AP: US military explosives vanish, emerge in civilian world

An Associated Press investigation has found that the U.S. military has a missing explosives problem

Via AP news wire
Thursday 02 December 2021 05:33
US--AWOL Weapons-Explosives
US--AWOL Weapons-Explosives

The Marine Corps demolition specialist was worried — about America, and about the civil war he feared would follow the presidential election.

And so, block by block, he stole 13 pounds (6 kilograms) of C4 plastic explosives from the training ranges of Camp Lejeune.

“The riots, talk about seizing guns, I saw this country moving towards a scary unknown future,” the sergeant would later write, in a seven-page statement to military investigators. “I had one thing on my mind and one thing only, I am protecting my family and my constitutional rights.”

His crime might have gone undetected, but authorities caught a lucky break in 2018 as they investigated yet another theft from Lejeune, the massive base on coastal North Carolina In that other case, explosives ended up in the hands of some high school kids.

These are not isolated cases. Hundreds — and possibly thousands — of armor-piercing grenades, hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives, as well as land mines and rockets have been stolen from or lost by the U.S. armed forces over the past decade, according to an ongoing Associated Press investigation into the military’s failure to secure all its weapons of war. Still more explosives were reported missing and later recovered.

Troops falsified records to cover up some thefts, and in other cases didn’t report explosives as missing, investigative files show. Sometimes, they failed to safeguard explosives in the first place.

The consequences can be deadly.

In August, an artillery shell exploded at a Mississippi recycling yard. Chris Smith had been taking a work break from the heat, drinking water and chewing tobacco. Suddenly he found himself cradling a co-worker who was bleeding profusely from his legs. The man died right there.

“For no reason at all,” Smith said in an interview.

Two days later, an intact shell was found at the scrap yard. The local sheriff’s department said the round was the kind used in a howitzer, a long-range artillery weapon.

Investigating authorities suspect the shells came from Camp Shelby, an Army National Guard base about 40 miles away. Mississippi National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Deidre Smith said she knows of no evidence the shell originated there.

Metal salvaging thieves have targeted Shelby before, according to federal authorities. A man was injured by an explosion at his Gulfport, Mississippi, home in 2012 when he tried to open one of 51 AT-4 anti-tank shells taken from the impact area of Shelby’s training range. Five people pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Some thefts have drawn attention locally, as happened in 2019, when training rockets were found in residences just off Fort Hood in Texas. AP uncovered others that have not been reported publicly, among them the Camp Lejeune thefts and a 2013 case in which 36 sticks of unguarded TNT were stolen during a training exercise at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Military officials said thieves in the ranks are a small minority of service members and that — compared to stockpiles — the overall amounts of lost or stolen explosives are minuscule.

“We want to get the number to zero, so there is no loss, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t take seriously losses that happened,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland said.

Explosives have been found in homes and storage units, inside military barracks and alongside roads, even at a US-Mexico border checkpoint. These were not rusty war trophies cast out of grandpa’s attic. They came from military shipments or bases. Many were taken by military insiders.

The AP’s AWOL Weapons investigation has shown that poor accountability and insider thefts have led to the loss of more than 2,000 military firearms since 2010. Some guns were used in civilian crimes, found on felons or sold to a street gang.

In response, Congress is set to require that the military give lawmakers detailed loss and theft reports every year.

One thing those reforms won’t do: Make it harder to steal explosives such as C4.

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Explosives are more difficult to account for than firearms.

While troops check guns in and out of armories, explosives are distributed from ammunition supply points with the presumption they will be detonated.

Although at least two people are supposed to sign consumption reports, it’s an honor system. If explosives are not used and vanish, only the thief might know. Explosives may not have individual serial numbers for tracking, and plastic explosives are easily concealed because, like Play-Doh, they can be cut or shaped.

Poor record-keeping and oversight allowed a private stationed at Quantico, Virginia, to steal cans of explosives and detonators. That criminal investigation also revealed that a second ammunition technician took four fragmentation grenades by falsely recording that they were exploded during training, an assertion no one questioned.

AP sought detailed data from all four service branches covering explosives loss or theft from 2010 through 2020.

The Army provided a chart that totaled nearly 1,900 entries for missing explosives, about half of which it said were recovered. The majority was described as C4/TNT. Other categories included artillery, mortars, land mines, grenades, rockets and armor-piercing 40 mm grenades shot from a launcher.

The chart represented a painstaking, manual records review, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley said. Even with that review, researchers couldn’t always determine amounts, so for example it was not possible to know exactly how many pounds of C4/TNT were represented in the 1,066 entries, Kelley said.

In the broad context of the Army, Kelley said, amounts of missing explosives are negligible. Over the past decade, the Army “has maintained proper accountability of 99.999984% of munitions,” he said.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Marine Corps released data that was too unclear to calculate a precise tally. AP's rough analysis showed that thousands of armor-piercing grenades and hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives were reported lost or stolen. “Some of it was later recovered and often these reports are attributed to human error, such as miscounts or improper documentation,” Capt. Andrew Wood said in a written statement. He wrote the Marines have “appropriate policies and procedures ... to account for explosives,” though the Corps is looking into improvements.

The Air Force provided a chart that reported about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of C4, more than 800 feet (244 meters) of detonating cord and several dozen 40 mm armor-piercing grenades had vanished without being recovered. Spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco said the loss rate within the service’s $25 billion explosives stockpile is a small fraction of a percent. “The Air Force does very well regarding accountability of explosives,” Fiocco wrote in response to questions.

