Oregon

Explosives expert William Hakim of the Oregon State Police thought the device was merely a hoax. But that mistake on a December day in 2008 would become a tragedy no amount of money in homeland security grants could prevent. Someone phoned in a bomb threat that morning to a Wells Fargo bank branch in Woodburn, Ore., warning that if the people inside didn’t leave, “all of them would die,” according to police. Hakim and an FBI bomb technician showed up to examine a cell phone the caller said would be located in a dumpster near the bank. The pair determined it was harmless. Other law enforcement agents continued to search the area, including a second bank close by. They eventually found a green metal container that resembled a utility box, and a West Coast Bank employee contacted a landscaping company, which didn’t recall it being there days before when the hedges were trimmed. The bank employee opened it. Bomb specialist Hakim was dispatched back to the scene. He examined the box and even X-rayed it before determining that it posed no threat and could be dismantled as possible evidence. Hakim took the device inside West Coast followed by two local police officers. As they began to probe its contents, the box detonated killing Hakim and Capt. Thomas Tennant. Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell suffered the partial loss of his right leg, mutilation of his left, a shattered jaw and other injuries, according to court records. Police professionals with knowledge of explosives were baffled. No one attempts to manually take apart bombs anymore, they said. “An X-ray is just not 100 percent. You may miss something because there’s so many variables,” one told the Oregonian newspaper. Officials couldn’t explain why critical safety equipment had not been deployed at the scene. The Oregon State Police spent $600,000 alone in 2004 from federal anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness grants on bomb-mitigation and armored-response equipment that authorities apparently did not use to ensure the three men were protected. The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained records showing a number of equipment purchases police across the region had made with grants for gear designed to safeguard them during bomb threats. “Our response has been that we're not going to go into details at this time because we don't know all the facts about the equipment that was there,” state police spokesman Lt. Gregg Hastings told CIR then. “After a criminal investigation is complete, officials plan to ask the FBI for help in conducting an internal review.” A computer file that contains transactions made by state and local agencies in Oregon with homeland security grants shows that among other things troopers paid $170,000 for a 28-foot ordinance-response vehicle that was based not far from Woodburn in Salem. They also purchased two bomb robots totaling $427,000 built by defense giant Northrop Grumman. Such high-tech tools are designed to safely disarm an ordinance device by triggering it with a shotgun shell or spray of water. Other nearby jurisdictions had hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment for handling explosives, including bomb suits and response trucks, records show. The Oregon Emergency Management office turned over the file in response to a public-records request when we were seeking similar information from every state in the country. It describes major investments made by Oregon with the grants between 2002 and 2007, although the details for some are limited. You can download the Excel file here. Click on the red corner tabs when available in individual cells for a deeper explanation of purchases, e.g. “10 Panasonic Toughbooks” for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office totaling $54,000. A father and son, Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, were eventually charged with numerous counts of aggravated murder but pleaded not guilty in the bank bombing. The family allegedly had a history of money troubles and was attempting to extort cash from the banks with threats, according to published accounts of government accusations. A Nevada rancher who knew the family before they moved to Oregon described them as “a little bit on the radical side,” “anti-government” and “anti-establishment.” Federal law enforcement agencies disputed who would take charge of the case, something the public only later learned about. A report from the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general criticized agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI for quarreling about which agency had jurisdiction. The argument was described in the report as one of many over several years that fueled acrimony between the two law enforcement offices and undermined the effectiveness of bomb-suppression and anti-terrorism investigations. Local prosecutors had specifically requested assistance from the ATF, but the FBI stepped in arguing that the fallen technician had been trained in its own Hazardous Devices School. According to the report: “These disputes can cause confusion for local first responders about the roles of the FBI and ATF during explosives-incident responses and delays in conducting investigations. Disputes between ATF and FBI personnel have affected working relationships, and in some locations have resulted in their racing to crime scenes to determine which agency leads an investigation. The disputes have also resulted in the two agencies declining to work and train together.”

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