Preliminary hearing started for #DavidSnyder in UC Davis explosives case

Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder appeared in court on Friday to begin his preliminary hearing on 17 felony charges relating to a January explosion in Synder’s campus apartment.

The charges are for 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. Snyder was released from jail in February on $2 million bail. Snyder was working as a postdoc at the time of the explosion; he’d received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Davis in 2011.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for a judge to rule on whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Deputy district attorney Martha Holzapfel called eight witnesses:

  • Joanne Zekany, UC Davis police detective
  • Lee Benson, City of Davis police officer
  • Scott Allen, City of Davis police officer
  • Paul Henoch, UC Davis police sergeant
  • Kevin Skaife, UC Davis police detective
  • Daniel Powell, City of Davis police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad
  • Brian Parker, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives special agent
  • Jason Winger, West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad

The court got through direct testimony of all eight witnesses on Friday. The judge scheduled the hearing to resume with cross-examination of Jason Winger on Friday, September 6.

Most of the testimony during the hearing was hearsay–evidence based not on a witness’s personal knowledge but on another’s statement, such as a police officer recounting what someone else said. Unlike in criminal trials, hearsay is allowed in preliminary hearings.

Joanne Zekany, UC Davis police detective
Zekany testified about investigation interviews she conducted. Snyder worked on synthesizing compounds for cystic fibrosis research in chemistry professor Mark Kurth’s lab at UC Davis. Kurth told Zekany that none of Snyder’s work involved explosives, although under cross-examination Zekany said that she had not gone through with Kurth the properties of every chemical Snyder handled.

A graduate student in Kurth’s group, Teresa Palazzo(*), told Zekany that a week before the incident, Snyder approached her and asked if she wanted to learn how to make triacetone triperoxide (TATP), then proceeded to get the chemicals to do it. Graduate student Kelly Gottlieb told Zekany about finding a bottle of a snake venom compound on a counter during a lab clean-out, and she told Zekany that Snyder commented it would be easy to take from the lab.

UC Davis hazardous waste technician Kevin Phelps told Zekany that during the lab clean-out, Snyder was wandering in and out of the lab and going through cabinets and bins of chemicals flagged for disposal. In at least one case, Snyder took a cylinder out of a disposal bin and walked off with it. Separately, UC Davis detective Skaife testified that UC Davis hazardous waste specialist Dan Orovich told him that someone who matched Snyder’s photograph took 5-10 bottles of chemicals off Orovich’s cart, and also asked if he could purchase chemicals.

On cross-examination, Snyder’s attorney, Linda Parisi, focused on the fact that the Snyder’s interactions with his coworkers and the hazardous waste staff were all out in the open, and that no one stopped Snyder from going through or taking chemicals during the lab clean-out. She also confirmed with Zekany that Kurth had no explicit rule against taking chemicals home.

Binh Dao, a member of Krishnan Nambiar’s lab, told Zekany about a 2009 incident in which Snyder said he was making fireworks and ignited a small amount of a compound on a bench. Nambiar supposedly walked in as Snyder did this, but Zekany did not recount a conversation with Nambiar or discuss how the department handled the situation.

(I see parallels to the Texas Tech explosion, here, in that several people seem to have seen red flags in Snyder’s behavior, but no one said anything at the time.)

The remaining witnesses were all involved directly in the incident response on January 17.

Lee Benson, City of Davis police officer
Benson was called to Sutter Davis Hospital, after Snyder showed up in the emergency room with an explosion injury to his left hand. He overheard Snyder on the phone telling someone to get rid of a bucket with used syringes and chemicals in a closet. Benson relayed that information to other responders.

Kevin Skaife, UC Davis police detective
Skaife testified that the person Snyder called was Tashari El-Sheikh, a childhood friend of Snyder’s who was listed as Snyder’s emergency contact lived in the same apartment complex. Someone with the name of Tashari El-Sheikh is currently listed as a mechanical and aerospace engineering postdoc at UC Davis. El-Sheikh allegedly put firearms in Snyder’s apartment into a safe and removed several bottles of chemicals plus a “paper towel-looking roll with a wooden stick coming out and something that looked like almonds inside” (anyone have an idea what this might be?). He then allegedly deposited the materials in several dumpsters around Davis. The Davis Enterprise reports that El-Sheikh is out of the country but will face his own set of felony charges in the case if he returns.

