NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The 911 call came in to the police around 7.30am Monday (Jan 4): A car was stopped in the middle of the circular ramp at the Queens Place Mall parking garage, leaking fumes. A fuel canister with wires attached was sitting on the car's trunk.
Within minutes, New York City police officers began evacuating the mall and nearby stores and streets, fearing that the vehicle - a Tesla with Nevada plates that appeared to be stolen - was an improvised car bomb.
By 11.30am, the police had determined that the strange collection of cans and wires on the trunk was not an explosive device.
Hours later, law enforcement officials said investigators were seeking a 22-year-old man with extremist right-wing views who had been arrested twice last week on charges that he burned posters near Gracie Mansion.
The man being sought, Louis Shenker, was well known to the police and federal agents for antagonising officers and protesters at demonstrations against police brutality last year and for attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio on an Instagram account, one of the officials said on condition of anonymity, as the investigation was continuing.
Shenker also had his own podcast known as "The Minuteman", on which he aired his far-right views, the official said. Among other things, he had threatened to conduct a citizen's arrest of de Blasio and had said he intended to travel to Georgia to try and disrupt the run-off election Tuesday that will decide control of the United States Senate.
In December, Shenker was interviewed by the FBI because of threats he had made while live-streaming during an anti-mask protest at a pub in Staten Island that had defied a state order to shut down, the official said.
The police were also seeking a second person who had been seen in the car with Shenker earlier Monday, the official said.
Mr John Miller, the deputy commissioner of the Police Department's intelligence bureau, said at a news briefing that the appearance of the materials in the car was concerning enough that the department's bomb squad treated it as a bomb.
"When you looked into the back of the car, you could see a tank - a gas tank - that had wires coming out of it," he said.
He added that investigators were eventually able to determine it was not an explosive device, but "based on their expertise, it appeared to be". Mr Miller called the materials a "hoax device" and said investigators were operating under the theory that the car had been left where it was, in the state that it was in, with the intention of causing panic.
Police interest in Shenker was first reported by NBC News.
The law enforcement official said that police officers who were patrolling the area had first encountered Shenker and another man in the parking garage around 5am Monday. The two men told the police their car had broken down and they intended to get help fixing it. After a brief conversation, the officers left.
But the police returned to the parking garage after a 911 caller reported the car was blocking the ramp and said it looked suspicious. When they arrived, they found that Shenker and the other man had left, the car's windows had been blocked with cardboard and a butane canister, surrounded by wires and cords, had been left on the car's trunk.
They also found a husky dog sitting calmly in the back seat of the car.
After his arrest last week, Shenker was charged with misdemeanor counts of arson and criminal mischief in Manhattan, court records show. His next court date is scheduled for March 3, 2020. A spokesman for New York County Defender Services, which is representing him in the matter, declined to comment.
After the potential bomb was reported, helicopters circled overhead and officials blocked off and redirected traffic on streets where more than 20 emergency vehicles were parked. Dozens of police and fire officials were gathered outside the mall and near the parking garage.
Rattled customers and mall employees waited outside for more than two hours, until the bomb squad determined the vehicle was not a threat.
Umme Sheuli, who works at a pharmacy near the mall and was evacuated around 9am, said the morning had been scary, particularly in the light of the bombing in downtown Nashville, where Anthony Quinn Warner detonated an RV full of explosives, injuring several people.
"You just never think something like this will happen here," Sheuli said.
The incident also comes amid heightened political tensions on the eve of the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden. Law enforcement officials have warned for months that it could be a catalyst for civil unrest.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump are expected to gather in Washington to protest the congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election, which Mr Trump has falsely claimed was fraudulent.
Mr Miller said several handwritten signs were found inside the vehicle, but he did not describe what they said or say whether any of them were political in nature. A computer and food were also discovered in the clutter.
"Traffic was tied up, stores were denied their ability to enter, a medical facility had patients with appointments who had to wait," Mr Miller said. "A great deal of inconvenience was incurred by an act that seems deliberate to cause that inconvenience and expense."