Sacramento bomb squads busier than ever after Boston attacks
Calls are mostly false alarms—plus the occasional exploding wine and vibrator
It’s early spring, and Sgt. Scott Hyatt stands at the door of a nice Carmichael couple’s home, decked out in swampy protective gear. The wife found a mysterious package on her doorstep and, spurred by a neighbor, called the cops when she couldn’t identify it. The cops called Hyatt.
The supervisor of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad, Hyatt and his seven-man team did what they do best. They set up a perimeter, interviewed witnesses and subjected the package to inconclusive X-rays. Seeing two cylindrical objects and what looked like a timer, his explosive ordnance detail played it safe and blasted the parcel with a high-power water cannon.
As soon as it went up, Hyatt saw the splintered fragments of “two bottles of what looked to be very good wine.”
The wife forgot she and her husband recently joined a wine-of-the-month club.
No one risked moving the package before calling the unit, or else they might have spotted the label on the bottom.
“And so that happens,” Hyatt told SN&R. “You blow someone’s stuff up, and they go, ’Aah.’
“We’ve killed sex toys, too.”
More so now, it seems. Ever since two brothers allegedly planted homemade explosives in a deadly attack at the Boston Marathon last month, people are more suspicious of unlabeled packages and unattended backpacks—even when they contain wine, vibrators or nothing much at all.
“Of course, after the Boston bombing, our calls for service have gone sky-high,” shared Hyatt, whose Carmichael-based team rolls out to all of Sacramento County but the capital city itself. The Sacramento Police Department has its own bomb squad, as does the California Highway Patrol, which investigates suspicious devices in state buildings and on highways.
The police bomb squad has experienced only a slight increase in calls this year, said department spokesman Officer Doug Morse, most of them attributed to what the unit calls “activities”: pre-emptively sweeping events, chaperoning dignitaries and loaning its robot out to aid in SWAT-led suspect searches.
According to Hyatt, the sheriff’s squad is on pace to respond to 250 calls this year—20 percent more than last year—most of which will come during the busy summer months. The increase is almost all false alarms.
Of the 22 calls Hyatt’s team investigated in April, five involved live devices.
One of the bogus calls concerned a 15-year-old girl who left an old suitcase in a store aisle at Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights. A week later, the 24 Hour Fitness in Gold River was shut down for three hours as EOD officers swept the spacious gym. And bomb squads are making more trips to coffeehouses—not for caffeine, but to dispose of transients’ forgotten backpacks.
Each call out—valid or not—can be a time suck resulting in evacuated homes, blocked-off streets and diverted traffic.
“While we don’t consider them an inconvenience to handle, they can definitely present an inconvenience to people in the community,” said Sacramento County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jason Ramos.
But no one wants to make that small mistake that costs lives—even if the only casualty ends up being someone’s pride.
An apartment complex off Center Parkway in the Valley Hi/North Laguna area was evacuated May 1, when a landscaping crew found what ended up being a hoax device. The police EOD is still investigating.
The unit handled four callouts in April, one of which concerned a replica grenade a jogger found in a black bag in a park near K Street.
“We welcome that kind of work,” Morse told SN&R. “If we can get out there and verify it’s safe, that’s a good day.”
The city squad averaged 47 suspicious-device calls in the last two years. And despite this year’s small uptick, it’s still a big drop from 2004-2006, when the police squad averaged more than 100 incidents.
But not all “suspicious packages” end up being harmless, and the public rarely hears about cases in which disaster is averted.
In one open sheriff’s case in Orangevale, a 17-year-old called his ex-girlfriend and tried to lure her out of the house when he set off a small device that damaged her garage. When the blast went off, Hyatt said the suspect laughed into the phone. The minor was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, and would have been charged with attempted murder if the girl had stepped outside.
Following an elder-abuse arrest in Galt, the squad was called out to the house when officers spotted chemicals and cut-up pipes in a backyard shed. The victim told authorities his grandson was an anti-government zealot who talked of shooting rockets into the White House. It took seven hours to clear the scene and determine that the shed’s contents weren’t yet weaponized.
“He was probably trying to make some [explosives], but was so bad at it he couldn’t,” Hyatt said.
Last year, the EOD arrested a convicted felon who had 9 grams of high-explosive powder dipped in glue and nails, not unlike what went off in Boston. The man also had a stash of assault weapons he had been concealing from law enforcement. Hyatt has no doubt this “very odd dude” would have used the device as a weapon against anyone he perceived as doing him wrong.
“That would either have killed or maimed the hell out of them,” Hyatt said of the unsophisticated yet deadly device.
The suspect in that open case had an “affinity” for methamphetamine, Hyatt added. Many low-rent bomb makers do, it turns out.
“Ask any bomb squad around the state—meth addicts, they like making pipe bombs,” Hyatt said.
So do white men. Hyatt has trouble recalling an instance when an arrestee wasn’t a male Caucasian, not to mention a really devoted one.
“We’ve had some pretty good cases with white-power guys in that whole area,” Hyatt said of eastern Sacramento neighborhoods Citrus Heights and Orangevale. There have also been a good number of service calls in Rancho Cordova this year. Closer to the Fourth of July, the squad will be hopping all over the county chasing illegal fireworks and homemade brews.
Most loud blasts come from “people who probably just want to blow something up,” Hyatt said.
The Internet has been a boon to these do-it-yourself demolitionists.
Hyatt came into the game when the Internet was already a thing, so he can’t speculate about what bomb-making was like prior to 2000. But the kids building their own chemical-reaction bombs from YouTube videos and items from the 99¢ Only Store give him pause.
Last year, two Rio Americano High School students filmed themselves setting off one of these drain-cleaner-powered explosives during lunch. Hyatt’s team identified the perpetrators from the video the masterminds uploaded.
“It was pretty easy to find out who did it,” Hyatt cracked.