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Police Baffled by Booby-Trapped Pens

Times Staff Writer

It seemed like something out of a Looney Tunes episode, but school officials and detectives weren’t laughing about the baffling case of the booby-trapped pens.

Three pens have exploded over the last few months at two high schools in the El Monte Union High School District.

The pens, which were lying on the ground in various parts of the schools, detonated when people pulled off the caps. The victims suffered minor burns and scratches on their hands and faces.

The latest incident occurred about 7:10 a.m. Friday at El Monte High School when a student found a marker in a boys’ restroom, took off the cap and watched it explode in his hands.

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On Monday, students were still talking about the incident, with several saying that they were worried about their own safety. Meanwhile, detectives were chasing leads.

“There was a rumor they were coming from ice cream carts,” said Det. Gary Spencer of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s arson and explosives detail.

“We found pyrotechnics on the ice cream carts, but they didn’t have any pens. None of the improvised devices could be traced back to the ice cream carts.”

Spencer, a veteran of the explosives squad, said he’s never seen a case quite like this. His theory is that the device was homemade, but he’s not sure why someone would want to set the traps.

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“I wouldn’t say it’s a trick -- people are getting injured,” he said. “Whether they’re doing it for mischief or they intend to injure people -- that’s something to be determined.”

Nick Salerno, an assistant superintendent for the district, said he believes the first two pens looked like “Bic-type pens,” and El Monte High Principal Joel Kyne said the one at his school was a black felt marker.

The incidents started at Rosemead High School on Aug. 24, when students were registering for school. A construction worker at the school saw the pen lying on the ground near a line of students and picked it up. He suffered minor injuries when the pen exploded.

About three weeks later, a female resident of Rosemead was walking just outside the school’s fence when she saw a pen lying on the ground. She pulled the cap off, and the pen exploded.

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The woman suffered minor burns and her skin was punctured by pieces of the pen. She was treated at a local hospital.

After Friday’s incident, police searched a residence in Rosemead but found no explosives.

In the wake of the explosions, administrators warned students not to pick up anything, even trash, and to notify adults if they saw something lying on the ground.

“You never think it’s going to happen to you, ever,” Kyne said. “It makes you be aware of the funky things going on.”

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Daisy Aguirre, 14, said the incidents are disconcerting.

“That was kind of scary,” she said as she climbed into her mother’s sport utility vehicle after school.

Daisy Aguirre’s cousin, Victor Rivera, 16, who was also getting a ride home from Aguirre’s mother, added: “I picked up a pencil before, but I thought nothing about it until now.”


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