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Busting the boom trade

Authorities team up to stem the flow of illegal fireworks, largely from one Nevada town. They see a downward trend.

July 05, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Alexander Cortez tried to smile and seem nonchalant as members of his family watched from the front lawn of their house on Mountain Avenue in Pasadena on Wednesday evening. "I was just trying to have fun and relax, you know, celebrate the Fourth of July," he was saying as a police officer handed him a citation for misdemeanor possession of illegal fireworks.

The 21-year-old pest control technician might be facing a fine of $250 and a bit of community service for setting off a handful of firecrackers on the sidewalk just as a patrolling arson investigator passed by in his car.

Cortez's alleged offense was small compared with a bust earlier in the day in Pomona that netted 2,000 pounds of illegal fireworks. But as with many another Californian who found himself in hot water with the law because of illegal fireworks Wednesday, Cortez's travails in all likelihood had their roots in Pahrump, Nev.

The town is laid out like flatbread in the convection oven of high desert 60 miles equidistant from Death Valley and Las Vegas. Its best-known export is the stuff that soured Cortez's holiday.

Pahrump, with a rapidly growing population of 37,000, is home to three fireworks supermarkets whose voluminous wares might well induce a state of ecstasy in any lover of pyrotechnics.

The shelves of the three stores -- Blackjack Fireworks, Phantom Fireworks and Area 51 -- are packed with everything from 50-cent poppers to hatbox- and suitcase-size items that sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Many of the fireworks have action comic book-type names, such as Neutron Bomb, Mineshell Mayhem, Major Combat, Ring of Fire and the 750-shot Assorted Missile Barrage. They feature items manufactured in China by, among others, Brothers Pyrotechnics, Shogun Pyrotechnics, Ninja and Alien, and some made in the U.S. by Long Island, N.Y.-based Grucci.

Large signs in front of the stores advertise sales by the case, and three-for-one and two-for-one specials.

License plates from California, where any fireworks that explode, fly or move on the ground are illegal, are familiar sights in the stores' parking lots.

The stores maintain an ambiguous policy toward selling to Californians, and to local residents, law enforcement officers say. The law in Nye County, where Pahrump is, requires that any fireworks purchased must be transported out of the county within 24 hours.

An investigative story in the Pahrump Valley Times in 2005 reported that sales personnel rarely asked customers for identification to prove where they lived.

On the counter at Area 51 this year, a notice advises customers that "If you tell any Area 51 employee that you are taking fireworks to any place where they are illegal, such as California, Area 51 cannot sell to you."

Managers of the three stores were unavailable to speak with a Times reporter who visited the outlets.

John Kabala, fire marshal for Alhambra and team leader of the San Gabriel Valley Arson and Explosives Task Force, said, "Pahrump is the big distributor of fireworks that are illegal in California. I've been there, and we've followed people back into the Los Angeles area and sent officers to watch for them to unload at their houses. They can go out to Pahrump and buy ten thousand bucks' worth of fireworks and sell it on the streets for 10 times that. It's a way to make quick money."

In Pomona, police said Wednesday that they had made their largest bust of illegal fireworks this year. Among the items confiscated were Dominator Rockets, Mortar Shells and Whistling Dixies.

Juan Carlos Gutierrez, 29, was arrested at his home on West 11th Street about six hours after officials received an anonymous tip that he was selling about $10,000 worth of fireworks from a garage behind his home.

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector and Explosive Coordinator Arlin Kahan said the small building had no ventilation and a tile floor, was less than 10 feet by 10 feet and was stacked full of boxes with illegal fireworks.

The main concern, Kahan said, is that illegal fireworks often contain highly explosive black powder and are dangerous.

Gutierrez told police he bought the fireworks at an Indian reservation in Nevada, said Sgt. Michael Olivieri Jr.

The focus of California officials' enforcement efforts has been San Bernardino County, where the main roads leading from Pahrump enter the state.

Last weekend at checkpoints near Baker and at the state Department of Food and Agriculture inspection station at Yermo, authorities issued 45 citations for fireworks violations, three of them felonies.

One person, who had a small child with her and a large amount of fireworks hidden beneath the floorboards of her vehicle, was arrested and charged also with child endangerment.

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