Iowa mailbox bomb suspect to face hearing

IOWA CITY – More than a decade after a string of mailbox bombings injured people in Midwestern states, a judge will reconsider whether the former college student accused of carrying out the terrifying campaign is mentally competent to stand trial.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett informed attorneys in March that he intends to order a competency hearing this year for Lucas Helder, 32, who has been committed to a federal institution for treatment since 2004, court records show. The hearing will examine whether Helder’s mental health has improved enough to allow him to understand the proceedings and aid in his defense, a constitutional right guaranteed for every defendant.

Helder was a University of Wisconsin-Stout student when police say he embarked on a five-day, cross-country spree in May 2002 that frightened a nation still on edge from the Sept. 11 attacks and an anthrax-laced mailing campaign. The FBI says Helder made bombs by attaching 9-volt batteries to pipes, and placed them rural mailboxes along with notes espousing bizarre anti-government beliefs and the warning, “mailboxes are exploding.” Six detonated when mailboxes were opened, injuring four postal carriers in Illinois and Iowa and two Iowa women.

More bombs were discovered in Nebraska, Colorado and Texas but weren’t rigged to explode.

Helder was captured after a high-speed chase in Nevada, where authorities say he told them that the bombs were placed in a pattern to create a giant, connect-the-dots “smiley face,” earning him the moniker the “smiley face bomber.” During the scare, the U.S. Postal Service briefly suspended service to some customers and asked others to keep their mailboxes open or remove their doors so that carriers could look inside.