A man who has been called a longtime supporter of the Mississippi state flag — and the controversial symbol within it — is accused of bombing a Wal-Mart in that state because the retail giant stopped selling the Confederate battle flag, police said.
Marshall E. Leonard, 61, from Tupelo, Miss., was arrested and is set to be charged on Tuesday with detonating an explosive after he threw an explosive device into a Wal-Mart on Sunday morning, Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre told The Washington Post. The device made a loud noise but did no real damage to the store.
“He’s a strong supporter of keeping that flag flying,” Aguirre told the Associated Press. “This is his way of bringing attention to that.”
Some say the Confederate flag is associated with racist hate groups and have called for its removal from public display. Following the deadly shooting in June at a black church in Charleston, S.C., the nationwide debate became heated after a photo of the suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, showed him posing with the flag. The controversy prompted many companies to ban the sale of it.
Leonard rallied behind the flag, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. He spoke out against Wal-Mart when the retail chain first decided to pull the flag from its store shelves and, more recently, called out the newspaper for playing a part in the contentious debate.
In Mississippi, the issue is even more factious, because the Confederate emblem is incorporated into the state flag’s design. Last month, the University of Mississippi took down the state flag after student leaders, faculty and staff called for its removal.
A user matching Leonard’s name and likeness posted several times on the Daily Journal’s Facebook page days before the explosion.
“Journal corporate, you are on final warning,” he wrote Oct. 28. “You are part of the problem. As a result of this, y’all are going down, along with Walmart, WTVA, Reeds department store, and all the rest of the anti-American crooks. I’m not kidding. No messing around anymore!”
Aguirre said that about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Leonard pulled up to the Wal-Mart, lit a newspaper-wrapped package and threw it.
“An employee was sitting the vestibule taking a break. He told the employee to run — that he was going to blow the place up,” he told the Associated Press. “He throws this package into the front entrance of Wal-Mart. He flees and the employee flees.”
Aguirre said it was not a large explosion and did not cause much damage to the store. No one was injured in the incident.
Around the time of the explosion, a clerk at a nearby store called police to report that Leonard had been bragging about placing a bomb at Wal-Mart, Aguirre told The Post. Authorities were on the lookout for a suspect and at about 2 a.m., an officer stopped Leonard for running a red light, he said.
Aguirre said Leonard’s car was covered with stickers of the Mississippi state flag and Confederate battle flag and he had a large state flag waving out from the sunroof of the vehicle.
“The officer pulled him over for the traffic violation,” Aguirre told the Daily Journal, “but when the calls started coming in, we quickly figured out we needed to hang on to this suspect.”
Aguirre said Leonard insinuated to investigators that he targeted Wal-Mart because it stopped selling the Confederate flag.
“He said he didn’t like their policies and that they were anti-American,” Aguirre told The Post.
Leonard’s booking record lists his offense as “disregard for traffic device,” but he is set to be charged on Tuesday morning with planning or placing an explosive device or a weapon of mass destruction, Aguirre said. If convicted, Leonard could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the Daily Journal.
Leonard does not yet have an attorney.
This story has been updated.