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Charges dropped against Pinellas man accused of having explosive device near Jan. 6 rally

Authorities determined the items Garrett Smith of Oldsmar possessed were legal “novelty devices” that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode.
Garrett James Smith, 22, of Oldsmar, was arrested Jan. 6, after being found with what authorities said were homemade explosive devices near the site of a rally outside the Pinellas County Jail, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Charges of making and possessing a destructive device against Smith were dropped Tuesday after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the items Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices” that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode.
Garrett James Smith, 22, of Oldsmar, was arrested Jan. 6, after being found with what authorities said were homemade explosive devices near the site of a rally outside the Pinellas County Jail, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Charges of making and possessing a destructive device against Smith were dropped Tuesday after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the items Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices” that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode. [ ROMY ELLENBOGEN | Romy Ellenbogen / Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 16|Updated Feb. 16

State prosecutors dropped the most serious charges Tuesday against an Oldsmar man who sheriff’s deputies said was found with a backpack that held a number of flammable items near a Jan. 6 rally outside the Pinellas County Jail.

A notice filed in court Tuesday by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office indicates that prosecutors will not pursue charges of making and possessing a destructive device against Garrett Smith.

Smith, 22, still faces a charge of loitering and prowling, a misdemeanor.

Garrett James Smith, 22, was arrested Jan. 6 on charges of making and possessing a destructive device and loitering, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The charges of making and possessing a destructive device were dropped Tuesday after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the items Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices” that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode.
Garrett James Smith, 22, was arrested Jan. 6 on charges of making and possessing a destructive device and loitering, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The charges of making and possessing a destructive device were dropped Tuesday after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the items Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices” that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode. [ Photo provided / Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office ]

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the items Smith possessed did not meet Florida’s legal definition of a destructive device. The items Smith had were “novelty devices” that emit smoke but don’t explode, a prosecutor wrote in the court notice.

Smith is set for an arraignment on the loitering and prowling charge later this month.

On the evening of Jan. 6, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Smith was seen running from a political rally held outside the jail in support of Jeremy Brown, a Tampa man who was arrested last September on federal charges.

Brown, who has been described in court as being associated with the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group, is accused of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, breach at the U.S. Capitol. He also faces firearms charges after federal agents said they found a short-barrel rifle, sawed-off shotgun, hand grenades and more than 8,000 rounds of ammunition during a search of his home. Brown has been held in jail since his arrest.

During the rally, Smith was seen near the crowd, in a parking lot across the street from the Pinellas County Courthouse, authorities said. Two deputies spotted him as he ran away from the rally, wearing all-black clothing with a balaclava covering his face, and detained him on a loitering charge.

When deputies searched Smith’s backpack, they found what they described as a homemade pipe-style explosive device, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a news conference the next day. They also found a piece of paper titled “direct action checklist,” which included a handwritten list of clothing, armor, a helmet and shaded goggles, a gas mask, duct tape and flammable rags, the sheriff said.

When deputies searched a black backpack Garrett Smith had, they found what Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time was a homemade pipe-style explosive device. Sheriff’s deputies found a piece of paper titled “direct action checklist,” where Smith made a list of clothing, armor and gear to bring, including listed items such as a helmet and shaded goggles, a gas mask, duct tape and flammable rags. An ATF lab later tested the devices and determined the items Garrett Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices" that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode.
When deputies searched a black backpack Garrett Smith had, they found what Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time was a homemade pipe-style explosive device. Sheriff’s deputies found a piece of paper titled “direct action checklist,” where Smith made a list of clothing, armor and gear to bring, including listed items such as a helmet and shaded goggles, a gas mask, duct tape and flammable rags. An ATF lab later tested the devices and determined the items Garrett Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices" that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode. [ ROMY ELLENBOGEN | Romy Ellenbogen / Tampa Bay Times ]
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The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and FBI Tampa’s bomb technician confirmed the pipe-style item was an active explosive device, Gualtieri said at the time. Deputies cleared the protesters in the area at about 7:45 p.m., then brought out K9s and a heat-sensing helicopter to search the area.

Deputies obtained a search warrant for Smith’s house, where they found what they thought was another pipe explosive, along with what appeared to be hand grenade-style explosives, nails and duct tape, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Nick Dorsten, the Clearwater defense attorney who represents Smith, said the items Smith carried were essentially fireworks that could create smoke, but not an explosion.

“Basically, he bought some fireworks that were novelty devices,” Dorsten said. “The kid got in over his head.”

Smith lives in Oldsmar with his parents. He has a full-time sales job, his lawyer said. He attended a number of political demonstrations in the last few years, the lawyer said, including some in Portland, Ore. The city in recent years has seen frequent protests

“He quickly realized that Florida is not Portland,” Dorsten said.

A note in Smith’s arrest report listed “antifa” as an aggravating circumstance, an apparent reference to the leftist anti-fascist political movement. But Dorsten said Smith is not part of any extremist group.

“My understanding is he showed some antifa sympathies, but I think the investigation showed he’s not part of that group,” Dorsten said. “If anything, he maybe watched them and took some notes on them.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office did not positively identify Smith as a member of “antifa,” Gualtieri said Wednesday.

While it is unclear what his intentions were with the fireworks, the lawyer said there was no evidence Smith intended to disrupt the rally.

“Luckily, it’s not illegal to make bad choices,” Dorsten said.

When deputies searched a black backpack Garrett Smith had, they found what Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time was a homemade pipe-style explosive device. Sheriff’s deputies found a piece of paper titled “direct action checklist,” where Smith made a list of clothing, armor and gear to bring, including listed items such as a helmet and shaded goggles, a gas mask, duct tape and flammable rags. An ATF lab later tested the devices and determined the items Garrett Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices" that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode.
When deputies searched a black backpack Garrett Smith had, they found what Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at the time was a homemade pipe-style explosive device. Sheriff’s deputies found a piece of paper titled “direct action checklist,” where Smith made a list of clothing, armor and gear to bring, including listed items such as a helmet and shaded goggles, a gas mask, duct tape and flammable rags. An ATF lab later tested the devices and determined the items Garrett Smith possessed were legal “novelty devices" that, if lighted, smoke but do not explode. [ ROMY ELLENBOGEN | Romy Ellenbogen / Tampa Bay Times ]

All of the devices appeared to have the makings of explosive devices, Gualtieri said Wednesday, but when items were tested in an ATF lab in Atlanta authorities learned the devices were legal and would only smoke, not explode.

“Because the ATF lab couldn’t get the chemicals and the compounds to ignite — technically, under the law, it did not meet the definition,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri said the charges against Smith for making and possessing a destructive device were the correct charges to bring at the time. He likened it to arresting someone who had a bag of powder that looked like cocaine, but finding out when it is tested in a lab that it is a different substance.

Smith’s actions still are concerning, Gualtieri said.

“The fact that he would put those devices together, the way he did, I’d say we’re lucky they wouldn’t combust,” Gualtieri said.

Times staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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