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Exploding ammunition cache greets firefighters arriving at blaze in Norco

March 03, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Firefighters responding to a house fire in a Norco neighborhood were greeted with a dangerous surprise: gunfire. Lots of it.

Authorities on Thursday found a cache containing more than 1 million rounds of ammunition and 75 firearms, ranging from small handguns to assault rifles, throughout the burning home and in a shaft and tunnel under the garage.

The firefighters realized the stockpile was inside when rounds started going off. No injuries were reported.

"The Fire Department knew exactly what was going on when they heard the sounds," said Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez.

"They knew it wasn't wood crackling over the fire."

The stockpile of ammunition is probably the largest ever confiscated in Riverside County, said Gutierrez.

A neighbor reported the fire Thursday afternoon and had dragged the homeowner, whom deputies did not identify, from the house, Gutierrez said.

The man later attempted to make his way back into the home.

Property records list the homeowner as Thomas McKiernan. Neighbors said McKiernan was a quiet man who had recently separated from his wife.

"We had to hold him down until the police got here and took him into custody," said Norco Fire Battalion Chief Ron Knueven. "He was swinging wildly and throwing some kicks."

Fire officials from Norco and Corona, agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Riverside County sheriff's deputies continued to inspect the house Friday. Much of the roof collapsed under the fire.

Authorities are not sure how the blaze started.

Authorities described the homeowner as a survivalist. He was taken for 72-hour psychiatric evaluation, and officials will then decide whether to press charges, Gutierrez said.

The 4-by-8-foot shaft, at least 10 feet deep, extended through the garage foundation, and a tunnel of unknown size ran east toward the house, Gutierrez said. The ammunition was stored in cardboard boxes, wooden crates, plastic bins and large cooking pots.

Gutierrez said 75 pounds of black gunpowder and two semiautomatic assault rifles were also confiscated.

Gutierrez said it was legal to own up to 1 pound of the gunpowder, but illegal to possess the assault rifles.

Authorities are checking the serial numbers of the remaining firearms.

"He could have gotten them from anywhere -- a reputable gun store or a shooting range, but who knows?" said Susan Raichel, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"This isn't a hobby he just picked up last year. He has definitely been doing whatever it is he does for a very long time."

Residents in the quiet neighborhood expressed shock at the findings. Many gathered to view the ammunition accumulated on the homeowner's driveway.

Last April, authorities seized more than 900 guns in the nearby San Bernardino County city of Upland from a man who said he was planning to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"That was the closest we've ever seen to something like this," Gutierrez said.

"But we've never seen this much ammunition."

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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