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Published: Thursday, 9/22/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Brothers injured in car bomb in good spirits; fellow students attend prayer service

Monroe explosion puzzles ATF, leaves many wondering why

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN AND MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
In this Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011 photo, a Monroe firefighter sprays water on a burning car on Elm Street in Monroe, Mich. In this Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011 photo, a Monroe firefighter sprays water on a burning car on Elm Street in Monroe, Mich.
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MONROE — The boys who were injured in a car bomb explosion with their father are in good spirits and have even watched Sponge Bob on TV, their principal said Thursday afternoon.

Michelle Sontag also said the Chappell boys, Grant, 13, and Cole, 11, are asking for their homework - and that fellow students at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School are expected to take it to them.

The principal has spent time in recent days trying to calm the fears of fellow students after they learned the boys were seriously injured on Tuesday afternoon. Some have seen news accounts or the video showing the crash.

“They want to know if what they saw on TV is real because it can be very scary,” she said, adding that being able to replay the video is truly frightening.

School counselors have been called in to help if needed.

Erik Chappell, 42, was driving a Volvo station wagon on East Elm Avenue, near I-75 in Monroe when his car exploded. He was taking his two sons to football practice. Flames and thick black smoke shot into the air, leaving behind a charred street and a burned-out vehicle.

VIDEO: Emergency crews respond to fiery scene

911 AUDIO:

Erik Chappell calls Monroe County 911 after explosion

Truck driver calls 911, reports explosion

Chappell's friend calls 911

They were transported to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, where the boys’ conditions were unavailable Thursday afternoon. Mr. Chappell, who called 911 to report the crash, was released on Wednesday.

Several hundred students from St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School gathered Thursday afternoon for a prayer service in honor of their Chappell family. The service was held at the request of middle school students.

The Rev. Stephen Vileo, with the school church, said he told students the best thing for them to do is let anger and fear go about what happened to their classmates.

Ms. Sontag also said she has told students the boys are expected to return to class.

Monroe Police Lt. Charlie Abel said Thursday that investigators are getting tips from public.

“Everything that’s coming in has a use for us,” he said, noting that they are making good progress in the case.

Investigators also could have test results later Thursday, giving them answers of what type of device was used was used in the bombing.

The pieces of the device collected by the different agencies were sent to a lab in Washington, D.C., said ATF Special Agent Donald Dawkins.

Authorities working the case were in Monroe until about 11 p.m. Wednesday and were back early Thursday morning. There was no new information to offer, but Mr. Dawkins said they continue to work leads and field tips from the community.

Mr. Chappell is one of the people who called 911 to report the crash.

His sons were seriously wounded. Bleeding.

Law enforcement agents, left, put into a bag evidence collected on East Elm Avenue in Monroe in the car bombing that injured Erik Chappell, right, and his two sons. Law enforcement agents, left, put into a bag evidence collected on East Elm Avenue in Monroe in the car bombing that injured Erik Chappell, right, and his two sons.
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People kept calling 911 -- there was a car explosion on the road. Smoke. A lot of it. Fire.

“I need someone here now,” he insisted desperately.

“We have a bad accident,” the upset father told the dispatcher. “My car blew up with two kids. You’ve been called on it already, but I’m telling you what is going on with my boys. I’ve got two significant leg injuries. ... They are chewed up pretty good.”

A neighbor said Mr. Chappell was released from the hospital about 11 a.m. Wednesday, but his sons were “more seriously injured,” said Special Agent Donald Dawkins, of the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

The principal at the boys’ school, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School in Monroe, released an online statement Wednesday saying the boys and their father “are all in stable conditions and are in good spirits.”

“All are expected to have a full recovery. I have spoken with Mrs. Chappell twice today, and she has kept me abreast of their improving conditions,” according to Principal Michelle Sontag.

Authorities released very little information about the car bomb.

“We’re still trying to put the device together out of the many, many pieces we’ve found,” Mr. Dawkins said, adding that investigators were out at the scene until 4 a.m. Wednesday and returned to Monroe by 10 a.m.

 'A heinous crime'

Mr. Dawkins described it as "a heinous crime" and said Mr. Chappell and his sons are "lucky to be alive."

