While recent explosives-related crimes on the South Coast have given many cause for alarm, Oregon State Police say those incidents fall in line with numbers that put the state near the top of the heap for bomb cases.
According to Det. Blain Allen of the OSP Arson and Explosives Unit, the agency led the country last year in reports to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Bomb and Arson Tracking System, or BATS — a database that allows law enforcement agencies and fire departments to track explosives-related criminal incidents.
Allen, whose Central Point team is responsible for the southwestern third of the state, said explosives incidents are more common than many think.
“Between January and Oct. 12 of this year, we rendered safe 22 live explosive devices,” he said.
Five of those incidents were in Coos, Curry and western Douglas County.
Jay Yarbrough, 39, was sentenced to five-years probation for possession of destructive devices Nov. 12 after police found several improvised explosive devices inside his Coos Bay home in June while on a domestic violence call.
Yarbrough will spend five years in prison for the unlawful use of a weapon during the domestic violence incident.
On Aug. 22, someone detonated an improvised explosive device at the Mingus Park Vietnam War Memorial.
The blast was loud enough to startle police dispatchers inside Coos Bay City Hall, five blocks away.
Allen and his team spent hours examining device fragments and sifting through nearby dumpsters for evidence.
Two weeks later, someone placed another IED inside The Prayer Chapel on Commercial Avenue. Although the device didn’t detonate, it did start a small fire, drawing the attention of police and firefighters alike.
Once again, the Central Point team was called to the scene. This time, they brought the FBI with them. It took bomb techs a little more than an hour to render the device safe.
The FBI has since posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible for the memorial and chapel bombs.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier said the seriousness of the area’s recent explosives cases is somewhat unusual.
“We do see maybe once a year, twice a year, a pipe-bomb-type thing,” Frasier said.
Both Frasier and Allen said that police rarely identify malicious intent behind the unlawful possession of a destructive device, and incidents like The Prayer Chapel and Mingus Park memorial bombing are far from the norm.
More typical are cases like that of 18-year-old Erik Harris, who was arrested Dec. 11 in Gold Beach after Curry County sheriff’s deputies found three pipe bombs in his backpack during a traffic stop.
“A lot of the time it’s just kids screwing around,” Frasier said. “We haven’t had a situation like Jackson County where they set a bomb up at the DA’s office.”
Frasier was referring to the Nov. 13 detonation of an improvised explosive device at the Jackson County District Attorney’s office, which blew out the building’s front windows.
Police later arrested 46-year-old Alan Leroy McVay, who was being prosecuted by the DA in a burglary case.
“He was trying to stop a small part of a much bigger process,” Allen said.
Allen, the only full-time member of the Central Point team, has three other troopers in his squad.
Two serve as arson investigators, and a third trooper from the patrol division serves as the team’s second “hazardous device technician.”
OSP bomb techs, like most of their law enforcement counterparts across the country, go through basic training at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
Police in Eugene and Portland have access to in-house bomb squads, but smaller local departments have to rely on OSP teams to provide “render safe” capability.
“Most of our explosives work is for other agencies,” Allen said.
Bomb technicians have often been tight-lipped about exactly how they disarm explosives. When Yarbrough’s attorney Rick Inokuchi asked Central Point Trooper Greg Costanzo what sorts of equipment the team had used to disarm the bombs found in the house, Costanzo demurred.
“We don’t like people to know how we disarm bombs,” he said.
While bomb squads keep many of their tools and techniques under wraps, their use of robots has become well-known thanks to Hollywood films like The Hurt Locker.
The Central Point team used one of those robots — a Remotec ANDROS model — in November to deal with a suspicious package at the California Street boat ramp.
The robot, fitted with a specialized shotgun called a “percussion-actuated nonelectric disrupter,” fired a payload of water at the taped-up plastic case, blowing it to pieces. The object turned out to be a propane camp stove.
Allen said that in addition to “suspicious package” calls that don’t pan out, many of the team’s explosives calls are non-criminal in nature, involving commercial or military explosives in places they aren’t supposed to be.
“It’s everything from dynamite to det cord,” he said.
If you find anything you think is an explosive device, don’t touch it.
Allen said moving the device isn’t just dangerous to the person who discovered it — it also complicates the job ahead of bomb techs that respond to the scene. Calling police dispatchers is all that’s necessary to get the experts on the way.