NEW PORT RICHEY — He didn’t follow any discernible ideology, and even though Tampa Bay officials say he admitted that he thought about it, the man who built a homemade pipe bomb never actually lit the fuse.
But what worries Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco the most about the Zephyrhills man arrested last week for allegedly making a homemade explosive was his willingness to sell it to a stranger, no questions asked.
Luckily, that stranger turned out to be an undercover deputy, Nocco said during a Wednesday news conference announcing the arrest of James John Hall, 34, on charges related to making, possessing and distributing a pipe bomb.
Still, Nocco said he can’t help but wonder, “Who could he have sold it to? … Who could have known if that person was a terrorist — if that person had something they would have used it for?”
“Whenever something bad happens, the immediate response is to say, ‘Why couldn’t you have done something about this?’” Nocco said. “Well, today, with this investigation, we were able to do something before the bad thing happened.”
It was the quick work of investigators with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Police Department and the Tampa divisions of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that made last week’s case “a success story,” said Roger Handberg, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
In just two days, the team managed to gain control of the explosive and get Hall off the streets, he said.
On Nov. 1, Hall contacted an unidentified person he had sold firearms to in the past, Handberg said — a client who was actually a trusted confidential source for the Tampa Police Department.
Hall sent text messages to the source that included photos of a pipe bomb he said he had made in his house. One photo showed three to four plastic jars painted camouflage and taped together, Handberg said, while another showed a pipe taped to the top of the plastic jars with a fuse sticking out from one end.
In the messages, Hall explained that the bomb was full of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder and other ingredients. At first, Hall said, he intended to use the bomb himself in an act of revenge against a man who dropped a gun he bought from Hall at the scene of an attempted robbery. Police had managed to trace the gun back to Hall and were beginning to question him, the texts said.
The confidential source took the information to Tampa detectives, who then contacted the local divisions of the FBI and ATF, Handberg said. Those agencies then enlisted the help of the Pasco and Hillsborough sheriff’s offices to develop a plan for Hall to sell the bomb to an undercover Pasco deputy the next day, on Nov. 2.
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Law enforcement was on hand recording the undercover deputy’s interactions with Hall as he purchased the bomb for $800. The deputy also purchased an illegal firearm Hall offered to sell him during the meeting before agents quickly swarmed in and took Hall into custody.
That same day, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Hall’s home on the 5500 block of 10th Street in Zephyrhills. There they found enough materials to build roughly six more bombs like the one he sold to the undercover deputy, according to an affidavit for Hall’s arrest. The search also recovered multiple “privately made firearms,” also known as “ghost guns,” said Craig Saier, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Tampa Field Division.
“Put into context, approximately a half-pound of ammonium nitrate will destroy a washing machine or maim a person and approximately 3 pounds of ammonium nitrate was recovered in this investigation,” Saier said. “This suspect was methodical and savvy in how he acquired and assembled this device.”
While a majority of the homemade bombs recovered by technicians never would have worked, Handberg and Saier stressed Wednesday that lab technicians with the ATF found that this pipe bomb indeed was “a destructive device.”
The bomb, filled with ball bearings and pennies, was designed to detonate in a way that would shatter the pipe, turning its pieces into metal projectiles that would shoot forward in the blast. A magnet also was attached to the outside so it could be placed underneath a target’s vehicle, Saier said, “so the vehicle itself then becomes part of the explosive device and makes it even more dangerous.”
Hall was booked into a Pinellas County jail and is being held for the U.S. Marshals Service. He faces federal charges for the unlawful making of a firearm, possession of an unregistered firearm and distribution of explosive materials. If found guilty, Hall faces up to 30 years in federal prison.