Closeup of timers (MST-13) created by MEBO Electronics, a Zurich-based company.
In announcing the indictment of the Libyans in 1991, officials said they began looking at Libya in earnest after the discovery of a tiny fragment of plastic circuit board. They said it was found in the Kielder forest east of Lockerbie. The fragment, no bigger than a child's fingernail, was part of the timing device that triggered the bomb, forensic experts concluded. And eventually, investigators said, the timer led straight to the Libyan government.

Among the mysteries surrounding the fragment is how, when, and by whom it was found. "A lover and his lass" found the fragment while strolling in the forest, according to one police source close to the case. A man found the fragment while walking his dog, according to another version. Or, in yet another story from a former investigator, police found it while combing the ground on their hands and knees.

In any case, an FBI forensic specialist named Tom Thurman was publicly credited with figuring out the fragment's evidentiary importance. Thurman, who then worked in the FBI's Washington DC laboratory, told ABC News in 1991 that he'd matched the Lockerbie timer fragment with one confiscated in West Africa from Libyan agents. "When that identification was made, of the timer, I knew that we had it," Thurman told ABC. Thurman's feelings about his discovery? "Absolute, positively euphoria. I was on cloud nine."

But Thurman was later discredited as a forensic expert. A 1997 report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that in a number of cases other than Lockerbie, Thurman re-wrote lab reports, making them more favorable to the prosecution. The report also recommended Thurman be reassigned to a non-scientific job because he lacked a background in science.

Edwin Bollier, co-owner of Zurich-based MEBO Electronics.
(larger view)
"He's very aggressive, but I think he made some mistakes that needed to be brought to the attention of FBI management," says Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI chemist who worked alongside Thurman for 12 years and filed the complaints that led to the Inspector General's report. Based on his observations of work done by Thurman and others in the FBI lab, Whitehurst says he concluded that "We're not necessarily going to get the truth out of what we're doing here."

Tom Thurman is out of the FBI now; he's teaching in Kentucky. He says Scottish prosecutors and the Justice Department have asked him not to do interviews.

Thurman is just one of the problems prosecutors will face in presenting the timer fragment. Another is the man who allegedly made and sold the timer. At the press conference announcing the indictment in 1991, then-Acting Attorney General William Barr said of the fragment: "Scientists determined that it was part of the timing device and traced it to its manufacturer, a Swiss company that had sold it to a high-level Libyan intelligence official."

Behind the scenes though, Edwin Bollier, a partner in the Zurich-based electronics company, MEBO, was telling a different story. In 1990 police had shown him a photograph of the circuit-board fragment. He agreed that it had come from a circuit board made by his company - a model MST-13. At first Bollier told investigators he'd sold MST-13 timers only to the Libyan government.

The Swiss businessman, however, soon changed his story. He said an employee had reminded him that he'd sold several prototypes of the MST-13 to an institute in Bernau. This institute acted as a front for the former East German secret police, the Stasi. The Stasi were known suppliers and supporters of terrorist groups, including Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC, the Syria-based group first suspected in Lockerbie.

Early in 1991, months before the Lockerbie indictments, Bollier told Scottish investigators that from a photograph alone he couldn't tell from which batch the timer fragment had come. He made repeated requests to examine the fragment itself, in person. Scottish authorities said no, citing "the need to protect the integrity of the evidence," as police put it in a letter to Bollier. In November, 1991, Scottish and American officials indicted the Libyans, citing the timer fragment as a key piece of evidence, without ever having allowed Bollier to examine the fragment up close.

Bollier says he now knows why: his conclusion, he claims, would not have suited the case the British and American governments were building.

In 1998 Bollier obtained what he says is a blown-up photograph of the printed circuit (PC) board fragment that Thurman showed ABC in 1991. Bollier describes the fragment's unfinished edge and a white line with wavy edges that he says prove it was made by hand and a not a machine. "This fragment of PC board is from a prototype timer," Bollier says. "It was made by Mr. Lumpert, an engineer here in our labs. Two of these PC boards eventually became complete timers, and these two I took to what at the time was East Germany."

In other words, Bollier insists, Thurman's fragment perhaps should have strengthened the case against the Syria-based terrorists, the PFLP-GC. It should never have pointed investigators toward Libya at all.

Former CIA official Cannistraro concedes that Bollier sold MST-13 prototypes to the Stasi. He simply dismisses Bollier's claim that the timer that triggered the Pan Am 103 bomb was part of that batch. Don't trust Bollier, Cannistraro says. The Swiss merchant not only did business with the Libyan government, he once rented office space in Zurich to one of the Pan Am 103 defendants, Abdelbaset Megrahi, an alleged Libyan intelligence agent. "Given the fact that [Bollier] has an investment with the Libyans, he's been a supplier of devices that are only used for lethal purposes, and the fact that he has provided cover facilities for Libyan intelligence, I don't know how much you can believe Mr. Bollier," Cannistraro says.

The hostile relationship between Bollier and Lockerbie investigators took a bizarre turn in September of 1999. With a trial finally approaching, the Scottish prosecutors who had refused for eight years to show Bollier the circuit board fragment suddenly invited him to Scotland. As Bollier tells it, a prosecutor, surrounded by four policemen, brought in the fragment in an unmarked plastic sleeve and placed it before him on a table. He says he'd brought his own magnifying glass. "I was surprised at how small it was...."

Bollier says the fragment, just two millimeters by three in size, was different from the one the FBI displayed on television back in 1991. This one, he claims, was machine-made, like the ones he sold to the Libyan government, but now had a new problem: it didn't show traces of solder, which Bollier says should have been present if an electrical relay had ever been attached to the circuit board. In other words, he says, the fragment could never have been used in a bomb.

"As far as I'm concerned, and I told this to [Scottish Prosecutor Miriam Watson], this is a manufactured fragment," Bollier says. "A fabricated fragment, never from a complete, functional timer." Bollier insisted on making a written statement to that effect; the statement was signed by Scottish police witnesses.

The next day, Bollier says, prosecutors brought out the fragment again. This time, he says, it had the soldering traces you'd expect on a used timer. Bollier switches to English to drive home his point, that the soldering points had apparently been added overnight. "It was different. I'm not crazy. It was different!"

Bollier demanded to make another written statement saying that the timer fragment had been tampered with during his visit to Scotland.

At the Lockerbie trial the Scottish judges will have to sort out the charges and counter-charges with the help of forensic scientists.

Former Lockerbie investigators insist that at trial, the evidence will show the Libyan government bought the timer that blew up Pan Am 103. But sources close to the Libyans' lawyers say the defense team isn't worried about the timer. Even if the Libyan government did buy the timer in 1985, the defense will argue, that does not directly link the two Libyan defendants to the bomb that destroyed the Pan Am jet three years later.

Independent legal experts agree. To get a conviction, they say, Scottish authorities must prove something much more specific: that the defendants themselves, Megrahi and Fhimah, planted the bomb that killed those 270 people. The indictment suggests that most of the evidence for that charge is in Malta.

Previous | Next