The Bomb Squad Deaths--Unraveling the Mystery : THE OFFICERS: A Deadly Choice
When Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad specialists discovered a pipe bomb in the garage of a North Hollywood house Saturday, they had two basic choices, according to fellow squad members and experts in explosive devices.
They could have secured the bomb by a mechanical long-arm and transported it to a location where it then could be detonated in relative safety. Or they could have attempted to dismantle the device on the scene to preserve crucial evidence.
Detective Arleigh McCree, the decorated head of the bomb squad, chose the latter, more perilous course. It was a decision that did not surprise the men who worked under him. But the choice cost McCree his life.
“Arleigh would always say, ‘If you blow up the device, you blow up the evidence.’ He stressed the importance of taking evidence,” a fellow officer recalled. “But he also said that the ultimate decision was up to the guy on the scene. He was the one risking his life.”
On Sunday, a day after McCree and another veteran of the squad, Officer Ronald Ball, were killed while attempting to dismantle the bomb, their colleagues were trying to sort out what led to their decision, as well as many other questions left in the wake of the deadly blast. They refused to second-guess McCree’s choice.
“He (McCree) had handled generally every device, from the very simple to the very technical,” said Detective Dave Weller, a squad member who also was McCree’s best friend. “We’re going to hear criticism from all quarters, even from our own peers. But Arleigh made a choice according to the best information he had at the time. Something just went terribly wrong.”
Police spokesmen would not discuss what direction the probe was taking Sunday. Meanwhile, officers in the department wore black arm bands in memory of their fallen colleagues.
The blast occurred about 11:30 a.m. Saturday, several hours after officers had entered the home at 6849 N. Vanscoy Ave. and taken into custody Donnell Morse, 36, a movie makeup artist and hairdresser, to question him about the ambush and wounding Wednesday of a makeup artists union official. Police also arrested Morse’s brother, Alvin, 34, and sister, Ernestine Enoch, 39.
All three suspects have been booked for investigation of murder in the two officer’s deaths, police said. The Morse brothers are being held in the Central Jail, and Enoch is being held in a women’s facility in Van Nuys.
Donnell Morse lived at the modest one-story home, and his brother, sister and her three children stayed with him for extended periods, police said.
“At this point, we don’t know everyone’s involvement or what fully transpired,” Lt. Dan Cooke, a police spokesman, said.
McCree, 46, and Ball, 43, both suffered massive shrapnel wounds in the blast, which blew a hole in the roof of the attached garage and was powerful enough to partly knock the garage’s heavy doors from their hinges. It is believed to be the first time that a member of the bomb squad was killed in the line of duty.
As Weller and other detectives from the 11-member bomb squad returned Sunday to the residential neighborhood in North Hollywood to collect evidence and piece together details of the killings, several questions remained unanswered:
- Was the bomb planted, as family members and friends of Donnell Morse insisted Sunday, or, as police suspect, was Morse technically capable of putting together his own explosive device, one sophisticated enough to trip up one of the nation’s foremost explosives experts?
- What was the connection between the pipe bomb and last week’s ambush shooting in North Hollywood of Howard Smit, 74, the business manager of Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Union Local No. 706? Morse, a union member who was described by fellow workers as temperamental and having a history of being delinquent in paying his union dues, is considered a suspect in the Smit shooting. No motive has been offered for the attack, which is still under investigation, and no charges have been filed.
- Was the device booby-trapped, as Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said Saturday, or was it made so crudely that it exploded unintentionally? A police source said it was quite possible that the bomb exploded not by design but because it was poorly made.
Police officials refused to discuss any of the possibilities.
But family and friends of Donnell Morse, expressing shock at his arrest, denied that Morse had a temperamental or violent streak. They speculated that the bomb was planted by someone wanting to hurt Morse, but they would not be specific.
“He called me Sunday morning. . . . He said he was doing OK and he was a little surprised at what happened,” another Morse sister, Joann, said in a telephone interview from her home in Altamonte Springs, Fla., a suburb of Orlando.
