Despite Warnings, Tenn. Officers Start Home Fire With Pyrotechnic Grenade

May 19, 2011
Police officers ignored multiple warnings that the pyrotechnic teargas grenade used to end a daylong standoff in April might spark a fire if used indoors

May 18--BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Police officers ignored multiple warnings that the pyrotechnic teargas grenade used to end a daylong standoff in April might spark a fire if used indoors, a Bristol Herald Courier investigation revealed.

The officers strapped the grenade to a police robot and sent it into the trailer home at 361 Ellis Road anyway, according to documents describing the event. Moments later, a blaze erupted, rendering the dwelling uninhabitable and leaving the occupants homeless.

Details of the warnings are contained in a Bristol Virginia Police Department incident report obtained through the state's Freedom of Information Act. Written by Bristol Virginia Officer B. Barr, the report describes how the grenade, called a Triple Chaser, was placed in the grips of a bomb squad robot that was sent inside to await a release signal. Bristol police from both the Virginia and Tennessee departments commanded the robot.

A Bristol Tennessee officer "spoke with the Command Post, advised them of the potential for fire, they said they understood and that they wanted the gas deployed," Barr wrote.

Another warning soon followed from officers controlling the robot, according to the report, but those commanding the standoff ordered the grenade dropped.

An officer "instructed the robot to move to the front door in the case of fire, and again went to the Command Post and advised them of the fire hazard," Barr wrote. "He told them that the robot had moved to the front door for quick egress in that event."

Scene commanders responded to this second warning by calling on firefighters to wait nearby.

"The Command Post asked for the gas deployment to stand-by while fire units were moved closer to the area," Barr wrote. "Fire units pulled directly behind the Bomb Truck and made a quick survey of the scene."

The Sullivan County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jurisdiction where the home burned, declined to comment on this story.

On April 27, police from four jurisdictions teamed together to serve Junior Kemper Spradlin, 42, with an arrest warrant for second-degree murder, which had been filed in Abingdon.

He is charged with the mid-January death of Ronald Wade Roberts, 49, of Nathalie, Va. Roberts died between 24 and 48 hours after a Jan. 15 altercation with Spradlin in Abingdon, police report.

The standoff began when Spradlin, spotted by federal agents and county law enforcement officers while in the parking lot of a Blountville grocery store, sped off. He led a high-speed chase almost directly to the double-wide mobile home belonging to his mother, where he sometimes stayed.

Spradlin was not in the home when firefighters and SWAT officers searched the home following the blaze. He surrendered two days later at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Abingdon.

A previous Herald Courier investigation of the charred mobile home turned up the blackened remnants of the Triple Chaser grenade, made by Jacksonville, Fla.-based Defense Technology. It breaks into three sections when thrown, launched or dropped, with each part blasting 20 feet in separate directions.

A company specification manual, which lists the device as a continuous discharge grenade, warns that "it should not be deployed onto rooftops, in crawl spaces, or indoors due to its fire producing capability."

The grenade, manufactured specifically for crowd control, was picked after officers already had launched or thrown into the house a dozen other teargas canisters.

A Sullivan County Sheriff's Office incident report points to a different culprit -- a "Tri Chamber gas canister" deployed by the robot. Defense Technology does make an indoor-use smoke grenade called the Flameless Tri-Chamber, which prevents fires by keeping the pyrotechnic burst inside the single-shelled aluminum canister.

It could not be determined if a Flameless Tri-Chamber were used at any point during the April 27 standoff.

A report by Bristol Virginia Police Lt. T. Sexton shows the Triple Chaser that was sent into the home with the robot belonged to his department. Other documents obtained by the Herald Courier show that the Bristol Virginia Department's arsenal includes the Flameless Tri-Chamber. But reports fail to show if any officers commanding the standoff requested the indoor smoke grenade over the outdoor-use Triple Chaser.

Orders to drop the Triple Chaser inside the Ellis Road home came soon after firefighters moved onto the scene.

"Gas was deployed with the robot, visibility immediately became impaired," Barr wrote. "The robot exited the residence to the front porch and maintained what little visibility was possible."

Flames were spotted soon afterward.

"Shortly after the gas was deployed, a flicker could be seen on the robot monitor," Barr wrote. "The Command Post was immediately notified and fire units were sent to the trailer."

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