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Transient held in MTA mercury spill

Authorities say the man told them he found it in trash on the Westside and hoped to sell it for money to buy drugs.

January 24, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Federal and local authorities on Tuesday arrested a 27-year-old man they believe spilled mercury on a downtown L.A. subway platform, ending a weeklong dragnet that raised more questions about the handling of the incident.

Armando Bustamante Miranda was being questioned by FBI agents and Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators, who are trying to determine why the hazardous chemical was dropped in the station on Dec. 22 by a man who then called an MTA operator to say what he had done.

Detectives expressed frustration at the difficulty in finding the suspect, at one point creating more than a dozen potential profiles, including a prankster, a screenwriter working on a script, an actor seeking attention, a student working on a project and even a terrorist.

Officials repeated Tuesday that they doubt the incident was related to terrorism.

Sheriff's Det. Danny Regalado described Miranda as a transient who told authorities he found the mercury while scavenging through a commercial dumpster on the Westside for items he could sell to support his drug habit.

Miranda, according to Regalado, said during the two-hour interview with detectives that he was "fixated" on the mercury and the way it moved in the vial, adding that he recognized the substance from a "Terminator" movie. He told authorities he took it out of his pocket at the station and was showing it off, hoping another passenger would purchase it. When he spilled the mercury, he told police, another passenger told him to report it.

Detectives said an acquaintance of Miranda recognized his photo and contacted authorities, setting up a meeting with the suspect in Hollywood. Regalado said he was "very cooperative."

Authorities are concerned that some business was disposing mercury in the trash, and they plan to go door-to-door questioning owners about their disposal tactics.

The arrest comes amid a growing dispute about how MTA surveillance tapes were handled. An MTA tape of the Pershing Square station showed a man dropping a vial of mercury on the platform and later getting into a subway car.

But four law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation said investigators didn't receive all the videos taken inside the subway car.

Los Angeles County's top transit cop said his detectives reviewed the videos they received but didn't see the man.

"You can never have too much evidence," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Dan Finkelstein. "As it turned out, we didn't need anything else."

He added that another platform camera recorded the suspect getting off the train, a clue that helped in his capture.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, asked agency officials Tuesday for a detailed account of what happened to all the videos from that night. She specifically wants information on whether some were recorded over before they could be analyzed.

Federal and local law enforcement sources said there was an internal debate early in the investigation about whether to go public with the search for the suspect.

The MTA initially described the mercury release as an accident. But the county's joint terrorism task force later reviewed the incident and decided last week to go public with the tape in hopes that authorities could find the suspect, the sources said.

Since 9/11, the MTA has spent $9 million on security enhancements that include equipping buses and trains with state-of-the-art cameras to monitor and record passenger activity.

Ten fixed cameras have been installed on each subway train over the last two years. The MTA has also added platform cameras that pan, tilt and zoom.

The platform recordings are kept for 14 days, MTA officials said. Recordings from trains are held for 80 hours, then recorded over.

The dispute over the tapes comes as MTA officials admitted that the agency's response to the mercury incident was highly flawed.

The MTA waited eight hours after being told mercury was on the platform before clearing the station and cleaning up the spill. Police and transit officials said the workers erred by not immediately contacting law enforcement to cordon off the area and calling in hazardous-material experts. The incident also exposed the fact that many MTA workers are not trained to handle dangerous materials, including mercury.

The MTA said it is investigating the way its employees handled the incident.

At least four people touched or stepped on the mercury during the period, including one woman who tracked it home. Mercury can be hazardous if ingested, inhaled or touched, but there were no reports of health problems.

According to authorities, the man who spilled the mercury used an MTA intercom to tell an operator: "Yes, there's some mercury that's spilled down there," according to a transcript obtained by The Times.

He continues: "There's a jar that had mercury in it and it broke. It's on the floor down here on the, by the Wilshire, or I mean Western, North Hollywood sign."

The operator responds, "So, it needs a -- a glass broke.... OK. I'll send somebody to clean it up."

But for unclear reasons, no one was sent for hours, until another passenger called authorities to report the spill.

Miranda was being held on a probation violation related to a previous drug charge.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

jean.guccione@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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