The lunch rush crowd at Ballston Common Mall — and Arlington County in general — was "really, really lucky" last week that a Molotov cocktail thrown into the mall's food court failed to explode, Police Chief Doug Scott said Tuesday.
Scott, reporting to the Arlington County Board, told elected officials that the crude incendiary device — which has been described as a brown glass bottle that contained a flammable liquid and a cluster of matches — had a lit fuse when it was thrown from an upper level of the mall Thursday.
The bottle hit the inside of the building as it fell toward the food court, knocking the lit fuse out of it, Scott said.
"Had the lit fuse made it all the way down, we would have almost certainly had a fire," he said.
The police chief speculated that 29-year-old Leon Alphans Traille Jr., who local and federal authorities have said threw the device, would have made the matter worse by throwing more homemade explosives into the fire. A bag with three more Molotov cocktails was found on the mall's second floor after the suspect fled.
Arlington police and fire worked with the Commonwealth Attorney's Office and authorities out of Alexandria and Loudoun County, Metro police and mall security, along with numerous federal agencies, including the FBI, CIA, ATF, Justice Department and Homeland Security.
Traille initially faced three charges by the Arlington County Police Department. He was charged with arson in federal court Friday, at which point police vacated the local charges, Scott said.
Some delay in releasing the crime scene at the Ballston mall on the day of the incident was due to investigators trying to determine whether this would be a local or federal case, Scott said.
Arlington chose to defer to federal authorities for several reasons. For one thing, local police were unsure if Traille had any connections to individuals or organizations involved in terrorism, Scott said. Federal forensics also tend to have a quicker turnaround.
"So far we have seen no ties to terrorist organizations or motivations, but I would say those investigations are ongoing," Scott said.
Traille was taken into custody in the Courthouse Plaza outside of the county administration building at 2100 Clarendon Blvd. later Thursday afternoon thanks to a tip from an alert resident.
"He never said anything about the incident," Scott said. "In the interviews, he really hasn't spoken much about what his motivations were."
Police were able to determine Traille was staying at Woodbury Park Apartments, 2335 11th St. N. in the Courthouse community. Investigators spent about two hours Friday searching his apartment and evacuated the units in close proximity to that residence, Scott said. Police made arrangements with the county's Office of Emergency Management beforehand in case those people ended up being displaced overnight or longer.
Arlington has an officer on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and will continue to monitor the case, Scott said. He cited media reports that Traille's attorneys had requested in federal court that he undergo a mental evaluation.
Scott said investigators will spend time reviewing Thursday's incident. "There were points of confusion throughout the afternoon, particularly with the information flow," he said.
After reviewing mall security footage, Scott said investigators were fairly confident they would be able to apprehend Traille, though he wasn't necessarily expecting to find the man that same afternoon.
Arlington County Board Chairwoman Mary Hynes said she commended the police for their excellent work and the community for its awareness during an emergency.
"Being able to nab the guy within a few hours, I think, is actually pretty remarkable," Hynes said.
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