PITTSBURGH - A 70-year-old man has been jailed on charges he made a bomb threat that prompted the evacuation of South Hills Village mall Sunday night.
The suspect, Frank Zahler, walked into the Barnes and Noble store about 6:15 p.m. and made reference to having bomb-making materials in his bag from the Boston Marathon bombings, according to the criminal complaint.
“When he came in he had this big briefcase. It wasn’t just a leather briefcase, but a very hard, durable-looking briefcase and a gym bag. I saw him fidget with it under the table and just thought it was really odd,” witness Melissa Roman said.
Investigators said two customers who heard him alerted the store’s manager, who then called police.
Police responded and took Zahler into custody at Red Robin and removed his bags from the restaurant to the sidewalk outside the food court.
The Allegheny County Bomb Squad was called, and technicians checked the suspect's two duffel bags, a metal briefcase and his car before determining nothing he had posed a threat, Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey said.
“Just the mention of a bomb or bomb materials this week, it made people nervous and they called police,” Mackey said.
Witness Scott Ross, 36, of Bridgeville said he and his girlfriend were waiting for their food at Red Robin when the man came in, and he immediately struck them as unusual.
“He was struggling to take his sweatshirt off; you know, pulling his T-shirt off with it... then he just sat there, doodling on his napkin or something,” Ross said.
Police officers soon came into the restaurant and quietly took the man into custody, Ross said. A few minutes later, management asked everyone to leave the restaurant via another entrance to the mall, away from the food court.
By 6:30 p.m., most of the mall had closed, Mackey said, but employees and customers of the Red Robin, Carmike Cinemas, Target and Barnes and Noble had to wait at the edges of the mall parking lot until the bomb squad was finished.
The packages were determined to be safe and people were allowed back to their cars shortly after 9 p.m.
Zahler, who claims it was a joking remark that has been blown out of proportion, told Channel 11 News that, “In my day, we would have laughed it off. There’s no hope.”
“That’s crazy. I was making a joke with a kid,” Zahler said when asked about the alleged threat. “These hoity toity kids are whacky. What can you do with them?”
He’s charged with threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction, terroristic threats and risking a catastrophe.
The mall reopened Monday morning, and shoppers like Fred Federoff commended those who alerted police about the situation.
“I just think that the people that are looking out for each other and say something are very important. They could save lives,” Federoff said.
Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.