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Guilt Admitted in Blast Killing 2

Courts: Ex-Rocketdyne supervisor acknowledges illegally storing materials at Santa Susana test site. Jury deadlocked on stiffer charges in earlier trial.


A former Rocketdyne supervisor pleaded guilty Monday to illegally storing explosive materials at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, where a 1994 blast killed two employees.

Joseph E. Flanagan's plea to two misdemeanor charges came three months after a Riverside jury deadlocked on whether he violated federal environmental laws that carry stiffer prison terms, resulting in a mistrial.

Flanagan, 61, of Stanwood, Wash., faces up to one year in federal prison and a $100,000 fine for each misdemeanor count. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin set Flanagan's sentencing for Oct. 21.

In federal court in Riverside on Monday, Flanagan told Timlin that Rocketdyne employees violated federal regulations when they stored explosive materials in a building that "was not kept clean and free of grit, paper, empty packages and containers."

He also said neither he nor his staff notified Ventura County fire officials that the explosive materials were being stored at the 2,700-acre facility between Simi Valley and Chatsworth, also a violation of federal rules.

Flanagan, who was director of Rocketdyne's Chemical Technology Group when the explosion occurred, was tried earlier this year on two felony counts of illegally burning chemical waste at the field lab on July 21 and 26, 1994, and one felony count of illegal waste storage. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt last March.

Flanagan's attorney, John D. Vandevelde, said the plea agreement ends his client's "personal nightmare," which began when two of his colleagues died in the chemical explosion at the lab.

Scientists Otto K. Heiney, 53, of Canoga Park, and Larry A. Pugh, 51, of Thousand Oaks, were killed when chemicals accidentally ignited during a series of burns at the outdoor test site.

Two of the three surviving scientists at the scene, and Flanagan, who was not at the scene, were later charged with violating federal environmental laws.

Flanagan "is legally responsible only because he was the department head and these regulations impose strict liability on the entire chain of command," Vandevelde said.

James F. Weber, 52, of Moorpark pleaded guilty last August to one count of illegally storing explosive materials, a misdemeanor. He is set to be sentenced next August.

The other defendant, Edgar R. Wilson, 65, of Chatsworth, was tried with Flanagan earlier this year and is awaiting a retrial.

In 1996, Rocketdyne's then-parent company, Rockwell International Corp., pleaded guilty to mishandling chemicals and paid a $6.5-million fine.

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