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Explosion under investigation

Officials say a bomb caused the blast that destroyed a trash bin near the Lecanto Government Building.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


LECANTO -- A bomb with the force of two sticks of dynamite blew up a large metal trash bin early Thursday morning outside the Lecanto Government Building, prompting an extensive all-day investigation by the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

No one was injured, but employees were kept out of the east wing of the building until 10:15 a.m.

After sifting through the debris left by the blast, sheriff's deputies were still unsure what the bomb was made of or who may have planted it.

However, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said he believed it to be an isolated incident.

"We're investigating it from each end of the spectrum: from a possible kid's prank to the other extreme," Dawsy said. "However, there is no known active terrorism or antigovernment or antinuclear activists operating in our area."

Authorities estimated the bomb exploded around midnight, when they received the first of three 911 calls from residents complaining about the noise, said Ronda Hemminger Evan, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office.

The first call came from a residence several miles west of the government building. A deputy searched the area but found nothing suspicious, Evan said.

Another resident telephoned from a convenience store north of the building, where she drove her children after hearing the explosion. She said she thought the noise came from Lecanto High School, which is near the government building.

The deputy conducted another search but did not see the trash bin, Evan said.

"We don't know at that point what this area looked like," she said.

Evan said she was unsure when the third 911 call was received.

The force of the explosion blew the top off the green metal trash bin, transforming it from a boxlike structure into a charred ark. It had been filled with cardboard boxes, Evan said.

When government employees arrived at the building at 3600 W Sovereign Path about 6 a.m., the container was still on fire.

Members of the bomb squad from the Sheriff's Office were summoned after the blaze was extinguished by firefighters. Based on their initial investigation, they believed the blast was not caused by an accident, Evan said. She said they also deduced the explosive device was not detonated from another location.

When Walt Eastmond, an engineer, arrived for work at 7:20 a.m., the fire had been extinguished and the area was secured with yellow crime-scene tape and orange cones.

Prohibited from entering the area of the building where his office is located, Eastmond joined dozens of other employees who were told to wait in the parking lot as deputies checked out a suspicious object in another large trash bin closer to the building.

"We're still on standby," said Eastmond, black sunglasses protecting his eyes from the bright morning sun. "Right now all we can do is wait for the all-clear."

A bomb-sniffing German shepherd was brought in from the Marion County Sheriff's Office to examine the second trash bin. The object in question turned out to be a discarded VCR, Evan said.

The dog checked inside the building but turned up nothing.

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Tampa were called in to aid the investigation.

After employees were allowed back into the building, officers divided the scattered debris into quadrants and began sorting through it for clues.

"It's a very painstaking process," Evan said. "They have to sort through every piece of garbage, dirt and debris."

The search did not yield immediate results. Now the materials will be brought back to the Sheriff's Office to be analyzed for chemical traces, Evan said.

County Administrator Richard Wesch said no one was in the building at the time of the explosion. He said the maintenance staff usually leaves around 11 p.m.

Asked whether the bomb would prompt him to take extra security matters, Wesch replied: "I think at a minimum we'll wait for the final results about the nature of the explosive device before we take any action."

-- Crime reporter Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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