A bomb explosion at an Oregon bank Dec. 12 that killed two police officers and seriously injured a third has raised questions about why officials didn’t utilize sophisticated and costly equipment purchased by the state to prevent precisely these incidents from occurring. Officials plan to ask the FBI to help determine what went wrong.
One of the two men killed in the Woodburn, Ore. blast was a bomb expert with the Oregon State Police. Also killed was a Woodburn police captain. The city’s police chief lost part of his leg and remains hospitalized. Two suspects have been arrested in the case.
Reporters have revealed that state police failed to deploy at the scene an Explosive Ordinance Detection vehicle purchased for its bomb squad with the help of a 2006 federal grant, but no further details about the equipment were previously made public.
Records obtained from the state by the Center for Investigative Reporting show that the Oregon State Police in 2004 alone spent more than $600,000 in federal homeland security grants on bomb mitigation and armored-response equipment that apparently wasn’t used to aid in ensuring the safety of the three men.
The purchases include the ordinance detection vehicle, a 28-foot long International assembled by Braun Northwest Inc., a Washington state-based company that specializes in emergency equipment. The vehicle cost $170,000, according to records.
“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,” Lt. Gregg Hastings, a spokesman for the state police, told CIR Dec. 19. After a criminal investigation is complete, officials plan to ask the FBI for help in conducting an internal review.
Hastings concedes that the ordinance-detection vehicle, based in Salem about 18 miles away, was not on the scene. “We have a lot more to learn here and we need to sit down with the FBI,” he said.
Records obtained by CIR show that the Oregon State Police spent $427,000 from the grant funds on two bomb robots described in the documents only as F6A models, similar to this here manufactured by defense giant Northrop Grumman.
The state police spent another $265,000 on an armored SWAT truck known as a Lenco B.E.A.R, of which there are two models here. You can see Flickr photos of the department’s actual SWAT vehicle at this link. Images of two different bomb-response trucks owned by the state police, including the International, can be seen here on the department’s Web site.
The records show that the state police spent an additional $334,000 on more general equipment designed for defeating explosive devices, but those expenditures are not itemized in the grant documents CIR obtained.
In all, records show that since 2002, the Oregon State Police Department has been awarded approximately $8.8 million by the federal government in homeland security grants for a variety of purchases including search and rescue gear, personal protective equipment and hundreds of thousands in new interoperable communications improvements.
Other emergency personnel in the region have tools that could have been used to carefully diffuse the bomb. The Salem Fire Department, located not far from Woodburn, has spent more than $300,000 in homeland security grants since 2002 on 15 ballistic helmets, a $17,400 bomb suit, a $183,000 robot and $28,000 worth of X-ray equipment, according to state records.
Bomb robots can neutralize an ordinance device by triggering it with a water cannon or shotgun shell. The bomb can also be detonated safely after being placed in a containment vessel, one of which the state police department owns.
Hastings said that the Salem Fire Department was not involved in responding to the initial calls regarding bomb threats made at two neighboring Woodburn banks.
The police bureau in Portland, Ore., situated about 30 miles from Woodburn, possesses at least $219,000 worth of bomb-mitigation equipment purchased with 2003 homeland security grants including a $166,000 robot. The Portland Office of Emergency Management made $38,000 in such expenditures using 2004 grants, while the Port of Portland purchased a $40,000 Ford Expedition for bomb-response purposes with 2003 grant funds.
According to an affidavit and news accounts, the bomb squad technician killed in the Dec. 12 explosion believed the device was a hoax after a false-alarm call was made earlier that day about a bomb being located nearby at a Wells Fargo location. In a move that surprised some bomb experts interviewed by the Oregonian newspaper, the expert attempted to open the green metal box and examine its contents for evidence after a bank manager found it.
The technician had conducted an X-ray examination of the box and concluded it was harmless.
Hal Lowder, an explosives expert based in Atlanta, told the Oregonian that because police sometimes receive a high volume of calls involving hoax devices, they can be lulled into a routine that causes them to lower their guard. “That’s why we always stress keeping your fingers out of it,” Lowder told the paper.
“An X-ray is just not 100 percent,” Lowder told the newspaper. “You may miss something because there’s so many variables. It sounds like he made a judgment call, just a bad call. … I hate to say bad things, but taking a bomb apart is just not done anymore.” Specialists added that perpetrators sometimes lure police into a bomb’s destructive range by planting a mock device.
Within days of the incident police arrested 57-year-old Bruce Turnidge and his son Joshua, 32, for the crime, although no motive has been established. According to news accounts, the Turnidge family helped found the Salem Academy Christian schools. Police were searching the father’s 750-acre farm Dec. 16 for more evidence. Each man has been charged with several counts of aggravated murder, assault, possession and conspiracy.
According to an affidavit, investigators obtained purchase records and surveillance footage from two area Wal-Mart locations that allegedly linked Joshua Turnidge to items used in the bombing. The evidence cited in the affidavit includes two disposable cell phones, airtime cards for the phones and a can of green spray paint. Numbers associated with the phones were reportedly used in threatening calls made to a Wells Fargo bank warning that if the building wasn’t vacated, “all of them would die.”
Services were held on Friday and Saturday respectively for Woodburn Police Capt. Thomas Tennant and Oregon State Police Trooper William Hakim. Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell remains hospitalized in serious condition.