San Francisco’s ‘TL Bomber:’ Lone Wolf Detonating Bombs in City Streets or Urban Legend?

An M-1000. [Perry Hall/Flickr]

I compiled a map of reports of neighborhood explosions from 2010–2020 and discovered that the bomber does likely exist, along with a few other groups known for setting off explosives. A suspect who fit the TL Bomber profile exactly was actually arrested in April 2019 (thanks for the tip, Joe Kukura!), which completely fell under the neighborhood’s radar.

It’s common for city residents to hear an onslaught of loud fireworks in the months surrounding the 4th of July holiday, but as described by Reddit and Yelp users below, these explosions are on a whole other bone-shaking level. Additionally, during certain years—particularly 2011–2012, the explosions also occurred during non-summer months—often daily or several times per week. Other years, the blasts have been practically non-existent or very sporadic, likely based on how successful authorities have been at nabbing the culprits and their suppliers that year.

When I first moved to Geary Street on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in 2010, I was frequently jolted awake at 4 a.m. several times a week by these earth-shatteringly loud explosions that seemed to come out of nowhere. The blasts were accompanied by blinding flashes of light and large plumes of smoke, as seen and heard in the below security camera footage originally posted in 2011 on the now defunct EveryBlock and local blog Bluoz. The force was so strong it rattled windows and set off car alarms within a several-block radius.

I remember on one occasion hearing bar-goers yelling up at my building manager, thinking he had dropped the bomb when he went out on the rooftop balcony to investigate.

Screenshot from security camera footage (see below) of someone tossing an explosive from a motorcycle at O’Farrell and Leavenworth.

In addition to the aforementioned posts on the topic, there have been numerous other threads over the past decade in local Reddit, Yelp, and NextDoor communities, as well as on the former neighborhood blog The Tender, speculating on the source of the explosions. Many have claimed the loud bangs are simply transformers exploding or huge metal dumpsters in Civic Center being unceremoniously slammed shut.

The general consensus though is that the explosions are actually from M-80s or M-1000s being dropped either in the middle of local streets or in neighborhood trashcans, newspaper boxes, or sewer drains via car, bike, or motorcycle. Many also suspect the bomber enjoys gleefully watching the ensuing confusion and frustration they create—on- and offline.

Security camera footage of an explosive being dropped from a motorcycle and then detonating at O’Farrell and Leavenworth.

From Redditers in this July 2012 thread:

[Original post] Over the past year or so there has been a rash of explosions in the Lower Nob area. Ive seen it on Facebook, Twitter, EveryBlock and even a little on Reddit. I, personally, don’t know if someone is actually setting devices off or if there is some other explanation, but the noise is incredible. Just to illustrate the intensity, about a week ago another explosion happened near my apartment (Bush & Mason) and it set car alarms off for blocks in every direction. It actually reverberated in my apartment and set my cat sprinting for cover…and there is never any damage or debris found — just earth shattering bursts that freak everyone the fuck out.

I both heard a single loud BANG and saw a single, very bright FLASH while working atop the Hilton on O’Farrell one night. We couldn’t tell what happened at all but car alarms went off and a nearby firetruck put on its siren and circled the block a few times, then nothing happened. I was very confused by what could bang so loud, flash so bright (looked like blanket lightning even from the 26th floor) and could result in no news or police.

I’ve always been told it’s an M-80 being set off. It’s been happening as long as I’ve lived in this neighborhood- so at least 7 or 8 years. When I first moved in, I thought it was someone dropping a dumpster on a metal grate. Nope! M-80.

i hear the same thing on Leavenworth and O’farrell a lot. once it was so bright i saw the flash through my eyelids as i was dozing off to sleep. It always seems to happen in the intersections. i will always see a puff of smoke drifting in the direction of the wind afterwards when i look outside. real fucking LOUD!!

Audio of a blast caught by a security camera at Rose Hotel on 6th Street, followed by the sounds of nearby car alarms.

Yelpers in this thread from July 2011 described similar experiences:

I have been wondering this for a year now. One night it was so freaking loud that it set of building alarms. Not just car alarms. The Laundromat across the street’s alarm got set off and the whole block was covered in smoke. Lots of peeps just standing around trying to figure it out and the police never showed up to even take a look. This was no firework. This was a motherfucking bomb type sound.

I heard one the other day so close that soon as it went off it felt like the widows shook and I launched several feet in the air…but when I ran to the window I couldn’t see anyone running off an didn’t hear any sirens…I’m guessing at this point whoever is doing it is having a blast knowing how confused everyone is. I heard from a woman who asked the TL police department about it that the cops don’t know what it is or who is responsible, but it’s really starting to frustrate them and apparently they are as flustered by it as everyone else.

The above social media threads also include numerous accounts of bar-goers bringing explosives to the neighborhood from Chinatown, along with two groups of people who frequently set them off near Ellis and Jones and Turk and Leavenworth.

People in the neighborhood had been in contact with then-Tenderloin police captain Joe Garrity before he was promoted to police commissioner in 2013. Garrity advised people to contact SFPD’s non-emergency line at 415–553–0123 whenever the blasts occurred. Unfortunately, the culprit(s) weren’t seen up close by any eye witnesses until 2019 (see below) leaving police without any leads. Regardless, ongoing efforts to shut down the local manufacture and distribution of explosives and are probably more effective, albeit a never-ending battle.

In recent years, the legend of the “TL Bomber” has taken on a life of its own in our local NextDoor group. The details started off sparse but compelling — he’s been around 15, 20, 25 years (the span of time gets longer each iteration), travels by bike or motorcycle, and there are often long periods of dry spells. Within no time, every single explosion was being credited to the TL Bomber.

After I created my map, it appeared that there probably is one person responsible for a large amount of the explosions in the neighborhood, mainly the ones occurring Sunday–Wednesday, is my guess.

I suspect an enthusiast such as the TL Bomber probably wants to stand out from the amateur weekend revelers and local pranksters.

A man who fits the bill perfectly was actually arrested in April 2019 after being seen by an eye witness placing a homemade rocket at O’Farrell and Leavenworth Streets, which explains why there were only a few reports of explosions that year. The arrest was made in Japantown, a straight shot west from the Tenderloin/ Lower Nob Hill via Geary and Sutter Streets and east via O’Farrell and Post Streets. Of course, he was probably released soon after.

The notable dry spells reflected in the map — sometimes lasting a couple of years — are likely due to how successfully police have been at busting the culprits and their suppliers that year.

In addition to these crackdowns, maybe we can think outside the box a little when it comes to the TL Bomber and the other enthusiasts… How about a location out in the Presidio where they can let off explosives legally and safely to fulfill their obsession without potentially harming themselves or others? I’ll save that question for another post.

For more info on the fascinating history of the illegal Bay Area firework trade check out my post, SF & Illegal Fireworks: Flagrant Lawlessness, Then Crackdowns, Gang Shootout & Shocking Explosion.

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Leanne Maxwell

Leanne Maxwell

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Writer and designer uncovering lesser-known stories surrounding San Francisco culture & history — and beyond.