ROANOKE, Va.— Derick Gregory Wilson set off a bomb in a Blacksburg residential neighborhood last year to spite a man with whom he had differences involving a woman. Authorities temporarily taped off parts of two neighborhoods. Federal officials in Washington issued a public announcement meant to assure the public that the explosion adjacent to the Virginia Tech campus was an isolated incident and not an attack on the university.
Wearing leg irons and handcuffs, Wilson, 23, of Roanoke, was sentenced Friday, but the judge and prosecutor didn’t throw the book at him. By the end of the hearing, the bomber in a striped jail suit and the judge were shaking hands.
Just shy of 3 a.m. Aug. 1, 2012, Wilson lighted a pipe bomb under a parked car on Harrell Street. After the investigation, authorities determined Wilson bombed a friend’s vehicle in anger over a personal relationship issue. The way he did it, lighting the pipe bomb near the tire and leaving before the blast, put at risk anyone who might have happened by, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig “Jake” Jacobson. The impact could have killed such a person, the prosecutor said. No one was hurt.
Law enforcement officials sprang into action, sending officers, a bomb squad, bomb dog and bomb robot out in the resolution of the incident. Social media sites indicated the suspected perpetrator had a special interest in bombs and guns.
The targeted vehicle, a Chevrolet Blazer, belonged to a man who was temporarily living at the home of Wilson’s ex-girlfriend. Wilson and the man had had physical altercations and exchanged words and texts over Wilson’s past ties to the woman, authorities have said. Now the man’s car was heavily damaged.
Police next went to Roanoke, where they found Wilson at a gym and took him in for questioning, and then to northwest Roanoke, where a bomb squad and a robot converged on the home where he lived. Officers found a partially constructed bomb and explosives-making supplies. Police announced the bomb scare was over and that they had found the man responsible.
Now that doctors have had a chance to evaluate Wilson, authorities see the incident in a clearer light. Authorities repeatedly referenced Wilson’s pre-sentence report, a background document that stated he deserved a break and could put his life back together.
The prosecutor, who charged Wilson with possession of an unregistered destructive device, said he could have charged Wilson under a severe explosives statute that carried a 10-year sentence. That wouldn’t have been right, he said. U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski could have given Wilson 46 months. The judge decided that would have been too long.
In court, Urbanski said Wilson fought in the Army during the Iraq war and was mentally scarred by the wounding and killing of some comrades. For his service, which included a full year in Iraq, he received various medals. He was honorably discharged but wanted more. He volunteered to go to Afghanistan, but was turned down on account of a shoulder injury suffered in a motorcycle crash, Urbanski said.
At some point along the way, Urbanski said, Wilson was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression, and developed a substance abuse issue. Before the bombing, he had consumed alcohol and the narcotic pain reliever Percocet. He can’t remember bombing the vehicle, but has accepted responsibility for doing it. He told officials he feels gratitude that they arrested him and is ready to address his issues seriously, the judge said.
“It served as a wake-up call,” Urbanski said.
In light of his mental and substance abuse problems, his service to the country and his cooperation with authorities, he received a reduced sentence of three years in prison for possession of an unregistered destructive device. With credit for the 16 months behind bars since his arrest, he could be released in summer 2015. He will be assigned to a prison where he can be treated for mental and substance abuse problems. When he is released, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will provide more treatment, Wilson was told.
Wilson learned that authorities have seized his pistol for good and that guns, ammunition or any sort of dangerous weapon are off limits for the rest of his life, which spells an end to military service. But his life could still mean something, Urbanski reassured Wilson, calling him a person of “great promise” who should have the wherewithal to recover completely.
After the hearing, Urbanski went up to Wilson. They shook hands and talked. The judge patted Wilson’s arm several times.