FBI searches out potential bomb threat in Carson

A yearlong federal probe into a potential threat against a massive propane storage facility near Sacramento passed through Carson City on Friday.

FBI agents searched a location near Willow and Cochise streets, located west of Carson Street and north of Highway 50 West at about 9 a.m., according to neighbors.

A spokesman for the FBI confirmed that searches of homes and storage unitswere conducted in Carson City and Reno, but would not comment further.

Two men suspected of plotting to blow up the facility in suburban Elk Grove were arrested on firearms charges, investigators said Saturday.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said there were other threatened sites besides the propane facility, but a spokesman didn't elaborate.

The facility, which holds about 24 million gallons of liquid propane, is a few hundred yards from busy state Highway 99 and two other industrial buildings. The closest home is a farmhouse several hundred yards away, and there is a subdivision about a half-mile from the storage tanks.

''I'm scared,'' said Mary Wilcox, a retired Sacramento County sheriff's deputy who just moved into a house in the subdivision. ''If it's as bad as they think it would be, I don't want to live here.''

The men in custody, Kevin Ray Patterson, 42, of Camino, and Charles Dennis Kiles, 49, of Placerville, face federal court appearances Monday on weapons charges.

Prosecutors did not specify the charges, and did not respond to messages left at their office Saturday by The Associated Press seeking further comment.

Authorities believe the alleged plan was designed to exploit Y2K fears among the nation's hate groups, The Sacramento Bee reported.

One suspect is a convicted felon with firearms violations; the other is unemployed and has no past criminal record but is knowledgeable in bomb making, and a large amount of explosives were found on his property, sources told the newspaper.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department began providing 24-hour security at the propane facility Sept. 6 after investigators concluded ''there was a heightened level of threat,'' Sheriff Lou Blanas said, declining to elaborate.

The men have connections to militia groups, and a significant number of guns was found at one of the locations federal agents searched Friday, a source familiar with the probe told The Associated Press.

The men were arrested and held while federal agents searched their El Dorado County homes for evidence. A location in Sacramento County also was searched. The FBI declined to comment on the case.

The propane facility, where the liquid propane is stored in two 122-foot-tall tanks, is one of the biggest aboveground propane storage facility in the United States, said Elk Grove Fire Chief Mark Meaker.

''Propane is very combustible. It can burn very hot and very fast,'' Meaker said. ''A worst-case scenario would be ... a blast of radiant heat, flying shrapnel and other health hazards that could have a radius of a half mile to a mile.''

Suburban Propane was notified by the FBI about two months ago about a potential a terrorist threat to the plant, said John Fletcher, a Malibu lawyer and the propane company's California spokesman.

Suburban Propane hired a consultant to study the danger an explosion posed and determined the worst damage homes in the area would receive were broken windows and shaken foundations, Fletcher said.

''The kind (of damage) you get from an incident like we're talking about is not significant enough to kill'' people outside the plant, he said, adding that cars on the highway ''would probably be rocked.''

Company officials said that because most of the fuel is stored in two non-pressurized tanks at 50 degrees below zero, the propane would likely pool within protective dirt berms and would only ignite after it had considerable time to warm and mix with the air.

''I don't want to be irresponsible and give a recipe for how to do this, but someone's got to get close in with some heavy-duty material to cause a problem,'' Fletcher said.

The plant hired off-duty sheriff's officers and beefed up its security system, he said.

''We were told at the outset that the suspect never presented a credible threat to this facility for two reasons: one, his lack of sophistication, and two, the fact that he was under 24-hour surveillance and had a tail on him,'' Fletcher said, adding that he did not know two men had been arrested in the case.

New Jersey-based Suburban Propane opened the Elk Grove facility in 1971. About 15 percent of all propane sold in California passes through the facility, Fletcher said.

Subdivision resident Karen Banda said she and her husband asked the developers about the plant when they bought their house two years ago, and were told ''there was no concern.''

''They should not have been allowed to build (housing) this close,'' she said.

The potential threat to the plant first surfaced last spring through information from an FBI informant, sources told the Bee.

The informant told authorities a militia group member in the area had made threats related to blowing up the propane plant and mentioned several dates, including one around New Year's Eve, when authorities nationwide are bracing for possible domestic terrorism.


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