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Charged with selling illegal explosives

by PJ Rooks
Landmark reporter

An Overland Park man arrested last week in Platte County and charged with the sale of illegal explosives is free after posting a $15,000 cash bond.

With a hearing set for October 7, Douglas P. Smith, 44, was also charged with possession of a controlled substance. Both counts are class C felonies, each punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.

A press release from the Platte County Sheriff's office noted that the investigation is on-going and may be related to additional operations outside the metro area.

In the press release, Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen stated, “This investigation and the related seizures went a long way in ensuring that potentially dangerous homemade explosive devices were not on the street during the Fourth of July weekend. The cooperation of the involved agencies made the holiday weekend safer for Platte County and Kansas City residents.”

Court documents indicate Smith admitted to police that he had manufactured home-made explosives in his Overland Park apartment.

According to the probable cause statement issued by the Platte County Sheriff's Department, Smith was arrested after a July 3 search of a Platte County residence revealed numerous explosives which were then linked to him.

Beginning with a description of the Platte County search and seizure, the probable cause statement reads: “The explosives consisted of approximately 24 'Miller Light' aluminum beer bottles filled with unknown substance with a red fuse sticking out of the lid. There were also approximately 169 short blue round explosives referred to as '1/4 sticks' and 19 round black tubes referred to as '1/2 sticks.' In addition there were two large plastic vitamin containers filled with an unknown substance with a fuse sticking out of the lid. It was determined the explosives recovered during the search warrant had been purchased from Smith approximately two weeks prior…”

Authorities then recorded a phone call placed to Smith ordering more half-sticks and quarter-sticks. Authorities provided a confidential informant with $2,000 in previously photocopied bills to pay for items collected both during the search warrant and the later delivery of additional explosives. On July 8, upon accepting the payment, Smith was taken into custody at 8450 NW Prairie View Road.

An immediate search of Smith's truck produced $5,660 in cash in addition to the $2,000 in “buy money” from the sting operation.

The probable cause statement continues, “In addition the following items were located inside the vehicle: A loaded Sig Sauer 1911 .45 semi-automatic handgun, a prescription bottle with no label that contained a white powdery substance which field-tested presumptive positive for cocaine, numerous empty 'Miller Light' beer bottles which resembled those used to construct explosive devices that were recovered during the search warrant, two additional black round 1/2 stick explosives along with paper documents indicating where some of the explosive components had been purchased as well as a bill of sale for the Sig Sauer pistol and two notebooks with names of individuals and amounts of money owed to Smith.”

In his statement to police, Smith confirmed that he had made 40 to 50 of the “Miller Light” beer bottle explosives. He also said that he had purchased 4,000 tubes for making the quarter- and half-sticks, that he used the internet to purchase the explosive powders and that he assembled these items in his Overland Park apartment. Smith's address is listed in public documents as 10509 Goddard.

The probable cause statement concludes: “It is unknown how many individuals these devices have been sold to or their age.”

The Complaint and Request for a Warrant issued by Eric Zahnd, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney and Joseph Vanover, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, in response to the Platte County Sheriff's Department's probable cause statement, describes the “class C felony of sale of illegal explosives” as one in which “the defendant knowingly sold for consumer use ground salutes which were forbidden devices as listed in the American Pyrotechnics Association Standard 87-1.”

Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said she remembered the details surrounding a July 4, 2010 explosion which heavily damaged the first floor of a Platte City home and sent an 11-year-old girl, via air-lift, to Children's Mercy Hospital in critical condition after a bowl of “black-eyed peas” discharged in her face.

Heckman commented that the collection of explosives found earlier this month in the Platte County residence could have been equally dangerous if not more so.

“It would take out the house,” she said. “These type of devices, they are serious explosives. They are deadly… Even one of these could kill someone.”

The quarter sticks and half sticks are equivalent to dynamite, she said, and described the inventory of explosives listed in the probable cause statement as a “significant amount” that endangered not just those manufacturing them but anyone nearby as well.

Heckman said that the APA does not hear of many cases like this per year. The activity has been federally banned since 1966, she said, but added that somehow people are still able to get the chemicals and manufacture the devices.

“There are still a few people that don't realize how dangerous these raw materials are, especially when you're dealing with something like flash powder,” Heckman said. “It's highly sensitive to friction, to static electricity, to impact.”

Based in Bethesda, Md., the American Pyrotechnics Association is self-described online (http://www.americanpyro.com/) as “the voice of the fireworks industry promoting safety in the design and use of all types of legal fireworks” and lists its functions as including advocacy, code development and compliance assistance, among others.

Heckman said that Standard 87-1 pertains to the construction of consumer fireworks, or “backyard fireworks.” There is a hobbyist exclusion under the federal explosives laws which allows for the construction of a very small amount but these devices do not meet any of those requirements, she said. Gun enthusiasts using black powder or farmers needing to get rid of a tree stump were examples she gave of legal purchases of explosives through the hobbyist exclusion. The flash powder that is used in the construction of the sorts of explosives allegedly manufactured by Smith, however, is more volatile than gunpowder, she said and, regarding the purchase of 4,000 tubes, she added, “This is not a little hobbyist; this is not a hobby activity. It makes my skin crawl.”

“Those cannot be used for any legitimate purpose,” she said. “That's not a firework—it's not even close. The only reason somebody would make those types of devices would be to cause personal or property—intentional—harm. There is no legitimate use for those types of things. Absolutely zero.”