LOS ANGELES – A South Los Angeles man was arrested this afternoon on federal charges of illegally transporting tons of explosives he purchased in Nevada – including dangerous homemade devices that were detonated by police, leading to a massive explosion that destroyed a specially designed containment vehicle and injured 17 people.
Arturo Ceja III, was arrested by ATF special agents pursuant to a criminal complaint filed late Friday that charges him with transporting explosives without a license. Ceja will remain in custody until an initial appearance expected on July 6 in United States District Court in Los Angeles.
The complaint alleges that Ceja made several trips to Nevada in late June to purchase various types of explosives – including aerial displays and large homemade fireworks containing explosive materials – that he transported to his residence in rental vans. Most of the explosives were purchased at Area 51, a fireworks dealer in Pahrump, Nevada. The complaint notes that fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada.
Ceja told investigators that he purchased the homemade explosives – constructed of cardboard paper, hobby fuse and packed with explosive flash powder – from an individual selling the devices out of the trunk of a Honda in the Area 51 parking lot, according to the complaint.
“Ceja did not possess an ATF explosives license or permit of any kind that would authorize him to transport either aerial display fireworks or homemade fireworks made with explosive materials, including but not limited to flash powder,” according to the complaint affidavit written by a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
On Wednesday, after receiving a tip that fireworks were being stored in Ceja’s backyard, Los Angeles Police officers responded to his residence on East 27th Street. At the house, officers found over 500 boxes of commercial grade fireworks in large cardboard boxes. The initial investigation by local authorities estimated that approximately 5,000 pounds of fireworks were found; however, today the ATF determined that Ceja was storing approximately 32,000 pounds of fireworks in his backyard.
“[T]he fireworks were stored outside and in an unsafe manner, namely under unsecured tents and next to cooking grills,” the complaint alleges. “None of the commercial fireworks or homemade fireworks, which contained explosive materials, were stored in an approved magazine.”
In addition to the commercial fireworks, the initial search of Ceja’s residence led to the discovery of over 140 other homemade fireworks (typically referred to M devices of varying sizes), as well as explosives-making components, including hobby fuse that matched the fuse on a homemade mortar shell wrapped in tin foil that was discovered inside the residence, according to the affidavit.
While the fireworks were being removed from Ceja’s residence, the LAPD Bomb Squad determined that some of the homemade fireworks containing explosive materials were not safe to transport due to risk of detonation in a densely populated area and therefore would be destroyed on scene using a total containment vessel (TCV), according to the affidavit. During the destruction of the devices, the entire TCV exploded, causing a massive blast radius, damaging homes in the neighborhood and injuring a total of 17 law enforcement personnel and civilians.
A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The charge of transporting explosives without a license carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the United States Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General; and the Los Angeles Police Department are investigating this matter.
Assistant United States Attorneys Amanda M. Bettinelli and Erik M. Silber of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section are prosecuting this case.