Unlikely hero: Homeless man thwarts act of terror

A man who was recently homeless is being hailed a hero after alerting police to a bag filled with pipe bombs earlier this month in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Lee Parker received keys to the city and the seal of the city from Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage after finding pipe bombs in a Midtown Elizabeth Train Station trashcan September 18, which were allegedly hidden in a gym bag placed there by Ahmad Khan Rahami — the man who accused of bombing New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood earlier.

“When I opened the bag my naïveté kicked in,” Parker said. “I grabbed this item – what I thought was decorated candles because they were shiny – but then I noticed wires hanging about and tape. So I put what I thought was a bomb gently in the bag and put it in an area out of harm’s way.”

Parker and and his friend Ivan White, a retired army veteran, quickly alerted police, who cleared the area and later accidentally detonated the explosives.

“The bomb went off because the bomb squad robot grabbed the bomb like they’re supposed to do. I wasn’t in the vicinity but I heard it go off, ‘boom!,’” Lee said, “I heard no lives, no casualties, thank God!”

Bollwage called both men “courageous” and “inspirational” for their actions in a statement.

“When they found a backpack with questionable contents, they did not ignore it or dismiss it as nothing, they chose to report it, placing the safety of our community and the region first,” Bollwage said in his statement. “Their brave and civic-minded acts are commendable and are an example of the difference that can be made when awareness is raised and information shared.”

They were also recognized by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who urged other citizens to be vigilant.

“Remember that the Elizabeth incident was prevented by two citizens who saw something that they thought was strange, looked at it further and called the police,” Christie said. “If you see something that you think is unusual, pick up the phone and call law enforcement. They’ll make the decisions from there.”

Since Parker reported the bombs to the police, Rahami, 28, of Elizabeth has been charged with two counts of using and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, a count of bombing and attempting to bomb a place of public use and public transportation and two counts of using a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence, according to court documents filed by the District of New Jersey.

Rahami faces similar charges for the bomb he placed in New York City which injured 29 people.

Parker has received a lot of attention and aid from non-profit organizations, including The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, since the story has been reported in the news.

“We’ve since given him a brand new backpack with personal care products in it,” said Elizabeth Coalition Executive Director Linda Flores-Tobin.

But before receiving recognition Parker and his friend were solely identified as two homeless men.

Dr. Norma Bowe, founder of Be the Change, a community service and activism group comprised of Kean University students, was determined to find out who the two homeless men were at the time when their names weren’t reported.

“The train station is just a mile and a half from [our] campus and a lot of our students commute through that train station,” Bowe said. “I wanted to find out who they were and that they had everything that they needed. No one should be homeless and these two people are heroes so I went on a quest to find out who they were.”

Bowe’s quest proved successful. She has since helped Parker find a hotel to stay in and has been helpful to his friend Ivan ever since.

“Since Ivan’s a vet he has a lot of appointments that we drive him to,” Bowe said. Earlier reports inaccurately identified White as being homeless.

Also looking to recognize them was At Heart’s Length, another local non-profit organization, which has raised over $20,000 for Parker through donations collected from its Go Fund Me page.

Parker recently found a job as a truck driver helper at a local warehouse and feels extremely fortunate for the help he has gotten since discovering the bombs.

He tries not to dwell on the two years he spent being homeless but hopes to make a difference once he is back on his feet.

“Personally it’s not for me to look back, but I said if I look back it’s to make an exception for those who are still back there in the struggle of homelessness,” he said. “When I get a sufficient chance to help, I sure will. That’s part of being the change, it comes full circle.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

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