Scott Allen, City of Davis police officer
Allen was one of the first responders to Snyder’s apartment. He found blood at the door, but no one answered the door. He could also smell what he thought was propane or some sort of chemical mixture (El-Sheikh told Skaife that he’d found the gas stove turned on but there was no flame, and he turned it off). After about 10 minutes, Allen and colleagues forced entry to search for possible other victims. They didn’t find anyone. Allen said he saw a rifle in the bedroom along with beakers and non-household chemicals elsewhere in the house. He thought the scene resembled a drug lab (I wasn’t the only one!), and called for the Yolo County narcotics team.

When the narcotics team showed up, those officers concluded that they were looking at an explosives lab rather than a drug lab and called in the bomb squad.

Jason Winger, West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad, and other witnesses
Winger was the explosives unit leader for the incident. The apartment complex was evacuated and technicians started removing items from Snyder’s apartment, separating oxidizers from fuels on tarps in the parking lot. UC Davis police sergeant Paul Henoch took photographs in the apartment and Kurth’s lab. City of Davis police sergeant Daniel Powell cataloged the chemicals. A team including Skaif and ATF special agent Brian Parker located, removed, and cataloged the items in the dumpsters. Another search of the apartment on Jan. 31 turned up a few more items.

Overall, investigators found:

  • In the apartment and one of the dumpsters, vials that tested positive for triacetone triperoxide (TATP) using a portable Raman sepectrometer; TATP is so unstable that bomb techs destroyed the vials in a UC Davis field rather than retain them for additional testing
  • Ingredients for flash powder: potassium perchlorate, aluminum powder, and sulfur
  • The primary ingredient for black powder: charcoal
  • Ingredients for hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD): hexamine along with citric acid in the form of Gatorade and Metamucil (HMTD was the explosive made by George Jukabec in the “bomb house” that had to be burned down near San Diego)
  • Ammonium nitrate pellets, or “prills,” plus prills combined with aluminum powder (I didn’t quite catch what Winger called the combination, but it was possibly ammonal—ammonium nitrate, trinitrotoluene (TNT), and aluminum powder)
  • Red gloves contaminated with nitroglycerin and 2,4-dinitrotoluene, a precursor to trinitrotolune (TNT)
  • A nitrocellulose container with a handwritten label saying “Kurth, along with another bottle of something marked with the number 372. Chemistry department staff member Jessica Potts told Zekany that the number corresponded to the teaching lab dispensary.
  • A portion of green hobby or pyrotechnic fuse
  • Nichrome wire, which can be used as a fuse igniter
  • An improvised detonator on the dresser that exploded when investigators tried to get a spectrum of the contents using a portable Raman unit; fragments tested positive for nitroglycerin
  • Several firearms and ammunition
  • From Kurth’s lab, ammonium nitrate and a something that Winger said was “a close match” to TATP; both samples were destroyed

Winger testified that several of the compounds Snyder appeared to be making or trying to make are extremely sensitive to heat, shock, or friction, including TATP, HMTD, and nitroglycerin. TATP and HMTD are not made commercially because they’re so dangerous, he said. It’s legal to possess some of the compounds, such as ammonium nitrate or aluminum powder alone. Possessing them together and the “totality of circumstances,” however, can make the case for intent to make or use them illegally as explosives. Winger added that homemade explosives in particular can be unstable and unreliable.

Zekany testified that the apartment complex had 25 buildings with eight apartments per building, along with nearby community and daycare centers. Winger added that making homemade explosives in a place such as an apartment building extends the danger to everyone around. The apartment above Snyder’s was particularly at risk, Winger said, because the explosive energy tends to go up rather than down or out. As for the items in the dumpsters, the TATP would have been dangerous to trash crews, as were possibly other compounds if their containers broke and the compounds mixed, Winger said.

(*) Although the witnesses spelled their names on the stand, I did not check the names of others mentioned with the district attorney’s office.

Other coverage:

Update: Recap of the rest of the hearing.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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