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Man accused of being “Bishop,” who sent threatening letters and nonfunctioning bombs in 2007, goes on trial Monday

By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — John Tomkins was a proud Midwesterner in 2007 who played basketball with his kids, worked several jobs, sometimes six days a week, and loved the Iowa Hawkeyes and stock-car racing.

Then the father of three was unmasked as the alleged “Bishop” who sent letters threatening harm to employees at investment firms unless they helped boost the value of stocks and options he owned. Two of the packages contained inoperable pipe bombs.

“The only reason you are still alive is because I did not attach one wire,” the bomber wrote in one of the more than 10 letters expected to be evidence in Tomkin’s federal trial starting Monday.

Tomkins, 47, who has been jailed since his arrest in April 2007, is defending himself. The former Dubuque, Iowa, machinist and union worker says he understands the daunting task he faces.

“What chance does anybody have against the federal government?” Tomkins said in an email last week.

In three email exchanges with The Chicago Tribune, he wrote of frustration with his lengthy incarceration while awaiting trial and how it led to his decision to represent himself. He spoke of how much he misses his family and the routines of work and expressed sympathy for the victims of the bizarre plot by the Bishop.

“The crimes that have been committed in this case are horrible,” he wrote. “And I feel terrible for the victims that received these outrageously offensive letters and nonfunctional devices.”

Tomkins avoided directly answering questions about whether he wrote the threatening letters, noting several times that he was aware that prison officials monitored his emails.

He said he decided to represent himself in part because of the monitoring of emails and phone calls as well as the difficulty of meeting with an attorney while he is jailed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago. He said he would have hired an attorney if he had been released on bail.

“That is why I fought so hard to be released on bond pending trial,” he said.

In the emails, Tomkins criticized prosecutors, saying they have insisted on an “expensive and lengthy trial.” Tomkins backed out of a plea deal at the last minute two years ago. He told the court then that he had planned to plead guilty to 12 of the 13 counts against him, but the government would not drop the remaining count that carried a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison.

But in recent court filings, prosecutors noted that Tomkins fired four attorneys before deciding to defend himself. “Most of the delay in this case has resulted from defendant’s pretrial litigation,” they wrote.

Tomkins, a high school graduate who says he regrets not attending college, filed several lengthy motions on his own behalf in preparation for trial. He has raised challenges about government witnesses and the length of time it took to move his case to trial. He also unsuccessfully sought a change of venue.

Tomkins last week challenged the government’s intention to display copies of the letters on an overhead screen for the jury during opening statements, arguing that it would be prejudicial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Pope pointed out that federal rules allow an attorney to provide a jury with pictures of evidence expected to be presented at trial and then emphasized that the letters are essential to illustrate the “chilling” nature of Tomkins’ alleged plot.

“That’s what this case is about,” Pope said.

Recipients who were employed at investment firms across the country are expected to testify about the letters, which included language that was demanding, conversational and violent.

They are laced with threats and warnings, even mentioning the children of some targets. “It is so easy to kill someone it is scary,” one said.

The Bishop wrote of how easy it was to research targets and gather bomb-making materials on the Internet. The “little care packages” — as he referred to the threatened bombs — could be assembled with items purchased at a Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

Escalating his threats, the Bishop mailed pipe bombs to two victims, informing them that he had disabled the devices by not connecting a wire, according to prosecutors.

“Now imagine how you wiil feel when I mail that same package to one of your family members or neighbors or co-workers,” the Bishop wrote. “And yes I will be sure to connect all the little wires.”

The letters included angry accusations about “blood sucking short sellers” who he alleged had hurt the value of his investments.

Investigators found two improvised explosive devices and drafts of threatening letters similar to those sent by the Bishop at Tompkins’ Dubuque storage locker, according to authorities.

In other key evidence, authorities cross-referenced ownership in the two targeted companies — Navarre Corp. and 3Com Corp. — and discovered at the time of the threatening letters that Tomkins owned shares in both.

Prosecutors have alleged that Tomkins drove to the residence of an employee of one of the targeted companies, photographed the front of the home and included the photo in one of the threatening letters. But the ploy backfired, authorities said. The photo showed enough of the car’s interior that investigators were able to determine it was shot from a 1993 Chevy Lumina — a car Tomkins owned when the letter was mailed, authorities said.

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