When they arrested William Gregory McGrath two Decembers ago, Charleston-area authorities mentioned him in the same breath as Timothy McVeigh, the man who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building a decade earlier.
Local investigators and federal terrorism agents had collaborated to put McGrath behind bars on a charge of planting a destructive device - a crude mix of shrapnel and an ignition source - at Trident Technical College in 2012. The FBI added his name to its Terrorist Watchlist.
They announced their finding during a news conference.
But McGrath insisted then that he didn't understand the accusation, and two years later, after prosecutors dropped the charge, he has claimed in court filings that investigators ignored signs that someone might have tried to frame him or his estranged wife and that they failed to pursue a more likely suspect: a woman bent on revenge against his wife for testifying against her in a Florida criminal case.
The 37-year-old former Trident Tech student has alleged a series of missteps in a lawsuit against Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon and other law enforcement officials. They include detectives eager to wrap up the probe before that Christmas, a deputy with a personal grudge against the suspect and a misinterpretation of McGrath's $10 worth of fireworks as a sign of his aspirations of mass destruction.
The litigation seeks monetary damages and alleges defamation, constitutional violations, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and other injuries McGrath said he suffered from a drummed-up charge. His name remains on the Terrorist Watchlist, the suit stated.
"It was hard for him and his family," said Ryan Andrews, his Mount Pleasant attorney. "He was essentially labeled a domestic terrorist. ... He was likened to Timothy McVeigh."
Cannon questioned the validity of the claim that the bomb was a setup eventually implicating McGrath. He could not explain exactly, though, why the charges against McGrath were dropped.
But the sheriff added that the investigation unfolded rapidly during the school's winter break, and his detectives and their partners were concerned about staffers' and students' safety with a potential bomber on the loose.
"At the same time ... it doesn't do any good just to arrest somebody only to have somebody else do it again some other day," Cannon said. "You've got to have a reason for doing it. Your credibility is an issue. If you charge someone for the purpose of charging someone, that can blow up in your face."
McGrath moved from the state after the case was dropped, and his attorney said he could not make his client available for an interview. The Post and Courier's attempts to reach McGrath were not successful.
Sandy Senn, a West Ashley attorney representing the approximately one dozen authorities named in the lawsuit, had not immediately filed a formal response to the Dec. 2 complaint. But after reading it, she said McGrath's account still doesn't make sense.
"His complaint reads like a mystery novel," Senn said. "He tells a twisted tale full of Russians, revenge, insanity and subterfuge. But the campus bomb was real. Perhaps this civil case will help us solve the mystery of the bomb even though the criminal case against McGrath has ended."
McGrath's lawsuit poses a theory that might have led to his jailing for 37 days before his family could post his bail.
It includes references to his estranged wife's stint in a witness protection program, her connection to the Soviet Union and a possible suspect named Victoria. But the paperwork did not go into detail, and McGrath's attorney refused to answer further questions about the supposed conspiracy.
The situation for Trident Tech began unfolding Dec. 17, 2012, when college email accounts received messages that a bomb in a plastic bag had been dropped in some bushes near the Student Center on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston.
Investigators later said that the email originated from a computer in Russia but that it had likely been rerouted from a terminal elsewhere. McGrath's wife, Mariiya Sergeyevn Kachor, was born in the Russian border state of Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union, according to county marriage records. He was separated from her at the time of the bomb scare.
Local authorities and federal experts found the plastic bag later that day. It contained ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer McVeigh used in his 1995 attack in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, along with nails and an ignition device. Officials said then that they didn't know if it would have blown up, but a bomb squad destroyed it as a precaution.
The ensuing investigation that week led to McGrath's arrest.
Headed by Cannon, authorities announced the development in a news conference five days after the bomb was found. They acknowledged then that questions, such as a motive, remained unanswered. It still wasn't certain whether they could connect McGrath to the emailed bomb threat.
McGrath's attorney, though, faulted how they linked his client to the device.
Authorities found with it some credit card receipts belonging to McGrath's wife, which prompted them to search her home on Mahi Mahi Way in the North Charleston area.
Kachor answered the investigators' questions, according to McGrath's lawsuit, giving them names of people who might want to frame her. She had suspected that someone had stolen the credit card receipts from her trash months earlier and placed them with the device to implicate her.
She explained that she and a man she was living with, Eddie Dumbis, had once been in a witness protection program in Florida after testifying against a woman named Victoria, who had recently been released from prison and had threatened her.
Instead of following that lead, McGrath's suit stated, the investigators used some mail addressed to McGrath that they found at his wife's home as cause for questioning him. During an eight-hour interrogation, the suit stated, McGrath said he had $10 worth of fireworks stored in a shed outside his apartment on Elms Plantation Boulevard, so the detectives got a warrant for it.
But McGrath's attorney argued that any South Carolinian could purchase the fireworks legally, making the information a poor excuse for a warrant. The resulting search on Dec. 20, 2012, which also revealed growing marijuana plants in McGrath's house, was then constitutionally unjust, the lawsuit alleged.
One law officer, once a roommate of McGrath's whose relationship with the suspect had "ended ... hostilely," also participated in the search of the suspect's home, where several pieces of property were destroyed, according to the documents.
Additionally, the authorities were eager to wrap up their investigation "as quickly as possible before the Christmas holidays" so they could spend time with their families, the suit stated.
McGrath landed in Charleston County's jail, and a magistrate set his bail at $100,000 on a felony charge of manufacturing, possessing and placing a destructive device, which is punishable by 25 years to life in prison. He also faced one count of manufacturing marijuana.
He said during his bond hearing two years ago that he had "no idea what this fake bomb charge is about."
The case survived a preliminary hearing, during which a magistrate examined whether the police had probable cause to make an arrest. But Andrews, McGrath's attorney, noted in paperwork that deputies misled the magistrate by saying they were unsure what kind of fireworks McGrath owned. The fireworks, though, already had been analyzed, and Andrews wrote that the magistrate would have dismissed the charges against McGrath had that information been disclosed.
Andrews faulted the authorities for not announcing when the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office later dropped the charges, which were expunged from McGrath's record.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she could not comment on the case. State law bars authorities from publicly releasing any information about charges that have been expunged.
The experience left McGrath embarrassed and frightened of police, his attorney said. He was evicted from his apartment, and he defaulted on several bills because he wasn't able to work. He said during his bond hearing two years ago that he ran an online sales business. The suit dubbed the authorities' conduct "atrocious and utterly intolerable."
But in an interview, Cannon said mechanisms were in place to address some of McGrath's concerns, including ones to replace any property damaged during a search of his home.
The sheriff also pointed to court rulings that sided with his deputies who had developed probable cause, the basic standard that investigators need for a judge to sign off on an arrest. Prosecutors typically look for more evidence before sending a defendant to trial.
"There are very few cases that are complete when we determine that we have probable cause to believe that a particular crime occurred and that a particular person committed it," Cannon said. "After an arrest, the investigation continues. ... But sometimes, all you have is probable cause, and you don't get any more."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.