By Scott Sonner

Associated Press

RENO, Nev. -- The FBI said Luke Helder's alleged string of pipe bombings was part of an "elaborate plan" but wouldn't say if it included targeting mailboxes in a "smiley-face" pattern across the central United States, as Helder claimed.

The 21-year-old college art student, who is accused of putting 18 pipe bombs in mailboxes in five states, told authorities about his plan to make a pattern on the map, a Nevada sheriff said Thursday.

"There was a comment made to one of my officers about his hope to make a smiley face when he was all finished," said Sheriff Ron Skinner of Pershing County, near where Helder was caught.

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Skinner said Helder made the comments to an undercover Pershing County officer shortly after his arrest. "His demeanor was very jovial. He didn't seem to be taking anything seriously at the time," the sheriff said.

The first 16 bombs were arranged in two circles, one in Illinois and Iowa and the other in Nebraska. On a map, the circles could resemble the eyes of a smiling face. The final two bombs, found in Colorado and Texas, form an arc that could be the beginning of a smile.

FBI officials wouldn't comment on that report, though they did offer other details on Helder's comments after his arrest.

"Helder referred to an elaborate plan that he was prepared to carry out and that he was willing to die for it or go to prison for it," FBI special agent Scott French of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno.

Helder's father, Cameron, and his mother, Pamela, had an "emotional" meeting with their son at the county jail in Reno on Thursday, Washoe County Sheriff Dennis Balaam said. Afterward Cameron Helder met with reporters outside.

"We are here to see our son in his hour of need. We told him we love him," Cameron Helder said. "I feel a lot better after speaking to him."

Reading from a handwritten statement, the father said he expects his son's legal proceedings to be a long process.

"It's already been very hard on us," he said. "Our heart goes out to the families of the victims and the victims."

He thanked the FBI and the sheriff's department for making the visit possible "so we have a better understanding of what is going through his mind and what is happening."

He declined to take questions and urged the media to leave his family alone.

"We do need our privacy. And the media has really been hounding us," he said.

U.S. marshals planned to transport Luke Helder this morning from the Washoe County jail in Reno to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an afternoon court appearance on the first of several charges that could send him to prison for life.

Balaam said Helder was headed for California when he was arrested in Nevada on Tuesday. Balaam said he doesn't know what Helder planned to do next.

Helder faces federal charges in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska after being accused of placing homemade bombs that injured six people. He wore a broad smile each time he was transported to and from jail and court over the past two days.

The FBI said Helder placed bombs, along with anti-government notes, in mailboxes in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas. Helder had six bombs with him when he was arrested after a high-speed chase, authorities said.

Helder's father told the FBI on Monday that he believed his son was responsible for the pipe bombings, which began May 3 in Iowa and Illinois. Cameron Helder said he was disturbed about the contents of a letter he received from his son that day, including anti-government statements and references to death.

The FBI issued an alert for the college student from Pine Island, Minn., after his father called authorities. Balaam said the bombing suspect did not seem upset that his father turned him in.

"I think he understands. I don't think there are any ill feelings there at all," the sheriff said. "It was an emotional goodbye. It's a difficult time for all.