WEST MEMPHIS -- The chairman of the Arkansas State Medical Board remained in critical condition at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis late Wednesday after a bomb exploded in the driveway of his West Memphis home about 8 a.m.
Dr. Trent Pierce, 54, who's been in private family practice since 1983, lost sight in his left eye in the blast and had at least three surgeries throughout the day as surgeons worked to salvage his right eye and remove metal shards from his neck and abdomen.
"This was not an accidental explosion," said Stuart L. Lowrey, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' New Orleans Field Division. "We're confident this was a criminal act." There were no leads to report late Wednesday and any possible motives were unknown, said West Memphis Police Chief Robert H. Paudert. Officials haven't yet determined whether it was a random act or whether Pierce was targeted.
"There have been no complaints and no threats to him that we know of," he said.
The ATF is leading the investigation and had 18 special agents canvassing the scene for clues Wednesday.
Six federal, state and local law enforcement agencies from three states are cooperating in the criminal investigation.
There are about 3,000 explosive incidents each year in the United States, Lowrey said. The ATF is called in to investigate about 99 percent of those, most of which are nonterrorist, criminal acts.
Paudert, a patient of Pierce's, said it's the first car bombing he's had in more than 40 years of law enforcement. He described the incident as a "terrorist act" on a well-respected and muchloved doctor. The community is in shock, he said.
"This is just something that doesn't happen in this area," Paudert said. "It's a warped individual that would do something like this." A witness reported that the explosion occurred about 7:58 a.m., shaking windows and rattling nerves within a one-mile radius of the house where Pierce and his wife live at 411 Avalon St. in the heart of West Memphis, Paudert said.
His wife, who was inside when Pierce left the house, told police she heard the explosion and ran outside, where she found her husband lying in a flower bed about six feet from where his white Lexus RX 400 H hybrid sport utility vehicle was parked in the driveway, he said.
She flagged down a passer-by, who called 911.
Put in an ambulance, Pierce arrived at Crittenden Regional Medical Center about 8:10 a.m., said the hospital's chief executive officer, Jamie Carter. Doctors worked to stabilize him before he was transported by helicopter to The Regional Medical Center in Memphis at 8:30 a.m.
There doctors worked to save his right eye and remove shrapnel from his abdomen and neck. Pierce was expected to be moved to a specialized burn unit in Ohio once he was stabilized, Paudert said, but officials did not know which unit.
"He has severe burns on his face," Paudert said. "His condition is still very critical at this point." Lowrey said he couldn't provide any details on what type of explosive device was used, how powerful it was, how it was detonated or whether it was in, on or near the car at the time of the blast. As well as injuring Pierce, the explosion ripped apart the front of the car on the driver's side but didn't damage the house.
"All of that is under review at this time," he said.
In Little Rock, investigators with the Arkansas State Police spent the afternoon interviewing members of the Arkansas State Medical Board and its staff. A bomb sniffing dog was brought to the board offices at 2100 Riverfront Drive, but nothing was found and board members proceeded with subcommittee meetings as planned, said board attorney Bill Trice.
The board is in charge of licensing and regulating the state's doctors, as well as other select medical professionals, including physicians assistants and occupational therapists.
The board issues medical licenses that allows physicians to practice in the state, and has the power to discipline, including suspending licenses, restricting practice, mandating they meet certain requirements such as completing drug or alcohol treatment programs, or terminating their licenses.
Pierce was appointed to the medical board in 1997, and was named chairman in 2007.
He was scheduled to be in Little Rock to attend the two subcommittee meetings Wednesday, as well as the board's regular quarterly meeting today and Friday.
Trice said he's never heard of anyone making threats against Pierce. He spoke to Pierce by phone Tuesday about the upcoming meetings, but Pierce gave no hint of any problems, he said.
While the medical board's work can be contentious, nothing on the current agenda was any more controversial than usual, Trice said.
"This was not on anyone's radar," Trice said.
Vice Chairman Dr. Joseph Beck will serve as acting chairman until Pierce can return to the board.
"I'm just shocked," said Carter of Crittenden Regional, who's known Pierce for about three years.
He described Pierce as very well respected in the medical community and well liked by his patients.
"He's very caring, and very passionate about medicine," Carter said.
Pierce graduated from medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1980. He has two grown children and lives with his wife.
"He's the kind of guy you'd want to go to when you need help," Trice said. "For anyone to endure the type of injury and violence and for a man who has given his life to treating patients there's no justification." Pierce's private practice at 301 W. Polk Ave. was closed Wednesday, and the parking lot was empty. A handwritten sign on the front door read "Office closed due to an emergency." People across the state were shaken by the news of a bomb explosion.
"It was a terrible shock to everyone here this morning, like I'm sure it was everywhere else," said Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe.
Reached at his office Wednesday morning, Medical Board member Dr. Harold B. Betton said Pierce is "one of the finest men I've ever known." Paudert said most of Pierce's patients are elderly. He described Pierce as a quiet, mild-mannered man who speaks in a "soft, low tone." "He's extremely well-known and well respected in the community," he said. "That's why this is just a shock. We're shocked and saddened." Investigators plan to continue canvassing the neighborhood, and interviewing friends, family and anyone who may have had contact with Pierce.
Paudert said the department has also stepped up security at Crittenden Regional Medical Center and asked physicians there to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.
"We're going to find out who did this," Paudert said.
Tip line The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives asks people to call the tip line with information about the bombing. The number is (888) 283-2662.