“He said he does not know how on earth those bombs got there. . . . He said he has some idea who might have put them there, but I don’t want to say. I don’t want to get him into any more trouble.”
Neighbor Maria Gaio, a close friend of Morse, said the makeup artist would never endanger his family by placing a pipe bomb in the garage. Morse, who is twice divorced, has a 14-year-old son in Florida and a 7-year-old son who has spent considerable time with him in North Hollywood.
“He has his sister’s children and his own little boy there, and there’s no way he’s going to put a bomb in his garage,” she said.
Gaio said newspaper reports that Morse was skittish about people entering his garage and seemed to be hiding something were “garbage.”
“He just had a garage sale a few weeks ago and people were walking in and out of the garage,” she said. “Violence is totally out of his character. He’s a very gentle person.”
When they entered Morse’s garage Saturday morning, police reportedly found two or more explosive devices in a storage cabinet. The bomb squad was called.
No Protective Clothing
Moments before the fatal explosion, McCree announced that he had found a booby trap and ordered everyone back, except himself and Ball. Then, at least one of the bombs exploded. Neither officer apparently wore protective clothing sometimes used by bomb squad members while disassembling an explosive device.
According to experts in explosives, pipe bombs often are the work of amateurs. Yet whether fashioned by a bathroom chemist or a skilled terrorist, they have a deadly potential that belies their reputation as small, crude devices with minimal destructive power. They are probably the most common type of illegal explosive encountered by bomb squad specialists in their hazardous work.
“You can get the books in the library,” said Deputy Terry Danielson, an investigator with the arson-explosive detail of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “They’re easy to make.”
In more sophisticated pipe bombs, gunpowder may be replaced by dynamite or plastic explosives. The bomb can be triggered by mechanisms, booby traps, that are extremely subtle and dangerous. Uncertainty over how a particular pipe bomb may be set off, bomb squad members said, can lead to a wrenching personal choice between detonating it in relative safety or attempting to dismantle for evidence sake.
“Arleigh left that option totally up to the man on the spot,” Detective Weller said. “He said each man had to make his own call. Yes, keeping evidence intact is an important consideration. But nobody on this squad has a death wish. No one wants to get injured or killed. We proceed very cautiously.”
Another bomb squad member, who asked that he remain unidentified, said the choices confronting McCree and Ball were made more clear by the fact that Morse was a suspect in the Smit shooting.
“That would tend to give weight to disassembling the device to protect the evidence,” he said.
But the officer stressed that the decision was never easy because bomb specialists deal “with improvised stuff. You never know what you’ve got. There is no manual for taking them apart. There is no manual for putting them together. I doubt if the jerks who make them know how to take them apart.”
McCree, a 21-year veteran with the force, was an internationally respected bomb expert who had headed the Police Department’s bomb squad unit for seven years. He oversaw security for the 1984 Summer Olympics and had investigated the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
“Arleigh McCree was one of the best bomb technicians in the world . . . " Chief Gates said. “He knew what he was doing.”
Said another colleague on the bomb squad: “Both Arleigh and Ron were extremely capable. They did their jobs well. But they also knew the risks.”
Sgt. Ken Staggs of the Valley Traffic Division, said most officers were in “total shock” because McCree and Ball were well-trained and such experts in their field.
“We just can’t imagine what went wrong,” Staggs said. “We’re just dumbfounded. It had to be something very, very wrong.”
Ball was described by fellow officers as an outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing. He worked as a patrol officer in the Van Nuys division during the 1970s.
Members of the immediate families of McCree and Ball were in seclusion Sunday. Pam McCree, his sister-in-law, said the families were making arrangements for joint funeral services, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday. She said her husband and the rest of the McCree family were “still very upset” and did not wish to talk about the tragedy.
“He was a hero in his family’s eyes,” she said.
Times staff writer Mayerene Barker contributed to this report.