CLEVELAND — A suspect in an explosion at a California synagogue was charged in federal court on Tuesday with fleeing to avoid prosecution after the blast last week that shattered windows and punched a hole in a building.
An affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said Ron Hirsch, 60, violated federal law when he traveled from California to Ohio sometime between Thursday and Monday, when he was arrested in suburban Cleveland Heights.
A Greyhound agent in Los Angeles told authorities that Hirsch bought a ticket to New York — using cash and requesting a senior citizens’ discount — using the name J. Fisher a few hours after the explosion, according to the warrant.
Hirsch, also known as Israel Fisher, is a transient known to spend time at synagogues and other Jewish community centers seeking charity.
He was wanted in California on state charges of possession of a destructive device and unrelated local charges.
Federal authorities charged him with flight to avoid prosecution for damaging or destroying a building.
The explosion last Thursday near Chabad House Lubavitch of Santa Monica sent chunks of concrete and a heavy pipe crashing into the roof of a nearby house. Authorities said a child was sleeping almost underneath where the device landed.
Investigators do not have a motive for the blast, and Jewish groups said they did not believe anti-Semitism was necessarily behind it.
Hirsch was linked to the explosion by a mailing label on a box of demolition agent found addressed to him across the street from the site of the explosion, according to the FBI’s warrant.
Authorities said Hirsch was arrested in Ohio after a rabbi became suspicious of a man asking for a place to stay.
When approached by police, he offered his actual name, birthdate and social security number, and he told officers that he had come to Cleveland Heights from California for kidney surgery.
Hirsch is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland said. Authorities did not say whether he had an attorney.
Authorities initially believed the blast was an industrial accident, but they now say the device was deliberately constructed and items found at the scene were linked to Hirsch. The FBI said the confusion came from the device’s strange construction — explosives inside hundreds of pounds of concrete and poured into a trashcan.
Investigators believe Hirsch boarded a New York-bound Greyhound bus after the blast. He is believed to have family in New York.
Surveillance cameras captured him getting off the bus in Denver on Friday evening, going to the ticket counter and then boarding another eastbound bus, FBI spokesman Dave Joly in Denver said.
On Monday night, Rabbi Sruly Wolf said another rabbi, who didn’t want to be identified because he was apprehensive, called him and said he thought he recognized a visitor to the Agudath Israel graduate study program near a synagogue. The man had asked for a place to stay Sunday night and was put up in a hotel because he didn’t provide appropriate identification to allow him to stay at a guest apartment, Wolf said Tuesday.
Wolf advised the rabbi to call police, and he did.
Neighbors near the site of the Santa Monica explosion described Hirsch as a quiet man who sometimes slept by the side of the synagogue. In Ohio, he seemed to go to a familiar locale for help.
“He felt comfortable enough to come into a community that offered him shelter and offered him money because the Orthodox community is very hospitable and takes care of its own,” Wolf said.
Jerry Elliot of Cleveland Heights said he saw the suspect taken into custody at a study hall for a Hebrew school.
Elliot said the man believed to be Hirsch was wearing a blue jacket and jeans, unlike most of the people who come to study who dress in suits.
“His clothes were rather unconventional. He looked like he came from the beach,” Elliot said. “He just looked like an innocent old soul.”