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California and the West

5 Arrested in Theft of Police Explosives Near Fresno

Crime: Officers say the suspects apparently are not part of a militia or violent group. The cache found is much larger than the amount reported stolen.

January 04, 2000|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — Four young men and one juvenile were arrested on theft charges Monday after law enforcement authorities discovered hundreds of pounds of stolen police dynamite, military rockets, grenades, gunpowder and detonators in the hills above Fresno.

The four 18-year-olds and the juvenile were not believed to be part of any militia or violent group, authorities said. But the stolen cache was several times larger and more powerful than the collection of explosives that Fresno police reported missing last week from their bomb squad bunker in the foothills here.

Police Chief Ed Winchester conceded that the discrepancy raised serious questions about the department's ability to safeguard deadly explosives. He said he was disturbed by the apparent lax accounting, and ordered an internal affairs investigation of the matter.

"Obviously, there's a great deal of concern that we didn't know precisely what was stored in the bunker and what was taken," said Police Lt. John Fries. "The process and the procedures--everything about storing and inventorying explosives--is now under review."

Police offered no theories about what the group was planning to do with the stolen material.

The stored explosives were used by the bomb squad to destroy ammunition and bombs confiscated in the central San Joaquin Valley. But police officials are now asking themselves why so many explosives were kept in a concrete and earthen bunker that was secured only by a chain link fence and two doors, without a burglar alarm.

The theft occurred just days before the new year, and heightened fears of a planned act of violence on the eve of the millennium. Police had assured residents that only 200 pounds of dynamite and gunpowder had been stolen and that the thieves had left behind blasting caps and other important devices needed to detonate powerful military explosives.

But when the cache was discovered Sunday night in four locations in foothill communities above Fresno, it became clear that the thieves had taken three to four times that amount. The stolen material included a five-pound cannon projectile, scores of grenades, dynamite sticks, blasting caps, hundreds of feet of detonator cord and fuses and numerous one-pound cans of gunpowder.

"There's some pretty devastating stuff in there," said Dan Cervantes, a spokesman for the Fresno County sheriff's office, which arrested the five suspects.

Charged Monday with burglary and possession of destructive devices were Brent Bryan Parker, Robert James Anderson, Michael Cody Jones, Jeffery Robert Bledsoe, all 18, and the juvenile. Authorities said the five are friends who live in the foothill communities of Prather and Auberry and nearby valley towns.

They said anonymous tips led them to several hiding places, including an abandoned shed and a space beneath some rocks. A task force of agents from the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, local police and sheriff's deputies assisted in the investigation, which is ongoing.

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