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How a half-eaten burrito led to charges in the firebombing of an anti-abortion office

The Madison, Wis., office of Wisconsin Family Action was firebombed and vandalized on in May 2022. Nearly a year later, federal authorities say they tracked down a suspect with the help of DNA from a half-eaten burrito.
Alex Shur
/
AP
The Madison, Wis., office of Wisconsin Family Action was firebombed and vandalized on in May 2022. Nearly a year later, federal authorities say they tracked down a suspect with the help of DNA from a half-eaten burrito.

Federal authorities say they've charged a suspect in connection with the firebombing of an anti-abortion lobbying group's office in Wisconsin — nearly a year later, and with the help of a half-eaten burrito.

The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it had arrested Madison, Wis., resident Hridindu Sankar Roychowdhury, 29, at an airport in Boston. He had a one-way ticket to Guatemala, the agency said.

He has been charged with one count of attempting to cause damage by means of fire or an explosive, court documents show.

"According to the complaint, Mr. Roychowdhury used an incendiary device in violation of federal law in connection with his efforts to terrorize and intimidate a private organization," Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general of the DOJ's National Security Division, said in a statement.

If convicted, Roychowdhury would face a mandatory minimum penalty of five years and a maximum of up to 20 years in prison.

"Violence is never an acceptable way for anyone to express their views or their disagreement," Robert Wells, assistant director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, said in a statement. "Today's arrest demonstrates the FBI's commitment to vigorously pursue those responsible for this dangerous attack and others across the country, and to hold them accountable for their criminal actions."

NPR has reached out to Roychowdhury's lawyer, a federal defender in Massachusetts, for comment.

What we know about the firebombing

The attack happened on May 8, 2022, about a week after the leak of the draft opinion suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court intended to strike down Roe v. Wade (which it did the following month).

Madison police said at the time that they were investigating a "suspicious fire" inside an office building on the city's north side, where "it appears a specific non-profit that supports anti-abortion measures was targeted."

The office belongs to Wisconsin Family Action (WFA), a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of advancing "Judeo-Christian principles and values in Wisconsin by strengthening, preserving, and promoting marriage, family, life, and liberty."

The organization's president told police that they had been "vocal about their position on abortion rights" in press releases and interviews following the draft opinion leak, according to an 11-page complaint filed in Wisconsin district court this week.

The complaint says police responded to reports of a fire just after 6 a.m. local time on that Sunday — which was also Mother's Day — and found what appeared to have been two Molotov cocktails made out of mason jars.

One of the jars — found broken with its lid and top "burnt black" and a disposable lighter nearby — set a bookcase on fire, while the other had failed to ignite and was spotted across the room "about half full of a clear fluid that smelled like an accelerant."

Someone also had spray-painted in cursive on one of the building's exterior walls: "If abortions aren't safe then you aren't either."

WFA said in a statement after the attack that the office had been empty and no one had been injured.

They went on to accuse liberals of hypocrisy and blamed Democratic leaders like Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers for suggesting "that violence is an acceptable tactic to employ."

Wisconsin officials on both sides of the aisle, including Evers, condemned the attack, as did the White House.

"But did the attack intimidate us? No," WFA President Julaine Appling wrote. "It strengthened our resolve. We will repair our offices, remain on the job, and build an even stronger grassroots effort."

WFA declined to comment on the arrest on Wednesday.

One of two Molotov cocktails ignited inside the office, setting a bookcase on fire.
Alex Shur / AP
/
AP
One of two Molotov cocktails ignited inside the office, setting a bookcase on fire.

It took months, and a burrito break, to find the suspect

The next part of the story involves a lot of forensics and a bit of fast food.

Investigators sent the glass jar and other evidence from the scene to a lab for further analysis, which in turn obtained DNA profiles from three different individuals.

Swabs found DNA from a man, who the complaint calls "Male 1," on the top and bottom of the office window glass, the exterior of the jar, the lighter and the cloth used in the Molotov cocktail.

But that DNA wasn't a match with anyone already in the national database, which meant that authorities — from numerous state and federal agencies — had to turn to other clues.

"For months, our detectives remained committed to finding those responsible for this arson," Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said. "When tips and leads were limited, they never gave up."

In January 2023 demonstrators in Wisconsin took to the state capitol to protest a police shooting in Atlanta, and police there saw surveillance footage of several people spray-painting on capitol grounds. One wrote "We will get revenge" in cursive script that looked similar to the graffiti from WFA's wall.

Authorities were able able to track that suspect to a white Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, registered to an address in Madison. Further investigation linked Roychowdhury to the same address.

On March 1, law enforcement saw a person believed to be Roychowdhury driving the truck, and verified his identity when he parked and stepped outside of the vehicle.

They watched as he discarded a brown fast food bag, then got back in the truck and drove away.

"The contents of the bag included a quarter portion of a partially eaten burrito wrapped in waxed paper, a soiled napkin, a crumpled napkin, a stack of napkins, the wrapper of the burrito, a crumpled food wrapper, four unopened hot sauce packets, and the brown paper bag itself," the complaint says.

Law enforcement sent that evidence to the lab for analysis, and swabbed the burrito for DNA. Weeks later, lab results matched the DNA collected from the contents of the bag to the sample recovered from the scene of the fire.

"Because the items were taken after Roychowdhury discarded them, I believe the DNA is his," detective Cheryl Patty wrote in the complaint.

Later in March, Roychowdhury traveled from Madison to Portland, Maine. Authorities say he purchased a one way ticket to Guatemala from Boston Logan International Airport and was scheduled to depart on Tuesday.

He was arrested at the airport and made his first appearance in a Boston federal court that same day, the Associated Press reports. A judge set a detention hearing for Thursday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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