A Connecticut man was being sought Monday in the failed plot to blow up a bomb-laden SUV in Times Square, sources said.
This “person of interest” bought the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder that was abandoned with the engine running – and with primitive, but potentially deadly payload in the rear – just two weeks ago, law enforcement and police sources told The Daily News.
Investigators aren’t certain whether he is the same man who drove the rolling bomb to the Crossroads of the World, but he has not been seen by his girlfriend – and has not shown up at his home or job – since the frightening incident on Saturday night.
Detectives from the NYPD and FBI identified the SUV owner after tracking down the registration of the previous owner, who told investigators he’d sold the vehicle.
The mystery man met the seller through craigslist.com and paid $1,300 cash for the Pathfinder, the Daily News has learned.
The revelation came as:
– The News learned from sources that forensic evidence found in the Pathfinder points to the possibility that whoever prepared the car bomb has links to foreign terrorists.
– The White House uttered the T-word for the first time in connection with the failed plot that sent a scare through the city. “I would say that was intended to terrorize, and I would say that whomever did that would be categorized as a terrorist,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
– Vehicular traffic in and out of Manhattan slowed to a crawl as officers checked suspicious looking trucks entering the East River tunnels – and gave New Yorkers a jarring flashback to the tense days after the 9/11 attacks.
– Police were still trying to identify a man who was caught on tape moments after the SUV – packed with enough fuel, fertilizer and explosives to ignite a massive fireball – was abandoned in Times Square.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned the person on the tape may not be a suspect.
“It was a hot day,” he said. “Maybe he was just changing his shirt. And this is Times Square, where you have the Naked Cowboy.”
Security cameras captured a white man who appears to be in his 40s leaving the scene on W. 45th St. while the Pathfinder sat with its engine running, hazard lights flashing – and smoke curling from its vents.
On the video, the man takes off a dark shirt to reveal a red one underneath as he hurries along Shubert Alley.
“He looks around, takes off that shirt, puts it in a bag and continues to walk south, looking a couple of times in a furtive manner,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
A Pennsylvania tourist who was videotaping mounted cops in Times Square reported he also may have filmed the suspect “lunging” away from the car. But the NYPD detectives who checked out the film found nothing of value, police said.
Cops found dozens of M-88 firecrackers, three tanks of BBQ-style propane, two red plastic jugs of gasoline and a metal locker densely packed with eight supermarket bags of fertilizer inside the Pathfinder.
The whole shebang was wired to two cheap yellow old-fashioned travel alarm clocks set to work in tandem – one to blow up the propane tanks and the other to explode the contents of the locker.
Experts are investigating why the bomb didn’t detonate.
The fertilizer was not explosive-grade and would not have produced the kind of devastation associated with ammonium nitrate bombs – like the one in Oklahoma City in 1995.
But the propane tanks pack an explosive punch that could have shattered windows and done all kinds of damage in Times Square, officials said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for federal funding for a Midtown surveillance program that would use security cameras and license plate scanners to record and track every vehicle moving between 34th and 59th Streets.
Cops continue to look into a possibility that the car bomb was payback to Comedy Central for airing a “South Park” cartoon that lampooned censorship by showing the Prophet Muhammed in a bear suit, sources told the Daily News.
The Pathfinder was parked by the “Lion King” marquee on W. 45th St., right next to the 1515 Broadway headquarters of Viacom, which owns Comedy Central.
The plot to set Times Square ablaze was foiled by two sharp-eyed street vendors who spotted smoke seeping from the car just after 6:30 p.m. Saturday and alerted mounted Officer Wayne Rhatigan, who sounded the alarm.
Police quickly discovered that the plate on the Pathfinder was stolen and came back to a different car that was being repaired at Kramer’s Used Auto Parts in Stratford, Conn.
The SUV’s vehicle identification number was defaced, but detectives were able to find it stamped on the engine block to get a lead on the current owner.