Authorities said they do not know where the bomb was -- whether it was in the car, outside the car, or where or how it could have been attached. They speculated, however, that the device was concealed because the family still got into the car.

It is also unclear when the bomb was planted. Mr. Chappell could have driven extensively with the device if it was attached while he was at his Main Street, Sylvania, office, or even while it was parked at his home in the upscale North Shores community along Lake Erie in LaSalle Township. The drive from the family's home to the site of the explosion is about 8 miles.

Special Agent Donald Dawkins, with the ATF, speaks to reporters about the car bomb outside of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office on September 21, 2011. Special Agent Donald Dawkins, with the ATF, speaks to reporters about the car bomb outside of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office on September 21, 2011.
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There was no telling how the bomb detonated or how sophisticated its construction might have been.

"For the person who did it, it went off when they wanted -- unfortunately for everyone else," Mr. Dawkins told The Blade.

The ATF, Mr. Dawkins said, is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons involved. Those with information are asked to call the ATF at 313-202-3400.

As of late last night, authorities said they were working a number of leads and had received a lot of calls from the public. He said there were a number of "ideas we're working on" that could be related to a motive.

When asked whether Mr. Chappell could have been targeted by a client or because of his job as a lawyer, Mr. Dawkins declined to comment.

No one was in custody Wednesday.

Authorities have not publicly released the names of the victims. Mr. Dawkins said several different people have interviewed Mr. Chappell, but Mr. Dawkins wasn't sure what came out of the interviews.

Sylvania law office

Wednesday, federal agents spent several hours at Mr. Chappell's law firm, Lyden, Liebenthal & Chappell LTD. The law firm, which is located on the third floor in an office building at 5470 Main St., near Harroun Park, was open Wednesday. A receptionist said employees would not talk to a reporter and a statement from the law firm was not available.

Investigators also went to the home of a client whom Mr. Chappell represents in a divorce proceeding in Monroe County. The woman was not at her Whiteford Township home when a Monroe police detective and ATF agent showed up there.

News of the attack spread quickly through the legal community Wednesday, shocking many of its members who often deal with violent crimes and clients. Many speculated that the car bomb was tied to Mr. Chappell's work.

Jim Irmen, a lawyer with Marshall and Melhorn in Toledo, said learning of the bombing was alarming.

"It is shocking to think that anything we do as lawyers to uphold the rule of law would provoke someone to plant a car bomb," said Mr. Irmen, who is a past president of the Toledo Bar Association.

Judge Gene Zmuda, of Lucas County Common Pleas Court, also was shocked at the crime.

A car burns on E. Elm Ave. near I-75 Tuesday Sept. 20, 2011 in Monroe, Mich. after it exploded as it was being driven by Chappell and his two sons. A car burns on E. Elm Ave. near I-75 Tuesday Sept. 20, 2011 in Monroe, Mich. after it exploded as it was being driven by Chappell and his two sons.
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"This is the kind of violence that one would never expect to occur in our community," Judge Zmuda said. "This is the kind of [thing] that you read about in books and see in movies or to happen in big metropolitan areas like New York, not in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan."

Mr. Chappell is married with four children -- the two sons and two daughters.

A neighbor, Nancy Sovey, said she saw Mr. Chappell and two boys loading football equipment into his car at the home between 4 and 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Ms. Sontag, principal at the boys' school, said the family is asking for prayers from the community.

"Many of you have also inquired about helping the family. Mrs. Chappell has asked for us to pray for their healing and for their comfort," she said. "When they return home, we will arrange to help them in whichever capacity is necessary. Perhaps we will deliver cooked meals, arrange tutoring while the boys are recovering at home, and continue to shower them with prayers."

Mr. Chappell has coached football for St. Michael's Catholic Youth Organization's "B" team for four years, said fellow coach Joe Hawkins, who coaches older boys for the CYO "A" team.

"He was great for the kids," Mr. Hawkins said after wrapping up practice at dusk last night on the Cantrick Junior High School field in Monroe. "He's well-respected and very involved with the school."

In addition to sports, Mr. Chappell and his wife were deeply involved in school activities and "volunteered a ton of time" there, added Shawn Wilson, who was watching the practice.

Scott Boss, a first-year assistant coach on Mr. Chappell's "B" team, praised him as a coach because "he was real patient with the kids ... and was dedicated" to their development as players.

Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Boss called the bombing "a shock for everyone," but they added that the players "were dealing with it well."

Mr. Chappell's son Cole, a sixth grader, is a running back and linebacker on the B team and Grant, who is in eighth grade, plays at cornerback, quarterback, and running back for the A team.

Other court cases

Mr. Chappell was scheduled to have been in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Wednesday to represent a hot dog vendor suing the city of Monroe. That case was postponed on Tuesday -- before the car explosion.

John Gillooly, the attorney for the city of Monroe, said Mr. Chappell has always struck him as a family man and an excellent lawyer.

"I have known him throughout the past couple years working on this case," Mr. Gillooly said. "Our kids are close in age and on occasion when we are in federal court, he talks often about how he loves his kids."

In that case, a company called Dog Pound sued the city two years ago after a plan to sell hot dogs from a cart was rejected, Mr. Gillooly said.

They have been in court together about 12 times over the past two years, he said.

"He is a remarkable attorney and I hope his toughness will carry over to a very quick recovery. We are all hoping," Mr. Gillooly said.

Mr. Chappell's clients locally have included a fireworks distributor that a southeast Michigan township tried to shut down and a Perrysburg shopping complex slapped with a lawsuit seeking accessibility for the disabled.

In 2008, he represented Springfield Township businessman John Miller III, who was target of a lawsuit filed by LaSalle Township. The township filed against Red Falcon Fireworks seeking a court order to shut down the retailer until Mr. Miller complied with state building and fire codes.

The complaint alleged Red Falcon -- on South Otter Creek Road near heavily traveled I-75 -- was selling fireworks out of a building that didn't meet state regulations. Also at issue was whether the fireworks store owned by Mr. Miller was selling fireworks considered illegal under Michigan law.

Two years earlier, Mr. Chappell represented the owners of Perrysburg Marketplace in Perrysburg, one of the shopping complexes slapped with a lawsuit by the Findlay, Ohio-based Northwest Ohio Wheelchair Athletes, Inc.

The advocacy group filed six lawsuits in August, 2006, against shopping complexes in Toledo, Perrysburg, and Fremont.

In examining court records to defend his client, Mr. Chappell told The Blade in 2006 that he learned a plaintiff's attorney in the case had filed more than 300 similar complaints against businesses in Florida over the past several years.

He said the groups didn't want to take cases to trial and only aim to reach out-of-court settlements to pay for lawyer and expert witnesses.

"This is how they make money," he said at the time.

Mr. Chappell works in his firm's litigation department and is "actively involved in a diverse litigation and trial practice," according to the firm's Web site.

The "majority of Mr. Chappell's cases are business disputes, Mr. Chappell also maintains a family law practice and will evaluate all potential cases ... [he] has litigated employment disputes including the defense of numerous wrongful discharge and discrimination claims; unfair competition claims," the Web site also states.

Detroit-area attorney Gary Hanz, who worked as co-counsel on a case with Mr. Chappell, said, "He is a good guy. [But] he could make people not like him."

Mr. Chappell is a graduate of University of Toledo's law school and received an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan.

He lived in Ottawa Hills from 2001 until 2008, when he and his family moved to their current home in Michigan.

The last time an area resident was injured in a car bomb was in the 1990s, when one woman was killed and another injured in separate incidents.

Previous incidents

A pipe bomb ripped through Rhonda Wheeler's car on April 8, 1996, as she left her Sylvania Township job; she died 11 days later.

Her husband, Robert Wheeler, was sentenced to six life terms in prison for planting the pipe bomb. He told investigators he intended to destroy his wife's car for insurance money to pay off gambling debts and didn't intend to kill his wife.

Exactly one year after the Wheeler bombing, Linda Lister was critically injured as she was leaving her Springfield Township job, suffering intense burns and a partial loss of her right leg in a similar bombing.

Her husband, Charles Lister, was convicted of attempted aggravated murder and aggravated arson, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

A Rossford woman avoided a similar fate in 1998 when a mechanic at a Perrysburg gas station found a pipe bomb under the woman's car. She had the vehicle towed to the station after it wouldn't start.

Staff writers Ignazio Messina, Nolan Rosenkrans, and Jim Sielicki contributed to this report.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com or 419-724-6054.


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