The following is an excerpt from The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time (Potomac Books, 2019) by Jeffrey Simon.
On the evening of August 8, 1974, Americans gathered around their television sets to witness an event that would have been unimaginable just two years earlier. President Richard Nixon, who had won reelection in a landslide over George McGovern in 1972, was about to announce his resignation from office, becoming the first U.S. president to do so. It was a shocking turn of events for the thirty-seventh president of the United States, who had seen his popularity and power erode due to the Watergate scandal.
Viewers in Los Angeles joined millions of Americans across the country in watching history unfold before their very eyes, but Angelinos also had something else on their minds. Two days earlier, a bomb had ripped through the overseas passenger terminal lobby of Pan American World Airways at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), killing three people and injuring thirty-five others in one of the deadliest incidents of terrorism in Los Angeles history. It was also the first time an airport had been bombed anywhere in the world. The bomb, which had been placed in a locker near the check-in counter, created a ten-by-fifteen-foot hole in the wall where the lockers were located and devastated a one-hundred-foot area in the lobby, sending bodies, metal, and glass flying through the air. One man saw his daughter “skidding past [him] on the floor.” Another noted that there had been an eerie silence immediately after the blast. “The whole terminal was silent,” recalled Barbara Moclock. “You couldn’t think of anything, anything at all. Then a few moments later, people started screaming and looking for their friends.”
Among those looking for their friends was Paul Kaye, a circus producer, who was distributing tickets to members of his troupe when the blast occurred. “Bodies of people were all over,” he recalled. “I ran to see how many, if any, of my people had been hurt. And I found Mr. Trostl on the ground.” Arturo Trostl Jr., known by his stage name, “The Great Arturo,” and considered one of the best trapeze artists in the world, had been badly injured. “One side of his chest under his arm was blown away, and the upper portion of his left thigh had been blown away,” said Kaye. A clown in the circus who was also a medical student attended to Trostl until the paramedics arrived. Trostl would survive his injuries and perform again, but not with the same confidence and flamboyant style he had been known for.
The most seriously injured were taken on stretchers from the terminal to ambulances waiting outside. Among those was Rev. Rhett Patrick Shaughnessy, who would have to have his right leg amputated. Another injured man in the same ambulance as Shaughnessy remembered how excruciating the ride to the hospital was for the pastor. “I never heard anybody in such pain as he was in,” recalled Vincent Bush. “He was yelling and screaming. He was terrified.”
The airport was a scene of pandemonium as first responders attended to the victims while police and federal agents sifted through the debris, looking for clues as to who might be responsible for the carnage. David Butler of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Scientific Investigation Division, one of the first law enforcement officers on the scene, feared there might be a secondary explosive device at the Pan American terminal and instructed airport security personnel to evacuate people from the lobby, rope off the area, and prevent anyone from standing on the sidewalk in front of the building. He then began to search for another bomb and check for additional hazards, like ruptured natural gas mains.
Then the bomb threats started pouring in. The blast had occurred at 8:10 a.m., and the news spread quickly throughout the Los Angeles area, as well as the rest of the country. People wondered whether America might now be on the verge of a wave of major terrorist attacks at airports, sporting events, restaurants, and other crowded, “soft” target areas similar to those that other countries were experiencing. By 9:30 a.m. lax was receiving bomb threats for hangars, cargo and baggage areas, ticket counters, buildings, and aircraft. Butler handled more than fifty of these threats. “Virtually every ticket counter at L.A. Airport received a bomb threat,” he said. “At one time we virtually almost had the entire airport evacuated.” Explosive detection dogs were brought in to search for additional explosives.
While the search at the airport did not uncover any more bombs, investigators were able to establish that the explosion had come from one of the lockers near the Pan Am ticket counter. Still, they didn’t have a clue as to the person or persons responsible. That night, however, they received their first big break in the case. A man had telephoned the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and claimed credit for the bombing, providing the publicly undisclosed locker number where the bomb had exploded. He told the city editor, Conrad Casler, that his name was “Rasim” and that he had carried out the bombing on behalf of a group he called “Aliens of America.”
Casler was baffled by the caller, who spoke with a foreign accent: “I remember at one point saying: ‘Now, wait a minute. What the hell is Aliens of America?’ And I was ignored. And I attempted to keep him on the line a while, but I was very politely told, ‘good night,’ and was hung up on after this very brief conversation the first time.” Casler immediately called one of his reporters who was still at the airport, and the reporter relayed the information to the bomb squad. “Within ten minutes I got a call from [the] LAPD Bomb Squad,” Casler recalled, “saying that we had hit it on the head, it was correct.”
When people read about the phone call to Casler in the newspaper the next day, they too were baffled. Who were the “Aliens of America,” and what did they want? An anxious public awaited further information about this unknown group. Then, on August 9, Angelinos received more bad news. Rasim telephoned the CBS television station in Los Angeles and told them that an audiocassette about the bombing could be found in a trash bin outside a local bank. When police recovered the tape they found with it the key to the airport locker in which the bomb had exploded. The tape included a chilling warning: “This first bomb was marked with the letter A, which stands for Airport. The second bomb will be associated with the letter L, the third with the letter I, etc., until our name has been written on the face of this nation in blood.” He became known in the media as the “Alphabet Bomber.” And the words “Aliens of America” were stamped on the outside ring of the canister that contained the explosive.
Not until his capture would people learn that no group was behind the bombing and threats. Aliens of America existed only in the mind of the man who called himself Rasim, who was actually Muharem Kurbegovic, a Yugoslav immigrant living in Los Angeles. He’d immigrated to the United States in 1967 in search of a better life. He initially found it, thriving at engineering jobs even though he communicated at work only by writing notes. He pretended to be mute as a way of avoiding being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. He was a loner who liked to frequent taxi dance halls in downtown Los Angeles, places where customers paid to dance with hostesses hired by the club. “I was on the verge of suicide many times before I [learned about] taxi-dance,” Kurbegovic said. “And the fact there is a place I can be human no matter what is wrong with me, I can be accepted as a human being too, has saved me from actually being a drug addict or alcoholic or other kind of pervert.” It was at one of these dance halls, though, that Kurbegovic was arrested for lewd conduct, an arrest that would eventually trigger his turn toward violence.