Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Unsafe At Home

What's this world coming to when a man's mower gets rigged with explosives?

By Walter Jowers

AUGUST 16, 1999:  It sounds like something out of a Coen brothers movie, but I'm sorry to tell you, it's true. Week before last, Alabamian James Larry McAnnally was assassinated. The weapon: a lawnmower bomb.

McAnnally was killed shortly after he got onto his riding mower, about 6 p.m. on Monday, July 26, according to Jaime Reyes, agent in charge of the Birmingham office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Three days after the deadly blast, a forensic chemist from the ATF's Atlanta office was collecting evidence in and around McAnnally's yard in Jasper, Ala.

The explosion killed McAnnally instantly and scattered pieces of his riding mower into neighbors' yards as far as 200 feet away, according to Richard Zitrin, national correspondent for APBNews.com, an Internet site that features crime stories. The mower's steering wheel flew over McAnnally's house and landed in his front yard. McAnnally's dog, who was standing near the mower at the time of the blast, also died in the explosion. The ATF's Reyes said that the bomb was most likely attached to the floorboard of the lawnmower.

When I heard about this, my first reaction was sympathy for the poor man, his dog, and their survivors. My second reaction was a sincere wish for the guilty party (or parties) to be brought to justice.

My third thought was, it is one sad day when a man and his dog can't even mow the lawn together without getting bombed to death. If a man's not safe when he's astride his lawn tractor, in his very own yard, with his dog by his side, when is he safe?

Of course, I'm no forensic scientist, but it occurred to me that maybe this was just a freak accident, like a fuel tank explosion. Or a prank gone horribly wrong, maybe involving something like those soda-bottle bombs somebody's been throwing onto lawns in Franklin's Fieldstone Farms. Maybe it was even a cruel twist of fate like the one experienced a couple of years ago by Hong Kong metal worker Leung Sing-fai, when he caught a nap in a tiny company bathroom, then checked his watch by the light of his cigarette lighter and ignited a cloud of his own personal natural gas.

But no. Not with a 200-foot debris field, not with the lawn tractor's steering wheel flying over the house. This sounds more like a professional job. "We're not sure if he had attempted to start the lawnmower or not," Reyes said. "But at some point before he started cutting the grass, and while still on the cement patio outside his home, there was some type of explosive device or bomb or charge, and the lawnmower exploded."

Hmmm. Sounds to me like Reyes is leaving open the possibility of a remote-control detonation. As far as investigators know, nobody saw the explosion. McAnnally's wife, Lisa, left for work just before her husband was killed, the ATF agent said.

As of July 29, investigators hadn't pinned down any motives or suspects. "It's too early," Reyes said. "We spent the last couple of days working the scene and collecting evidence. Last night, we began interviews to try to establish a list of motives and suspects. We've got family and employees where he worked to interview."

And where did McAnnally work? Well, he was a supervisor for Dunn Construction Co. in Birmingham. He'd been there for 23 years and was promoted about a year ago to oversee the firm's trucking operations, said William "Whitey" Williamson, McAnnally's co-worker and fishing buddy.

McAnnally, who was 52, and his wife had no children together. He did have a son and a daughter from a previous marriage, Williamson said.

Not that it would lessen the losses, but I'm still hoping that the ATF finds that the mower exploded because of some queer design flaw, something that can be corrected before any other mowers blow. I'm hoping for this because I just can't stand the thought of somebody waking up one morning with the two-part idea that 1. a man needs killing, and 2. the way to do it is to blow him up while he's on his lawnmower.

If this truly is a murder, it's a particularly ugly murder--genuine grassroots domestic terrorism. It's the equivalent of rigging a commode to explode when somebody cleans under the rim, or loading the dirty clothes hamper with a couple bushels of rattlesnakes.

It's bad enough that we have to get body-scanned before we get on an airplane, but we only have to do that every once in a while. When it comes to the routine, everyday humdrum, we need to be able to do that stuff without even thinking about it. Imagine the mowing men of America running mirrors under their mowers every Saturday morning, just to make sure there are no bombs waiting to vaporize them and their little dogs too. Imagine every pet dog a bomb-sniffing dog. It ain't right. We can't live like that.

So go get 'em ATF. Bring the Alabama mower bomber to justice. If you have to retarget some spy satellites and employ some stealth aircraft to close the deal, I say that's exactly what I pay taxes for. Don't let us mowing men down.

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