MARY ANN ROSER Herald Washington Bureau
For a sleuth like FBI Special Agent James "Tom" Thurman, a fragment half the size of a thumbnail was just too big to ignore.
In his investigation of the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103, Thurman worked from a photograph of the fragment that was part of a timer on the bomb that blew the plane apart over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 on the ground.
Thurman meticulously compared the picture of the fragment to hundreds of other devices. He didn't stop until he linked the bomb to the Libyan government.
"When you think of a (Boeing) 747 and how many pieces are in that plane it was like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Thurman, 44, who works in the FBI's explosives unit here. "The plane was chock full of cargo."
Thurman's discovery of the fragment match in June 1990 was a critical piece of evidence that led to the criminal indictments last week of two intelligence aides to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Thurman determined that the circuit board on the timer was a perfect match to one used in an explosion several years earlier in Togo, Africa.
Both timers had been made for the Libyan government by a Swiss company. However, the company has also claimed, the timers were made and sold to others at approximately the same time, among them the former East Germany.
"I know Tom realized right away we had something very important," said John Hicks, assistant director in charge of the FBI lab here and Thurman's boss. "That's what Tom had been looking for. That's what kept him going."
It was not the first time that Thurman had helped solve a bombing mystery.
While working with Scottish and English authorities on the Lockerbie case, Thurman became involved in the 1989 mail-bomb explosion that killed federal judge Robert Vance in Alabama. Thurman was able to match the bomb to another one used by Walter Leroy Moody Jr., who was later convicted of the judge's murder.
"We're the blacksmiths of the FBI. The nuts and bolts," Thurman said. "We get extremely dirty, actually, filthy dirty."
But Thurman wouldn't have it any other way.
Although much of his work is done behind a microscope, Thurman also goes into the field and gathers evidence. He went to Lockerbie two days after the explosion. After traveling all night, he showered and joined hundreds of other U.S., English and Scottish investigators combing the countryside for clues.
"Regardless of how tragic the situation is, your adrenalin is pumping," Thurman said. "You can't sleep."
He spent about two months at the scene collecting and sifting through evidence. Almost immediately, investigators knew a bombing had occurred, but finding out who did it would not be as easy.
Thurman became absorbed by the mystery. His curiosity, coupled with a sense of duty and empathy for the victims, drove him, he said.
He returned to Lockerbie several times, talked to countless investigators from several countries and pored over thousands of pieces of evidence before making his key find in June 1990.
"These were civilians," Thurman said. "All they wanted was to go home for Christmas," he said, noting that most of those on the plane, traveling from London to New York, were Americans. "You get emotional."
Thurman also missed Christmas that year, but the FBI allowed him to visit his folks in Richmond, Ky., several days later. His parents, Margaret and James "Spider" Thurman, recalled that their son seemed a bit strained and subdued.
"He ordinarily is a pretty easygoing fellow, but he seemed to be uptighter than usual," Margaret Thurman recalled. "I don't think he really wanted to go back there, but it was his job."
It wasn't until recently that Thurman's parents learned what a large role he had played in the Lockerbie case. Even now, however, Thurman declines to offer many details about his investigation, citing the pending court case against the Libyans.
Since the Libyan indictments were announced, Thurman has found himself in front of the camera more than behind the microscope. The credit for cracking the case belongs to many people, he said, citing his colleagues in the lab who took on some of his routine cases and the Scottish investigators who gathered the critical evidence.