Luke Helder's Bad Trip


    Luke Helder is responsible for a five-state string of mailbox pipe bombs

    Jack Kerouac would have recognized the story line. A bright young kid from Main Street U.S.A. immerses himself in philosophy and art, has a cosmic revelation that leads him to question the system, and heads off down the highway to spread the news and stretch his newfound spiritual wings. Sadly, that's where the resemblance ends between the footloose Beat novelist and 21-year-old Lucas Helder, whose strange idea of raising America's consciousness was to plant explosives in heartland mailboxes.

    The confessed pipe bomber's 3,000-mile cross-country crime spree, which injured six and dredged up painful memories of everything from anthrax to the Unabomber, ended last week with Helder's arrest on an empty stretch of Nevada interstate highway. By turning on the cell phone in his car and dispatching a series of letters to his family and a student newspaper, Helder had ensured his arrest. The knottier problem is divining his motives. Far from fitting the usual profile of an angry loner, the smiling young suspect in the Kurt Cobain T shirt was an easygoing student of art and industrial design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie and the product of rural Pine Island, Minn., where he sang in the high school choir, played football and jammed with a grunge rock band called Apathy.

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    According to shocked and baffled friends and classmates, Helder was also a visionary given to muddled, passionate harangues on immortality, astral projection and other esoterica. "He was definitely not one to conform. He would not settle for just any old explanation," says Amanda Dolan, 19, who took a college religion class with Helder and was charmed and impressed by his accounts of out-of-body experiences. "He said death is an illusion," Dolan continues. "He would also say, 'You are the same person after death as you are now.'"

    Helder's philosophical excursions often left Dolan puzzled; after he began stuffing his manifestos into mailboxes along with the bombs, the whole country wondered what he was trying to say. In a letter sent to the university newspaper, Helder characterized himself as "spiritually well rounded" and wrote of a conspiracy to enslave the masses, pillage the environment and suppress human potential. It was not your usual antigovernment rant but something mistier and more sweeping. "Whether it's logic, meditation, channeling, astral projection or ghosts, all are ways of knowing," he wrote.

    Helder's views may explain his placid demeanor when he was taken into custody on charges that could land him in prison for life. He told FBI agents the bombings were meant to draw an enormous smiley face across the map of the U.S. The first clusters of bombs in Illinois and Iowa and the second cluster in Nebraska (which were not set to explode) made up the eyes; the mouth was to run from Colorado through Texas and beyond. Helder dropped the project, he said, because he was gripped by a sudden urge to see the Pacific Ocean and turned west.

    Were drugs involved? It's still not clear. Though Helder was previously cited for possession of a marijuana pipe and at least one classmate describes him as "burnt out," a lawman involved in his capture noticed no signs of intoxication. "It appeared that he hadn't been drinking," says Washoe County, Nev., Sheriff Dennis Balaam. "I asked him if he was taking any type of medication, and he said no." Some lean toward an organic explanation — emerging schizophrenia, perhaps — for his cosmic goof gone wrong.

    Such questions are academic to Helder's victims. "It just makes it so much easier, knowing they got him," says Illinois mail carrier Steve Ertmer, 36, whose right hand was injured in one of the first blasts. Delores Werling, 70, from Iowa, whose hearing was damaged by another explosion, is also pleased by Helder's capture, but she and her husband Bryce express sympathy. "He's a young man," says Bryce, "and maybe he can be helped with something." Says Delores: "He needs to be put on the right path."

    The puzzle remains: What path did Helder think he was on? "By going about it in the wrong way, he's closed a lot of people's eyes to what he was trying to say," says Amanda Dolan, though she still isn't sure what that was.