NORCO [California]– More than 1 million rounds of ammunition, a cache of weapons and a tunnel were found inside a man's home after an explosive fire that forced a neighborhood evacuation, authorities said Friday.
Three 25-gallon containers filled with an unknown fluid were found in the tunnel, which began in the garage and stretched about 10 feet into the backyard. The fluid was being analyzed by hazardous material experts, said Norco Fire Department Battalion Chief Ron Knueven.
Firefighters responded to a blaze Thursday afternoon at the Norco home, about 45 miles east of Los Angeles, and found what was believed to be the largest amount of ammunition ever discovered in the county, authorities said.
The fire caused some of the ammunition to explode, forcing evacuation of the neighborhood and keeping firefighters at a distance. The blaze, which caused the roof to collapse, was eventually extinguished.
“It sounded like firecrackers, they were going off quite a bit,” said neighbor Frank Jackson, who rushed home when he heard about the fire.
When he got there, he said firefighters were swarming over the burning house but the explosions were so intense that firefighters on the roof had to abandon it.
“The shells were going off and you had to back off,” he said.
On Friday, sheriff's deputies aided by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combed the house for evidence.
Dozens of metal and cardboard boxes filled with ammunition for shotguns, small handguns and assault rifles recovered from the home sat in a driveway. Two of the assault rifles were illegal and the man had no permit for 75 pounds of black gunpowder that was found, said Riverside County sheriff's Deputy Juan Zamora.
Authorities also discovered a machine in the garage that was used to load the gunpowder into empty casings. The practice known as “reloading” is common and not illegal because ammunition is often expensive, ATF spokeswoman Susan Raichel said.
No arrests have been made. The man, whose identity was not released, was taken to a hospital where he will receive a psychological evaluation, authorities said.
Right, 75 pounds of unpermitted black powder, 75 gallons of an unknown liquid, a tunnel into the back yard, a million rounds of ammo, a reloading machine and a cache of weapons, a fire that caused ammunition to explode -- no reason to prejudge the guy by arresting him. Break it up, nothing to see here, move along please.
The Sheriff's department has now released the identity of the Norco man who allegedly stashed more than a million rounds of ammunition and dozens of guns in a tunnel underneath his garage.
62-year old Thomas McKiernan is being held at the Robert Presley Detention Center for possession of assault weapons, illegal ammunition and explosives.
It all happened Thursday, when deputies and firefighters were called to a fire at the house. Deputies say they detained McKiernan after he became aggressive with firefighters.
They say inside the garage, they found a tunnel, reportedly loaded with more than a million rounds of ammunition, about 60 guns and rifles and about 75 pounds of black ammunition powder.
Update (3/7): McKeirnan pleaded not guilty today. The number of guns he had is now listed as more than 125, and the amount of ammunition is still being described as "more than a million rounds." (If the initial description came from the casual observation of a fireman, it seems as if he was pretty good at quickly counting, because the authorities appear to be sticking with it.) The amount of black powder is now 75 pounds. Clearly, some weighing have counting has been done.
Another article says that McKiernan was initially held on a 72-hour psychiatric hold after fighting with police at the scene of the fire.
An earlier article had more details, along with an assessment of the man by his neighbors:
After the fire was put out, authorities discovered the cache of firearms, ammunition and gunpowder in the garage, along with a tunnel about 10 feet deep and more than 25 feet long under the house, officials said.
The tunnel was found to contain barrels of water, cooking oil and rice, as well as other non-perishable foods.
Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez said that due to the stockpiled goods and the man-made tunnel under the house, McKiernan "appeared to be a survivalist."
Many neighbors and friends of McKiernan have defended his affinity for guns and ammunition - calling him a collector and hobbyist.
Residents along Pali Drive have overwhelmingly described McKiernan as a quiet and considerate neighbor who always provided help when asked, enjoyed working in the yard and cared deeply about his family.
"He's ex-Army. I think they're making it bigger than it is," neighbor "Tiny" Bosch said. "He was a quiet, good neighbor, but (gun collecting) was his fetish."
Bosch's wife, Jennifer, concurred.
"He comes out of war with all the weapons he's comfortable with, and now it's illegal all of the sudden and he's in trouble," she said. "He's been here like 40 years."
Gutierrez said the rifles and handguns were not the problem. It was the possession of five semiautomatic weapons and ammunition larger than .60-caliber, which is illegal, he said.
While it is fine to have one pound of black powder, McKiernan had more than 20 pounds.
More than 40 pounds of smokeless powder was found at the house. Thus McKiernan's cache surpassed the legal limit of 20 pounds, Gutierrez said.
William Price, 84, of Arkansas said he has known McKiernan for decades. A war veteran like McKiernan, Price said his friend was being unfairly persecuted.
"I knew he used to shoot a lot at the range, and he'd reload his own," said Price, who fought in World War II. "He was a collector. I guess he collected too much.
"When people are in the war, they get a little messed up. ... They drill it into you so much - you've always got to be protected."
Sheriff's officials have said the amount of ammunition retrieved from the house was likely the largest in Riverside County.
The city of Norco released the house, roofless and unstable in its foundation due to the tunnel, back into the control of McKiernan's family members.
Kneuven said the house may be demolished and rebuilt, as its current condition has been determined unsafe and unlivable.
I stand by my intital assessment: this guy was a disaster just waiting to happen. It's not like he was living on a ranch in Wyoming, Norco is a city of 24,000 with a population density of 1700 people per square mile -- that's twice the density of my home town, and I wouldn't want someone like that living next door to me. And it's not as if the guy is living on a spread, or on the outskirts of town, it looks to me as if 1853 Pali Drive is part of a pretty dense suburban-style development:
People like McKiernan, so quiet and unremarkable, are a danger to society. It's one thing to put away supplies and protection in the event of a natural disaster, it's quite another to be preparing for and expecting a holocaust. People such as that have little reason to connect with society, they stand alone and isolated, and when they break, they usually take some of us along with them.
I'm not advocating house-to-house searches to find illicit caches of weapons and explosives, but I do think that once one falls into the laps of the police, the proper response is not hesitation, it's to make an arrest. I'd glad that the Norco police (eventually) saw that, and I hope that McKiernan gets the book thrown at him (not likely if the attitude of his neighbors is generally in effect there).
If this was your neighborhood, would you want all that stuff around?
hostile to science
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