A 26-year-old South Los Angeles man was arrested Saturday on federal charges of illegally transporting tons of explosives — including dangerous homemade devices that were detonated by police, leading to a massive explosion that destroyed a specially designed containment vehicle and injured 17 people.
Arturo Ceja III was arrested by ATF special agents stemming from a criminal complaint filed late Friday that charges him with transporting explosives without a license. Ceja will remain in custody until an initial appearance expected Tuesday in Los Angeles federal court, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison.
Ceja was initially arrested and booked on state charges alleging possession of a destructive device and child endangerment, and released on $500,000 bail early Thursday, according to jail records. Federal authorities arrested him on Saturday.
The complaint alleges that Ceja made several trips to Nevada in late June to purchase various types of explosives — including aerial displays and large homemade fireworks containing explosive materials — that he transported to his home in rental vans.
It was not immediately known if Ceja had retained an attorney.
Most of the explosives were purchased at Area 51, a fireworks dealer in Pahrump, Nevada. The complaint notes that fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada.
Ceja told investigators that he purchased the homemade explosives — constructed of cardboard paper, hobby fuse and packed with explosive flash powder — from an individual selling the devices out of the trunk of a Honda in the Area 51 parking lot, according to the complaint.
“Ceja did not possess an ATF explosives license or permit of any kind that would authorize him to transport either aerial display fireworks or homemade fireworks made with explosive materials, including but not limited to flash powder,” according to the complaint affidavit written by a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
On Wednesday, after receiving a tip that fireworks were being stored in Ceja’s backyard, Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to his residence on East 27th Street. At the house, officers found over 500 boxes of commercial grade fireworks in large cardboard boxes.
The initial investigation by local authorities estimated that 5,000 pounds of fireworks were found; however, on Saturday the ATF determined that Ceja was actually storing 32,000 pounds of fireworks in his backyard, according to federal prosecutors.
The fireworks were “stored outside and in an unsafe manner, namely under unsecured tents and next to cooking grills,” the complaint alleges, adding that none of the commercial fireworks or homemade fireworks, which contained explosive materials, was stored in an approved method.
In addition to the commercial fireworks, the initial search of Ceja’s residence led to the discovery of over 140 other homemade fireworks — typically referred to M devices of varying sizes — as well as explosives-making components, including hobby fuse that matched the fuse on a homemade mortar shell wrapped in tin foil that was discovered inside the residence, according to the affidavit.
While the fireworks were being removed from Ceja’s home, the LAPD Bomb Squad determined that some of the homemade fireworks containing explosive materials were not safe to transport due to risk of detonation in a densely populated area and therefore would be destroyed on scene using a total containment vessel, according to the affidavit.
During the destruction of the devices, the entire TCV exploded, causing a massive blast radius, damaging several homes in the neighborhood and injuring a total of 17 law enforcement personnel and residents. The damage extended at least a half-block from the blast.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health was identifying accommodations to support medical needs and social services for those who had to be evacuated on Saturday. An effort was also underway to assist an elderly couple who voluntarily remained at the site.
An assistance center will open at Trinity Recreation Center, 2415 Trinity St., for business and residents impacted by the explosion. It will operate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and remain in operation throughout the upcoming week. For information, call 213-484-4835.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Garcetti has directed the LAPD “to conduct a full investigation into this incident, so we can better understand why this happened.”
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