to 2019 tip that Christmas bomber was building explosives

Nashville Police Chief John Drake said on Dec. 30 officials received a tip in 2019 that Anthony Warner was making explosives in his recreational vehicle. (Video: Reuters)

Local and federal law enforcement agents were told more than a year ago that the tech worker who detonated a bomb in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning was making explosives in his recreational vehicle, but said they were unable to investigate further after he failed to respond to multiple knocks on his door.

Nashville police visited Anthony Quinn Warner’s home on Aug. 21, 2019, after Pamela Perry, a woman who they said identified herself as Warner’s girlfriend, told officers that he “was building bombs in the RV trailer at his residence,” according to an incident report and synopsis from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. The visit was first reported by the Tennessean.

An attorney for Perry, Raymond Throckmorton, also told police at the time that Quinn “frequently talks about the military and bombmaking” and was “capable of making a bomb,” the report says. The responding officers notified their superiors and the FBI, according to the synopsis, but background checks on Quinn didn’t turn up any information.

The FBI confirmed the account from police in a statement to The Post.

Nashville Police Chief John Drake said he found out about the report on Sunday — two days after the bombing — but waited until Tuesday to release it to news media because he wanted to confirm some of the information it contained.

In a defensive afternoon news conference Wednesday, he said officers did “everything they could, legally” to investigate the allegations against Warner. He said officers “knocked and knocked and knocked but never made contact” with Warner. One officer from the Hazardous Device Unit drove by the home for several days to see if Warner would surface, Drake said, but he never did. There were no other calls regarding Warner or the RV, he added.

“If we had probable cause to get into the home with a search warrant, we would have,” Drake said. “Maybe we could have followed up more. Hindsight is 2020.”

He added that he didn’t believe there had been a “lapse in judgment.”

But Bob Mendes, a Nashville city council member, criticized law enforcement for not pursuing the matter further last year.

“The guy’s girlfriend called the cops, told them the house, told them what he was doing, said it was in the RV. Our criminal justice system didn’t catch it,” Mendes told The Washington Post. “They let it go. Objectively, that’s a failure. My biggest concern is to figure out how, god forbid, if that circumstance happens again there’s a better result.”

Mendes said law enforcement resources were often stretched thin in the rapidly expanding city, making prolonged investigations difficult. But he questioned whether the department’s handling of the 2019 incident reflected broader disparities in policing.

“There’s no getting around that if the girlfriend had said he’s cooking meth in the RV maybe it would have driven a different response,” he said. “If it had been a 30-year-old African American Muslim man instead of a 63-year-old white man, it would have driven a different response.”

Drake declined to comment on criticism from Mendes in Wednesday’s news conference.

While local police said they notified the FBI, a spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Josh DeVine, said Wednesday that the agency “had no information about Warner prior to the event on Christmas.” He said that while TBI often helps local police vet tips they receive, police aren’t obligated to share that information with state investigators, even in cases when they notify federal authorities.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch made similar remarks earlier in the week, telling reporters that Warner “was not on our radar” before the bombing.

Investigators hunt for a motive in blast that shook Nashville

Authorities identified Anthony Q. Warner as the man responsible for the Christmas morning bomb that exploded in downtown Nashville. (Video: The Washington Post)

The blast from Warner’s RV shattered the Christmas morning calm in the city’s entertainment quarter, damaging 41 businesses, sending three people to the hospital with minor injuries and knocking out communication networks throughout the state. Warner was killed in the explosion.

Investigators are still working to identify what motivated the 63-year-old recluse to pack his RV with explosives and broadcast an eerie warning message telling residents to evacuate before detonating the vehicle outside an AT&T transmission hub on Second Avenue downtown. Authorities are looking into possibilities that he had a fascination with aliens or 5G conspiracy theories, among other leads.

The incident report released Wednesday sheds little new light on Warner’s mind-set but indicates that he may have been planning the explosion for 16 months or more.

According to the law enforcement documents, police visited Perry’s home on the morning of Aug. 21, 2019, after Throckmorton told officers she made suicidal threats to him on the telephone.

