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U.S. Probes Purchase of Military Vehicles : Inquiry: Energy Dept. says eight armored personnel carriers bound for a museum were illegally traded. They ended up in private hands.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Energy Department is investigating how eight of its armored personnel carriers, similar to those used by the U.S. Army’s heavy infantry divisions, somehow came into the possession of private individuals.

Federal agents searched homes and businesses across the country Friday, including one in Palmdale, after learning that an Indiana museum that originally had obtained the vehicles at no cost through a government surplus program apparently allowed them to be sold.

Energy Department officials said Friday that federal agents have no evidence that any of the vehicles ended up in the possession of extremist groups but documents filed in federal court allege that they were illegally traded and that their military capability had not been fully eliminated as required by federal law, although they contained no weapons.

Although the individuals who ultimately bought the vehicles are believed to be collectors, the episode highlights the easy access that individuals have to potentially lethal military equipment. Energy officials acknowledged that such lapses in its procedures “could be used to channel military equipment into private hands.”

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The Energy Department had used the armored vehicles for security at its Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado, which has since ceased operations.

The vehicles were sent from the Energy Department to an organization that had identified itself as the McClain Museum and the Historical Military Armor Museum, operated by Joseph F. McClain of Anderson, Ind., according to a search warrant affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver. Addresses listed for the museum appeared to be false, the affidavit said.

The affidavit alleges that McClain had been authorized by Indiana to have unrestricted access to screen federal property and managed to use that authorization to claim the vehicles.

The document asserts that federal agents have probable cause to believe that McClain “has illegally possessed and illegally traded” the eight vehicles, starting in 1992.

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One of the eight vehicles was purchased by David Wang, a Palmdale resident, according to the affidavit.

Wang told investigators that he had purchased the vehicles, along with spare parts, for $13,000 cash and a $1,500 check payable to John Ferrie, a Ft. Collins, Colo., resident who had purchased the vehicles from McClain. Wang could not be reached for comment.

The vehicles “are considered instruments of defense in their present condition,” according to the affidavit.

Federal agents have repossessed the vehicles and are storing them at military bases.

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