The Navy said that only 20 hand grenades have been stolen, with all but two recovered. When the AP produced military investigative records showing an additional 24 grenades had been reported missing from a ship’s armory in 2012, Navy spokesman Lt. Lewis Aldridge said the case was “beyond the 2-year local records retention requirement.” Aldridge added: “We are committed to transparency and following proper procedures and take accountability of explosives seriously."

Not all missing explosives need to be reported all the way up the military’s bureaucracy. These reporting gaps mean official loss and theft numbers collected by the Office of the Secretary of Defense undercount the problem's full extent. For example, the services don't have to tell the Pentagon about losses or thefts of less than 10 pounds of C4, although each branch can have more stringent internal regulations.

"The numbers are exceedingly small for loss of explosives,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told AP in June.

The AP also unearthed dozens of explosives investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service Army Criminal Investigation Command and Defense Criminal Investigative Service. In the majority of these 63 cases, the military didn’t realize any explosives were gone until someone recovered them where they shouldn’t be.

That’s what happened in 2018, when a former Marine’s father tipped off investigators about his son’s Colorado home. Authorities discovered four blocks of C4 stuffed into the son's boots and, in his hoodie pocket, cord to detonate them. They also found eight 40 mm armor-piercing grenades, court records show.

The items came from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. The former Marine had been part of a security force guarding the nuclear-powered fleet there.

At Kings Bay, while one Marine altered paperwork to make it appear explosives had been used, others took them away after burying them near a “shoot house” on base, the records show.

That case spawned a parallel investigation into further explosive thefts from Kings Bay. According to the investigative file, 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of plastic explosives were stolen. In trained hands, much less C4 than that would be deadly if detonated close to people, and could destroy vehicles or damage bridges or buildings, military and civilian explosive experts said.

In all, six people pleaded guilty.

Former military members who take explosives don’t always face punishment.

In 2016, a Pennsylvania man who had retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel two decades before was found with 10 pounds (5 kilograms) of C4, detonating cord and blasting caps, in his home. A federal prosecutor declined the case, citing the statute of limitations and the apparent lack of criminal intent.

In Florida, a former Army Special Forces soldier was acquitted by a civilian jury of taking boxes of TNT, grenades and dynamite. He testified that his supervising officer allowed him to take the explosives from Fort Bragg, North Carolina — a claim the supervisor denied.

The Army didn’t know the explosives had been missing for years. At trial, an Army expert suggested a faked form said they had been exploded.

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The story of the recovery of Camp Lejeune’s purloined explosives begins with teenagers breaking into a vacant house.

On a shelf in a bedroom closet, they found a black backpack, and inside was an ammunition can that contained a cornucopia of munitions. Five feet of detasheet, a thin, malleable explosive that comes in rolls like wrapping paper. Fuse cord. Blasting caps. Parts of a land mine.

A Marine sergeant named Alex Krasovec had left the backpack, according to the investigative file. As a demolition instructor at Camp Lejeune in early 2017, he grabbed the can at the end of one training exercise. The items inside should have been exploded.

Sometimes, troops will gather the leftovers from a training and blow them up, rather than turning them back in — and filling out additional forms. It’s known as a junk shot, safety shot or clean-up shot.

Instead of returning the explosives, or blowing up the can, Krasovec took it.

Krasovec, who declined an interview request from AP, would tell Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents that his idea was to go to his family home in Ohio — to have some fun, maybe blow up some tree stumps. Before he could, the teenagers who had slipped out of a sleepover in Jacksonville, North Carolina, found the stash. They took it, and kept it, until one of them was overheard talking about having military explosives at home.

A forensic lab identified Krasovec’s fingerprints on the explosives. In questioning him about a year later, NCIS agents stumbled upon a second insider, Sgt. Travis Glosser.

As a demolition trainer at Camp Lejeune, Glosser also had exceptional access to C4.

During the summer of 2016, Glosser feared Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump in the presidential election, and society might disintegrate. So he began accumulating leftovers until he had what he described as “a respectable amount” of C4 — 10 blocks, weighing nearly 13 pounds (6 kilograms).

“I mean, you know how crazy the world is nowadays,” Glosser told an NCIS agent in June 2018, when he surrendered. “So it’s like well, you know, I’ve also got that just in case if the world does start coming to an end or anything crazy like that, I could protect me and my family.”

After Trump won, he carefully buried the explosives just beyond the tree line in the backyard of his home off Camp Lejeune. They remained there until, more than a year later, word began circulating that Krasovec was in trouble and there would be an inventory review.

Glosser first told investigators on the Krasovec case that he didn’t know about any stolen C4.

Before sunrise the next morning, he used a military shovel to bury the explosives in nearby woods. He then went to the gym, and reported to work.

Later that day, consumed by the mistake he knew he’d made, Glosser confessed, then told bomb handlers where he had buried the munitions.

Both Krasovec and Glosser pleaded guilty to theft of military property. Each was sentenced to less than two years of confinement in military prison, and both were knocked down in rank. Krasovec was booted from the service with a bad conduct discharge; Glosser is appealing his case.

Glosser’s wife told the AP that he would not comment. Under questioning from authorities, he insisted he never planned to wreak havoc and said he had no ties to a militia.

“At no time did I ever intend or even think about selling, giving, or even showing anyone” the explosives, he wrote. “I also have never had any intent to harm anyone.”

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Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee; contact her at https://twitter.com/kmhall. Pritchard reported from Los Angeles; contact him at https://twitter.com/JPritchardAP. LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida; contact him at https://twitter.com/JimLaPorta. Contributing were Justin Myers in Chicago; Stacey Plaisance in Ellisville, Mississippi; Jennifer Farrar in New York and Robert Bumsted in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

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Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at investigative@ap.org or via https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.

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