Upon being informed of the theft in April, 2013, of 559 pounds of high explosives stored by the United State Forest Service (USFS) approximately two miles south of Red Lodge, Red Lodge parents of students in the schools sought answers and action at a press conference called by Red Lodge Police Chief Richard Pringle on Thursday, May 2 at City Hall. Steps were already taken he explained and by the following Sunday, a bomb-sniffing dog had already patrolled Red Lodge Schools.
Pringle and Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz assured those present that there was no current “credible threat.” Pringle said the last time the explosives were seen was Thursday, April 11.
“The biggest thing is to be vigilant,” said Pringle. “That goes for anything. Be aware of your surroundings. Typically, we think of bombs, we think of backpacks, a box sitting off by itself.”
Pringle said, “It is sad to say but certain conversations have to take place. It doesn’t mean you don’t get out and still do things.”
He added, “We’re not used to this, we’re used to being safe. I’m not saying to be scared; be vigilant.”
Parent David Torgerson said, “I looked at the school to see what was being done. I didn’t see anything, so I took my child out of school.”
Pringle said, “I think the school has taken pretty good measures. There is a sign-in. If I want to set off a bomb, I need to get inside and set it off. The second is outside perimeter. In Oklahoma City they drove up and exploded it right in front. Part of the building was destroyed.”
The group discussed making the elementary school more secure. Kuntz said, “If you remove diagonal parking in front of the school, no bomb can be left in a parked car. If you keep the parking, cars help protect against a vehicle driving up with a bomb.”
Torgerson summed up the concern: “At what point is there a credible threat that results in action? And what action is available to use?”
A bomb-sniffing dog had been secured for Sunday, May 5. Billings firefighter and Red Lodge parent Mike Martin said, “Even a bomb sniffing dog Sunday seems too late; it would really suck if something happened tomorrow.”
Red Lodge Police Officer Scott Cope said he has seen a number of explosives thefts in Montana. Explosives have value. Cope said there are mine thefts, explosives stolen from Dillon and Kalispell. Pringle noted that detonators were not taken.
Ken Bray, Resident Agent in Charge, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said to CCN on Monday, May 6, “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.” The lead agencies: the ATF, the USFS, and the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office are following up all leads and welcome public information.
“The bunker in which they were stored was relatively close to a road used by the public daily,” said Bray. (He confirmed they were not stored in a log cabin shown in a local TV newscast.) “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.” Bray said there were about a dozen boxes of emulsion explosives, 18-24 inches square with an orange DOT symbol saying “Explosive 1.1”, a haz-mat designation.
On Friday, May 3, another press conference was held at Red Lodge City Hall.
Jeff Gildehaus, Certified Blaster, USFS, spoke to assure parents that the explosives require a special detonation system and are pretty benign in their own form. He said ATF will also be conducting daily searches of its explosive facilities. The detonation system, which was not stolen nor compromised, is required by law to be separate from the explosives. He said to initiate the explosives, you have to have a separate denotation system, and it would take a highly trained and skilled professional to compromise the explosives. Because of the highly complex construction of the explosives, Gildehaus was confident there was no way to detonate them. "This is not Wiley Coyote, where you light a fuse, throw it and get a result. 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 theorized possible ways to detonate the explosives but said it would be difficult. Explosives are strictly regulated, “Anyone with a permit or license has a background check. If it’s a company…all their employees.” Any unlicensed possession concerns him.
“I feel much more comfortable knowing the information I know today,” said parent Lynn Boughey after the second press conference. “My concern level has gone down after learning the details."
Brajcich said he had made calls to ATF, the Sheriff’s Office, and the USFS and was informed there is no reason to suspect the thieves are still in town and no reason to believe the schools are a target. That said, he agreed there should be a heightening of security, but not a full lockdown. Parents agreed with the need to have “age appropriate” conversations with kids. Boughey said he would discuss packages left unattended, as if at an airport.
Brajcich said an additional officer for the schools was deemed unnecessary.
“Inside,” he concluded, “we are on it. In the school business we try to look for things out of the norm. If we sweep before the students arrive and make sure of no unclaimed backpacks and unclaimed packages that dictates we can control the day. We control who comes in and out. Being diligent. I wish we could give 100 percent guarantees, but we can ID students at risk. Then, going into it, the students are not the problem and they’re going into a safe setting.”
Kuntz said if they ever get the call for a suspicious package or an explosion, “I’m confident we’d handle it to the best of our abilities and that we have the system in place to do it.”
Brajcich updated on Monday, May 6, “We are also clearing all unclaimed items nightly and collecting them in the offices for students to claim the next day. We are having staff parking permits made and displayed for quick identification, as well as a complete facility canine explosives search of the building this past weekend that came up clear.”
Reporter Lizzy Blumenthal contributed to the above article.