When officers arrived, they found Perry sitting on her front porch with two unloaded pistols next to her. She told them the weapons belonged to “Tony Warner” and that she did not want them in the house any longer, according to police.

In the same conversation, Perry told them Warner was making bombs in his RV, the report states. Throckmorton appeared to back her up, telling officers Warner “knows what he is doing and is capable of making a bomb,” according to the report. After the interview, an ambulance picked up Perry for voluntary psychological evaluation, the report states.

The same day, police went to Warner’s home in Nashville’s Antioch neighborhood, about 1½ miles from Perry’s house. They said they noticed the RV parked in the backyard but said they couldn’t see inside because it was blocked by a fence. Officers also reported seeing several security cameras on the property and wires attached to an alarm sign on the front door. The officers reported that they knocked on Warner’s door multiple times, but he didn’t respond.

“They saw no evidence of a crime and had no authority to enter his home or fenced property,” police said in the synopsis.

Officers told supervisors about the incident and sent a report to the Hazardous Devices Unit for follow up, according to police.

Gunfire, warnings, then an explosion: What videos show about the Nashville bombing

On Aug. 22, police sent a narrative to the FBI, which soon reported back that agents had found “no records on Warner at all,” police said. Subsequent reports from the Defense Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives turned up nothing, according to police.

Around the same time, the Nashville Hazardous Devices Unit contacted Throckmorton, according to the synopsis.

“The recollection of that call is that Warner did not care for the police,” police said in the synopsis. “At no time was there any evidence of a crime detected and no additional action was taken.”

Warner had no criminal record aside from an arrest for marijuana possession in 1978.

Reached at his home in suburban Nashville on Wednesday morning, Throckmorton came to the door but declined to comment on the incident.

In an interview with the Tennessean on Tuesday night, the attorney said he had urged police to investigate Perry’s claim, saying she feared for her safety.

“Somebody, somewhere dropped the ball,” Throckmorton told the newspaper.

Throckmorton added that he had represented Warner in a civil case years earlier but that he was no longer a client in August 2019. “He wasn’t an active client. I’m not a defense attorney,” he told the Tennessean.

In a brief interview at her home in Smyrna, Tenn., Perry said she wasn’t Warner’s girlfriend but that they had known each other for more than 40 years. She said Warner had threatened her in the past but declined to offer details about what happened.

Investigators said this week they were still in the early stages of determining a motive and cautioned that Warner may not have had a rational reason for his actions.

Meanwhile, evidence teams from the FBI and ATF were still combing through the mounds of rubble and mangled metal at the blast site Wednesday, starting at the outer perimeter and working their way inward. Other federal agents, including members of the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, are interviewing Warner’s associates, while lab technicians in Quantico, Va., are trying to determine what explosives were used in the bomb, according to Nashville police.

David Hyche, an explosives expert who worked at ATF for 31 years, said that based on video recordings of the blast, the material used was not military-grade. Instead, he said, it was likely either “a homemade pyrotechnic mixture, or possibly smokeless powder.”

Purchases of large quantities of common precursors used in explosives are supposed to trigger attention from investigators. But determined bombmakers who plot their attacks over a long period of time — as Warner appeared to have done — can evade detection.

“If you’re willing to take the time and purchase small quantities, you can make your own explosives very easily,” said Hyche, who estimated that the Nashville blast contained hundreds of pounds of material. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, by comparison, involved nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives.

Hyche, who is now the police chief in Calera, Ala., said with the bomber dead, the investigation will focus heavily on how the bomb came together — and whether there are lessons to be learned in thwarting future attacks.

“They’re going to process this thing like a who-done-it,” he said. “They’re going to learn where every single component came from.”

Over the weekend, law enforcement agents searched Warner’s home, which sits about 12 miles southeast of the blast site in a middle-class suburb lined with single-family brick houses and duplexes. Investigators removed a computer motherboard, among other effects, Warner’s next-door neighbor told The Washington Post.

The bombing shocked neighbors, who described Warner as an intensely private person who seemed obsessed with home security and rigged his property with cameras and “no trespassing” signs. Some residents said they remembered seeing his RV parked in the backyard months before the explosion.

Devlin Barrett and Louie Estrada contributed to this report.