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Explosion Leads to Unusual Murder Trial

Court: A shell sold as military scrap killed a Fontana metal worker, and the man who signed off on the shipment is being tried. Defense says he is being singled out as scapegoat.


FONTANA — Dick's Auto Wreckers is one of a dozen dismantling and scrap metal yards along gritty Whittram Avenue, but it has remained closed for more than a year, ever since Martin Mendoza was killed for just doing his job.

Mendoza, 22, had worked at Dick's for more than two years--dutifully sending money to his family in Mexico. Last year, he put a blowtorch to what was believed to be scrap metal that came from Ft. Irwin, the Army's huge desert training base near Barstow.

It turned out to be a live 105-millimeter antitank shell, and its blast--equivalent to more than two pounds of TNT--killed him instantly.

The tragedy has led to a highly unusual murder prosecution, in which a critical ruling is due this week.

The shell, of course, should never have left the military base. It was among 1.4 million pounds of scrap metal that Dick's had bought from the Department of Defense, so it could separate the aluminum and steel to sell to recyclers.

The 105-millimeter shell wasn't the only live ordnance found at Dick's. After the March 18, 1997 incident, state and military investigators cautiously combed through the heap and found 55 more military pieces deemed "explosive," some capable of causing injury or death. Among the dangerous items was a live 90-millimeter round that Mendoza had not yet gotten to.

How the ordnance, small and large, was able to get off the base has been the subject of military review, civil lawsuits and, in the most dramatic case, the criminal prosecution.

The San Bernardino County district attorney's office has charged a civilian employee at Ft. Irwin with second-degree murder for Mendoza's death.

On Thursday, a San Bernardino County judge is scheduled to decide whether the man, Timothy Collister, a Vietnam veteran and explosives expert, should stand trial.

The Army hires civilian companies to scour its live-fire ranges for scrap metal that can be safely sold to salvagers. Collister, 56, was in charge of that operation at Ft. Irwin, and it was allegedly under his watch that the 105-millimeter shell--and the other ordnance--slipped off the base and into Dick's scrap yard in industrial Fontana.

"We felt that within the management [of scrap metal removal off base], you had one person who had responsibility, one person who was in control of the yard and who signed the certification that the scrap metal was safe," Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Umeda said. That man, he said, was Collister, "and the buck stopped with him."

Collister's attorney, James Blatt, said his client is being unfairly singled out for a process that failed partly for bureaucratic reasons.

"It's an outrage that of all the individuals involved in this process, including generals to the top brass at the Department of Defense, Mr. Collister was selected as the scapegoat, to take the fall for this tragic incident," Blatt said.

"Here's a man who has served 26 years in the military, had numerous commendations, searched for missing pilots in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, dismantled mine fields and who has received the highest accolades from every civilian employer," Blatt said. "It's a tragedy that Mr. Mendoza is dead, but there are plenty of officials who can share the blame. It's not second-degree murder."

Among the issues, Blatt said, is whether Collister was specifically required by contract to personally inspect every piece of scrap metal leaving Ft. Irwin, and whether Collister's certification that the material is safe is meant to be absolute, or simply reflect the best of his knowledge.

Umeda, the prosecutor, said he may reduce the charge to involuntary manslaughter when he and Blatt go before San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael Smith on Thursday. Smith already has conducted the preliminary hearing on whether Collister should be held for trial on second-degree murder charges, but he delayed his decision to consider additional legal arguments.

Attorneys and government agencies say they don't remember any other case in which a civilian has been killed by military ordnance off a base. They also say that it is extremely rare for second-degree murder charges to be filed in industrial accidents.

The risk of live munitions leaving military bases was not isolated to this incident, it turned out. A subsequent Department of Defense investigation revealed that from 1995 to mid-April 1997, there were 62 cases of explosive or dangerous devices being mistakenly sold to the public, ranging from bombs to bullets.

At issue in this case, said Umeda, is to what degree Collister exhibited negligence in allowing the shell to leave Ft. Irwin. A second-degree murder charge requires a finding that the defendant showed a deliberate and reckless disregard for human life. Involuntary manslaughter is charged when there is a conscious indifference to the consequences of the action.

A second-degree murder conviction carries a prison sentence of 15 years to life; an involuntary manslaughter conviction is punishable by two to four years in prison, or probation.

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