The preliminary hearing for former University of California, Davis chemist David Snyder concluded on Oct. 4. Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Reed determined that there was enough evidence to send Snyder to trial on 17 felony counts of reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. The charges stem from a January explosion in Snyder’s campus apartment.
The preliminary hearing began on July 30 and was supposed to continue on Sept. 6 but was postponed to Oct. 4. In the first part of the hearing, deputy district attorney Martha Holzapfel called eight witnesses, the last of whom was Jason Winger, a West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad. Holzapfel completed direct questioning of Winger on July 30, and the hearing resumed on Oct. 4 with cross-examination by defense attorney Linda Parisi.
In cross-examining Winger, Parisi generally focused on amounts of materials, whether they were in forms that could be effectively used as explosives, and how authorities had tested them. For example, she asked about a vial that had tested positive for triacetone triperoxide (TATP) by a portable Raman spectrometer. Winger testified that the vial was about 1.75 inches tall and 0.75 to 1 inch in diameter, and that it probably contained about 10 to 14 g of material.
She also asked whether potassium perchlorate found in Snyder’s apartment was finely ground. Winger testified that it was more granular, and that reponders find it in both granular and finely ground forms in clandestine labs. Winger said that a finer powder would make for a more effective explosive.
Parisi next asked about a portable Raman device used for field testing and how it was calibrated. Winger said that he didn’t know about the calibration since it wasn’t his agency’s device. Parisi also asked about one Raman unit that authorities were trying to use to test a device in Snyder’s bedroom when the device exploded. Parisi asked whether that Raman unit was subsequently used to test other things in the apartment. Winger said that it was. The Raman unit has a glass shield to protect it from damage, and while the shield was damaged and removed, the technician operating the unit ran diagnostics that indicated the spectrometer was functioning all right after the explosion.
Parisi also asked whether the Raman unit used a single wavelength and whether it used “UV spectroscopy” (these appear to be the instrument specifications, although the instrument used may be an older model). She also asked if the investigators used gas chromatography or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and whether the forensic lab tested for materials other than what came up positive. Winger said that he didn’t know the details of what the forensic lab does.
Parisi next asked how investigators avoided cross-contamination. Winger said that in the field, items were spread out on tarps. The primary purpose of separating materials was to avoid having them react with each other, but it also serves to prevent cross-contamination. Also, the Raman unit can test the materials in clear containers without opening them, which also limits contamination.
Parisi asked Winger about whether he’d investigated other clandestine labs that involved chemists with Ph.D. degrees. Winger said he hadn’t. She asked whether Winger thought that more training would decrease the danger of a clandestine lab. Winger said that in his opinion, more training wouldn’t improve safety, because more training and experience could increase someone’s comfort level such that they’d be less cautious and not take safety precautions.
Among the items found in Snyder’s apartment was a solution of explosive propellant called double base smokeless powder (DBSP), as well as ingredients to make it. On redirect questioning, Holzapfer asked whether it was safe to make DBSP in Snyder’s apartment. Winger said no. As for whether Snyder could have safely stored the material, Winger said that while the state does not require specialized storage, it can’t be present on a university campus. Holzapfer also asked whether there was any safe way to make explosives in Snyder’s apartment. Winger said no.
Cross-examining Winger again, Parisi explored the safety question further. Winger said it is not safe to manufacture explosives or other illegal substances in an apartment. Parisi asked if that was true even given a very small amount. Winger responded that it depends on the circumstances, but even half to one ounce of a high explosive could inflict significant damage. He pointed out that Snyder himself was injured.
That concluded Winger’s testimony.
Parisi asked the judge to dismiss counts 7-10, those for possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device. Parisi said that while tests indicated that Snyder possessed items that could produce an explosion, there was no evidence he planned to mix them or create a destructive device.
Holzapfer argued in return that Snyder had mixed ammonium nitrate prills with aluminum, showing his intent to make a destructive device. He also made nitroglycerin and put it into a device, the one in Snyder’s bedroom that exploded when investigators tried to test it.
Parisi also asked the judge to combine counts 1-4 on reckless disposal of hazardous waste into one count, saying that although hazardous material had been deposited at four locations, there was no evidence that Snyder directed alleged accomplice Tashari El-Sheikh to do so or that Snyder had knowledge of the separate placements.
Holzapfer said that when you ask a second person to dispose of items, it’s a natural conclusion that they might place them in separate locations. Additionally, Snyder asked El-Sheikh to move a particular item from one place to another, Holzapfer said. Holzapfer also noted that there were multiple dumpsters involved at the four locations, and that there was significant risk to the community in both transporting the items to the locations and in leaving them in the dumpsters.
Parisi also argued that the firearms charges, counts 11-17, should be combined into one.
Holzapfer responded that the chargers are for each of the guns that investigators found in Snyder’s apartment.
Judge Reed then took a 10-minute recess to look at the exhibits and review his notes. When he returned, he said there was sufficient evidence to support the charges, such that there is a strong suspicion that the violations occurred and that Snyder committed the offenses. Reed did not change any of the charges. Reed set a “meet and confer” appointment with the attorneys for Oct. 25 and scheduled Snyder to be arraigned on Nov. 1.