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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Teen Pleads Not Guilty to Bomb Charges

May 04, 1999|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Hueneme High School student accused of manufacturing pipe bombs in his bedroom pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of possessing explosive devices and bomb-making materials.

With a dozen friends and family members looking on, Jose Carlos Herrera, 18, appeared for a brief arraignment in Ventura County Superior Court and denied felony charges of making at least eight homemade bombs.

Oxnard police evacuated 200 people from their homes and arrested the teenager last Thursday after receiving a tip that he was constructing explosive devices and had threatened to blow up the high school.

But after interviewing more than 100 of Herrera's classmates, authorities said they do not believe the teen--a nearly straight-A student with no criminal record--was planning to hurt anyone.

Nevertheless, prosecutors urged Judge Edward Brodie on Monday to continue holding Herrera on $500,000 bail--the same amount reserved for murder suspects.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Hendrickson told Brodie that Herrera was a risk to himself, having allegedly threatened suicide in the past, and to the community because of his bomb manufacturing.

"If in fact [the bombs] would have gone off," he said, "this would literally have taken out blocks" of south Oxnard.

But defense attorney Victor Salas asked the judge to lower Herrera's bail, arguing that $500,000 was too high for a high school senior who built bombs "as a hobby" and never threatened to harm anyone with them.

Salas told the judge his client posed no risk to himself or others now that the devices have been seized by police. He argued that the case has been exaggerated in the wake of the massacre in Littleton, Colo.

Brodie was not persuaded. Without comment, he granted the prosecution's bail request. Outside the courtroom, Salas told reporters he was disappointed by the decision.

"We've got a scared 18-year-old sitting in the bucket," he said, recalling how Herrera's first question in custody was whether his parents were mad at him.

"He wasn't out to hurt anybody," Salas said. "We're dealing with a scared population and a bunch of excited kids."

Police arrested Herrera on Thursday after receiving a tip that he had threatened to bomb Hueneme High, where he is set to graduate this year. School officials said three or four girls also came forward to say they were aware that Herrera made bombs at home.

Herrera and his parents allowed authorities to search their East Pleasant Valley Road home. Police said they found several explosives, materials that could be used to make a bomb, a shotgun, and several BB and pellet guns in the boy's bedroom.

Police said the door to the room was equipped with an alarm.

From the onset, Herrera denied making threats and repeatedly told officers he was interested in making bombs only because he hoped to someday join the military as a demolition expert.

"It's something that has been a dream of his," Salas said, adding that his client stands no chance of a military career if he is convicted of a felony.

Navy recruiters said, conviction or not, it is unlikely that Herrera would be accepted now because of his arrest. All recruits must undergo an FBI background check, which includes arrest records.

Even if Herrera is cleared of wrongdoing, they said, he still would have to face a military waiver board and provide a written statement explaining his involvement.

And even if he were accepted into the Navy, officials said he would never earn the security clearance needed to work in the Explosive Ordnance Detail.

"It is the military we are talking about. It's not like getting a job at McDonald's," said Petty Officer Chad Geers, who works at the Navy's recruitment office in Thousand Oaks.

"Right now, we don't make judgments on whether he did or didn't, but if he has a court procedure pending against him, he probably canceled his chances," Geers said. He added that Herrera would have stood out as a top recruit given his good grades and lack of a criminal record. "It's too bad, because he would have been an excellent candidate."

Herrera visited a recruiting office in Oxnard on April 26 and took a practice test that measures mental aptitude, according to Navy Petty Officer Ed Bautista. All potential recruits take the practice test to prepare for a standardized armed services exam that is given to anyone who enters the military.

Herrera is scheduled to appear in court May 25 for a preliminary hearing. Meanwhile, prosecutors won't say whether his parents may also face charges in connection with the case.

According to police, Herrera's mother and stepfather knew he was making bombs and told him to get rid of the devices after the Littleton incident.

But Herrera's older sister told The Times last week that her parents had no idea he was building bombs. Salas said Monday he was unsure whether the parents had known about the devices or just knew their son had an interest in explosives.

Students told authorities last week that Herrera did not hide his fascination with bomb making. He often videotaped himself blowing up toys, pumpkins and other household items, and showed the video to students at school.

Salas said numerous videotapes were seized during the search of Herrera's home, in addition to at least eight pipe bombs.

The attorney said Herrera was never careless with the explosives he made, telling reporters that his client had a "concussion box" that allowed him to detonate the devises safely.

On Monday, bomb experts with the county Sheriff's Department began to examine the explosives and determine how many are live. Sgt. Robert Garcia, a member of the bomb squad, said some may be detonated in a safe location while others will be preserved as evidence.

Times staff writer Tina Dirmann and Times Community News reporter Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this story.

Attendance at county schools moves closer to normal. B5

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