LOS ANGELES – A South Los Angeles man whose fireworks were detonated by police, leading to a massive explosion that destroyed a specially designed containment vehicle, damaged a neighborhood and injured 17 people, pleaded guilty today to a federal criminal charge.
Arturo Ceja III, a.k.a. “Autron,” 26, pleaded guilty to a single-count information charging him with transportation of explosives without a license.
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According to court documents, Ceja made several trips to Nevada in late June to purchase various types of explosives that he transported to his residence in rental vans. Most of the explosives were purchased at Area 51, a fireworks dealer in Pahrump, Nevada. Fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada. Ceja also purchased homemade explosives – constructed of cardboard paper, hobby fuse and packed with explosive flash powder – from an individual selling the devices out of vehicle, according to court documents.
On June 30, 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 more than 500 boxes of commercial grade fireworks in large cardboard boxes. The initial investigation by local authorities estimated that approximately 5,000 pounds (2.5 tons) of fireworks were found. But law enforcement later determined that Ceja was storing approximately 32,000 pounds (16 tons) of fireworks on the property.
In addition to the commercial fireworks, the initial search of Ceja’s residence led to the discovery of more than 140 other homemade fireworks as well as explosives-making components, according to court documents.
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 court documents. During the destruction of the devices, the entire TCV exploded, damaging homes in the neighborhood and injuring a total of 17 law enforcement personnel and civilians.
United States District Judge Fernando M. Olguin has not yet scheduled a sentencing hearing, at which time Ceja will face 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 investigated 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.