Forest Service Failed to Keep Watch on Facility
BY PAT HILL
The theft of over 500 pounds of explosives from a U.S. Forest Service facility near Red Lodge, Montana, sometime in April remains under investigation by law enforcement officials.
Agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the United States Forest Service, and the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office have requested the public’s help in tracking down who stole more than 100 items, including approximately 559 pounds of high explosives, from a USFS explosives bunker located approximately two miles south of Red Lodge.
ATF was informed of the theft from the Forest Service after that agency discovered the explosives were missing on April 30. Although the Forest Service is supposed to check on explosives stockpiles every seven days, ATF determined that the last time the explosives were seen was April 11.
Mariah Leuschen, a spokesperson for the Custer and Gallatin National Forests, told the Pioneer on May 24 that she had no new information regarding the investiga-tion of the stolen materials, but Leuschen said that ATF was heading up the investigation.
“The theft of explosives is a top investigative priority for ATF,” Ken Bray, Resident Agent in Charge of ATF in the Treasure State, said in a May 1 ATF news release. “We are asking for the public’s help in our effort to apprehend and convict those responsible. We are confident that someone can help identify a suspect and we encourage them to call us.”
Bray said that although ATF is not sure if the theft was conducted by locals, he is confident that the guilty party knew the area. Stealing explosives and possession of stolen explosives is a federal crime punish-able by up to 10 years in prison, and ATF is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the thieves.
“The bunker in which they were stored was relatively close to a road used by the public daily,” Bray told CNN on May 6, adding that the material was not stored in a Forest Service cabin like one that had been shown on a Red Lodge area news broadcast. “Someone saw something… loading boxes in a truck, multiple trips back and forth through the woods to a truck, or a stack of cardboard boxes.” Public input has reportedly already been received on the theft.
“We continue to work on the investigation and we are following up on leads that have been generated from the reward offer,” said Brad Beyersdorf, a spokesman for the ATF in Denver, according to the Associated Press. “We have received some tips and we are following up on all of them.” Beyersdorf said that no arrests had been made as of May 8 and declined to discuss whether the ATF has identified any persons of interest.
Leuschen told the AP in early May that the explosives stolen from the Forest Service are used by certified blasters on projects like trail construction and maintenance, clearing rock slides, tree removal, and large animal carcass disposal (in hopes of reducing encounters between humans and bears in the woods). She said that all of the explosives used in such work are Forest Service-approved, and reiterated Bray’s statement that the stolen material was not being kept in a Forest Service cabin.
“All of the explosives are stored in structures that meet or exceed requirements by ATF,” Leuschen told the AP. “They’re not cabins. They’re secured facilities.” Leuschen also stressed that the stolen explosives, which she said are not “like dynamite or nitroglycerin-based products,” are required by law to be stored in separate facilities.
At a May 3 Red Lodge press conference, a certified blaster with the Forest Service, Jeff Gildehaus, said that the stolen explosives, without the special detonators, are not particularly dangerous. He said that “it would take a highly trained and skilled professional to compromise the [stolen] explosives,” and added that he was “confident” that they could not be detonated without the specific detonating system.
“This is not Wiley Coyote, where you light a fuse, throw it and get a result,” said Gildehous, who was also seeking to reassure Red Lodge parents at the press conference that their schools were safe regarding the stolen material. “These are highly specific and complex systems. I know what it takes to detonate them and there’s nothing out there they can get to initiate those caps.”
Bray agreed with Gildehous in his May 6 statement to CNN, saying that “There is more likelihood of a child being harmed in a car accident on the highway than by any terrorist attack in the Red Lodge schools.”
Montana Rep. Steve Daines, the state’s sole voice in the U.S. Congress, told FoxNews.com that he’s “deeply concerned” about the theft in his state and will be “closely monitoring” the investigation. Daines told FoxNews that it is “critical that the Forest Service, ATF and local law enforcement find answers about how the security of this site was breached and work to strengthen the security measures for these storage sites to ensure that a theft like this does not happen again.”
Anyone with information on the thefts is asked to call the ATF hotline at 1-888-ATF-BOMB (1-888-283-2662) or locally in Billings at 406-657-9700. People also can call the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office at 406-446-1234.