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Pine Island residents tight-lipped about Helder

One thing to remember about small towns: They're close-knit. So when more than 50 journalists from several states converged on Pine Island Tuesday, it wasn't surprising that everyone from teachers to retirees to city officials was tight-l...

One thing to remember about small towns: They're close-knit.

So when more than 50 journalists from several states converged on Pine Island Tuesday, it wasn't surprising that everyone from teachers to retirees to city officials was tight-lipped about Luke Helder -- the suspect wanted in connection with the string of mailbox bombs in five states.

Even after hearing that Helder had been arrested Tuesday evening, residents in the city of 2,300 people still had little to say.

"There's probably a reluctance of people to keep you people from making a glorified story out of this," an annoyed Council Member Gary Berg said about the throng of reporters and photographers.

The only council member who answered his telephone, Berg added that he thought the media that suddenly found the city worthy of covering were making a "big deal" out of the issue. "If we had students who went on to some national competition, you wouldn't call me, would you?"

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It was a fairly typical response Tuesday to the countless inquiries about the 21-year-old, which ranged from the ages of the Helder family to whether or not Luke Helder enjoyed being on the golf team.

Jeff Johnson, who graduated from Pine Island High School in 1998 -- one year before Helder graduated -- described Helder as "quiet" and recalled his years as a wide receiver on the football team and as a member of the choir.

"He was a very smart kid," said Johnson, who was still shocked about the news that the FBI had its eyes on a former Pine Island resident.

For some, Tuesday's news carried with it an uneasy echo of a similar event that drew media attention rarely experienced in their town. It's been more than seven years since teen-agers Ryan Postier and Donn Behl were arrested after Behl was accused of shooting Postier's brother, Brad, with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and killing him.

Yet in that span of seven years little has happened to draw any media attention to the city's residents, some of whom admitted Tuesday they were staying quiet simply to protect their neighbors. In this case, their neighbors were a family of three pleading for Helder to return home -- and for the media spotlight to dim.

"We really do need our privacy. This is really tough," Cameron Helder said in a statement about his son.

Inside the school, Superintendent Brian Grenell simply acknowledged that Luke Helder attended school there and graduated in 1999. Within an hour the school was closed to journalists.

At the American Legion, the otherwise quiet bar was filled with the breaking news. Jerry Koenig, 70, has lived in Pine Island for more than 40 years and said he knows Helder's parents, Cameron and Pam, well. "There's a shallow part in my heart that says, 'I hope you didn't do it, kid,' " he said, adding that his only real interest was in the Helder family's well-being. "They're the only ones I'm concerned about."

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Fielding is a staff writer for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, a Forum Communications newspaper.

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