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Mayor Of Elizabeth, N.J.: Family Of Person Of Interest Had Sued City

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get a perspective now from the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., one of the locations in which explosive devices have been found in the New York City metropolitan area over the past few days. You'll recall the explosion in Manhattan on Saturday night and that a second device was found. Then overnight, a backpack containing what was first described as wires and a pipe were found in the trash not far from the train station in Elizabeth, N.J., short distance outside of New York City. The FBI sent in a pair of robots, found the pack contained five bombs. And one of those devices exploded as the robot attempted to disarm it. Just a short time ago, we reached the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., Chris Bollwage.

How are people in Elizabeth responding to news that not only was one of the attacks in your city, but the suspect seems to be from your city?

CHRIS BOLLWAGE: You know, mayors spend all day trying to make lives better for the people they represent. And you get one person who attempts to destroy that because of the inability to respect human life.

The train stations are open in our city. The schools are open. People are going about their normal business. And I'm just hopeful that everybody does what they normally do on a Monday in September.

INSKEEP: You must be asking your police chief and anybody else you can, who is this guy, Ahmad Khan Rahami?

BOLLWAGE: We're familiar with the family. They have sued the city of Elizabeth in the past. The city council voted about seven years ago to restrict the operation of the business that the family owns, American Fried Chicken. They were open 24 hours, causing code enforcement problems and lots of noise complaints.

INSKEEP: So this is not Mr. Rahami necessarily, but his parents - is that correct? - who owned this chicken restaurant?

BOLLWAGE: We know that - we know of his father and his two brothers were involved in litigation with the city of Elizabeth.

INSKEEP: OK. And one of our reporting colleagues here has seen some court documents and says that the family alleged that they were being discriminated against as Muslims. Is that how you understand their claims?

BOLLWAGE: That was part of their claim. Strictly, this came from neighborhood meetings. And the neighborhood meetings plus police patrols clearly highlighted the code enforcement violations and the noise over a 24-hour period. So it had absolutely nothing to do with anyone's faith or beliefs.

INSKEEP: OK. That is what your police are telling you, that it was not discrimination. They make this claim of discrimination.

What about the suspect himself? Narrowing in from the family to the suspect himself. What, if anything, do you know beyond what's been said publicly?

BOLLWAGE: I don't know anything about the suspect. All I know is the neighborhood complaints regarding the business, that's seven years ago. And we eventually were in court. And we were successful in court.

INSKEEP: Do you know if the police have been able to reach any members of his family?

BOLLWAGE: I do not know that. The FBI that's executing the search warrant - I am advised that the business and the residence is empty at this time.

INSKEEP: How did you learn about the explosion in Elizabeth, N.J.?

BOLLWAGE: I was there.

INSKEEP: You were physically there?

BOLLWAGE: I was there, yeah. I arrived on the scene at about 10:30 last evening and have not been to bed yet, so - got a shower in the meantime, though.

INSKEEP: So what happened was that someone discovered this device and police...

BOLLWAGE: Two men discovered a backpack with five devices inside of it. When the police were attempting to dismantle one of them with a - two robots, one exploded, causing damage to the robots. And then another truck was brought in and another robot. And the pieces of the other four were wrapped up and are being transferred to Quantico, Va., for analysis.

INSKEEP: And what was the location - so far as you've been told - of the backpack originally when it was found?

BOLLWAGE: The backpack was found in a garbage can about 150 to 200-feet away from a pub on North Broad Street.

INSKEEP: What could have happened had it actually exploded in the garbage can before police discovered it?

BOLLWAGE: Well, there was no timer and there was no cellphone. We don't believe that it was set to go off. We think - or we speculate that it was thrown there to get rid of because of the pressure that was being put on through the investigation.

But if it would have went off, there would have been severe loss of life on any weekend. On a Sunday night, that area is pretty empty. But on a Friday and a Saturday night, it is quite filled with people. We know the garbage can was emptied some time during Saturday. But we don't know what time. And it was - Sunday is not a day that we would empty that garbage can.

INSKEEP: When you say we think it was thrown off, I want to make sure I understand that. There was the explosion in Manhattan. There was the second device discovered in Manhattan. And police were looking everywhere. And your guess is that possibly a suspect would have thrown away that material in the Elizabeth, N.J., trash can while trying to evade...

BOLLWAGE: That is speculation at this time because there were no cellphones and timers attached to this.

INSKEEP: OK. That makes sense.

BOLLWAGE: OK?

INSKEEP: What is the mood in the city right now?

BOLLWAGE: Everybody's back to work. I mean, people are moving along. It's - schools are open. The trains are open. The businesses are open. It's crowded around the train station because we blocked off one street for investigation and accumulating any debris from the explosion. But other than that, people are going about their normal day.

INSKEEP: Would you tell people in the New York metro area to do anything differently on this Monday than any other Monday?

BOLLWAGE: I would be hopeful that everybody does what they normally do on a Monday in September, whether it be getting your kids to school, spending time with your family or going to work. Just do it.

INSKEEP: Mayor Bollwage, thanks very much.

BOLLWAGE: Take care.

INSKEEP: That's Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth, N.J., very properly using the word speculation there but giving us what he knows and why people would be leaning in that direction, trying to answer the question, why would an apparently unfinished pipe bomb - or several pipe bombs - end up in a trash can in Elizabeth, N.J.? One possibility being considered, he says, is that a suspect from Elizabeth might have dropped it there as the pressure of an investigation closed in after the explosions in New York City.

Now, our counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, spoke with us earlier this morning and noted that authorities at first were not sure that the various explosive devices found or exploded in recent days were related.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: What's changed is they actually have compared the explosives in the various bombs, and they seem similar. The timing devices are flip cellphones, which are also similar in all the devices and the igniter. Basically, what you have is you have a spark that sets off the explosion. The igniters are all Christmas lights, those little tiny Christmas lights, which is a pretty common igniter in these kind of improvised devices.

INSKEEP: So authorities have the various devices, the remnants of them anyway. They have the name of a suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, who is described as a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan. He is a man who had an address in Elizabeth, N.J. And authorities are saying he should be considered armed and dangerous. Those words coming from Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, who adds of the suspects, we will get them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.