In a highly secret operation, federal agents arrested two anti-government militia members Dec. 3, 2000, in connection with a planned bomb attack against a massive propane installation in Elk Grove, CA, near Sacramento.
Sources said the arrests by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force came after a nearly year-long investigation into the alleged plot against Suburban Propane, which authorities believe was designed to exploit Y2K fears among the nation's hate groups.
Authorities said the two men were arrested without incident on weapons charges and held while federal agents searched their El Dorado County homes for evidence.
Storage lockers and a home in Reno and Carson City also were searched. Both were members of a San Joaquin County militia group and had been stockpiling large amounts of illegal weapons, law-enforcement sources said. One is a convicted felon with firearms violations; the other is unemployed and has no past criminal record, but sources say he is knowledgeable in bomb making and a large amount of explosives were found at his property.
"We think we stopped a terrorist attack," one source close to the investigation said. "Can we be certain they would have carried it out? We don't know. We had to behave as though they were going to do it."
The alleged plot involved a plan to blow up the Suburban Propane facility near Highway 99 and Grant Line Road, where 24 million gallons of liquid propane are stored.
Federal officials insisted that the threat to the plant had been eliminated even before the arrests, but extraordinary security precautions still are under way at the facility.
Experts differ greatly on what effect a successful attack at the plant would have had, with some maintaining a massive fire would result but be contained within the plant's boundaries. Others, including the Elk Grove fire chief and scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said destruction and fires could occur at least as far as one mile from the plant.
"Our experts have determined there would have been significant off-site consequences," Elk Grove Fire Chief Mark Meaker said, adding that nearby homes, as well as Elk Grove High School two miles away, could have been damaged in an attack.
The two suspects arrested Friday on weapons charges were identified at a Dec. 4 press conference as Kevin Ray Patterson, 42, of Camino and Charles Dennis Kiles, 49, of Placerville. Sacramento County supervisors and Elk Grove fire officials have been briefed extensively in the past two months on the threat to the facility and met with Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas late Friday to discuss the arrests.
"We were all kind of sworn to silence," said Don Nottoli, the Sacramento County supervisor who represents the area and who was briefed on the threat in September by Blanas and Jim Maddock, special agent in charge of the local FBI office.
"The serious nature of it was emphasized to me and I took it seriously, with the knowledge that law enforcement is doing its best to keep a real focus on it," he said.
As a result of the investigation, company officials have added numerous security devices in the past weeks to protect the site, including a trench designed to protect the perimeter of the plant from car-bomb attack.
But company officials maintained this week that the sort of attack allegedly being plotted could not detonate the propane tanks. Because most of the fuel is stored in two non-pressurized tanks at 50 degrees below zero, the propane would likely pool within protective dirt berms. It would only ignite, they said, after it had considerable time to warm and mix with the air.
"You could have one hell of a fire, but it would all be contained right there within the berms," said John Fletcher, the Malibu lawyer who serves as Suburban Propane's outside counsel.
Meaker disagreed, saying that a major explosion and fire likely would blow the earthen berms out and lead to a vapor cloud and fire that could affect nearby homes, schools and businesses. The purported threat to the plant first surfaced last spring through information from an FBI informant, sources close to the investigation said.
The informant told authorities that a militia group member in the area had made threats related to blowing up the propane plant and had mentioned a series of dates, including one some time around New Year's, when law enforcement nationwide is bracing for possible domestic terrorism events.
Maddock, a veteran of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation and an expert on counterterrorism methods, directed a task force of 50 investigators from 10 different agencies to begin investigating the case.
By Sept. 6, a federal judge had authorized wiretap surveillance and Maddock informed Sacramento and Elk Grove law and fire officials about the threat, the sources said.
Blanas ordered a special weapons and tactics team to stand guard at the plant day and night for at least a month after the threat was reported. Officials say they remain extremely concerned about the potential for problems there, particularly with law enforcement on alert over the possibility of unrest or terrorism related to Y2K.
Since the original threat was uncovered, sources said that the FBI, sheriff's detectives and Elk Grove fire officials have helped Suburban Propane beef up its security at the sprawling plant.
In addition, the company has hired off-duty sheriff's deputies to help guard the facility around the clock and is installing a new, double-gated entrance to thwart unauthorized vehicles from entering. A freshly dug trench also has appeared along one side of the perimeter of the plant's fence.
The security measures were added after sheriff's officials first approached the plant upon learning of the threat, sources said. The two were allowed to drive inside the gate simply by pulling up in an unmarked car and announcing over an intercom at the gate that they were detectives, sources said.
The plant is ringed by a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire and employs "high-level alarms and 24-hours-per-day cameras which continually monitor sensitive sections of the facility," according to an environmental impact report on the facility issued last May.
However, there also is a great volume of traffic moving in and out of the plant, with 120,000 gallons of propane each day being handled there. Propane from Bay Area refineries is shipped into the plant by truck or rail and later distributed to area retailers who sell it to homes, farms and gas stations.
Suburban Propane is a nationwide company based in New Jersey. The plant, which officials say is the largest above-ground storage facility in the nation, is easily visible from the freeway, with two huge, refrigerated tanks looming over it. Each tank is 146 feet in diameter and 122 feet tall, and each holds 12 million gallons of propane.
There also are four large tubelike tanks, each holding 60,000 gallons of propane, measuring 12 feet in diameter and 91 feet in length. When originally built in 1971, the area around the plant was largely farmland or grazing for cattle. But the housing and retail boom in the south part of the county over the past decade has brought homes and businesses ever closer to the facility, which has left fire and law-enforcement officials worried about the potential for problems. The nearest homes are less than a mile away in the newly developed Hampton Village neighborhood, and Elk Grove High School is about two miles away.
Meaker said his department has consistently opposed the development around the plant since 1984, as has Suburban Propane. The plant has been the focus of several studies in recent years because of new development nearby, with the latest studies done this year because of a proposed regional mall that would be built on the west side of Highway 99 3,500 feet from the facility.
Elk Grove fire officials have expressed grave concerns about that plan, and in a letter Meaker sent to county planners on Oct. 1 he asked for more information before the mall is approved.
"We, and the County of Sacramento, would be doing the residents a disservice if this project is approved without independent verification of the likelihood and consequences of an explosion at the Suburban Propane facility," Meaker wrote. "The consequence of error is simply too great."
Suburban Propane, which has opposed the mall's location, conducted its own private study of the potential for problems and found that damage to the proposed mall and surrounding area could be substantial, sources said, possibly affecting the area for several miles.
The FBI commissioned its own study after it learned of the threat possibility, and scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded that a worst-case scenario from a terrorist attack could result in a blast with a five-mile radius.
Law enforcement officials say privately that they do not believe the conclusions in the Livermore analysis, but they concede that the potential for damage could be worse than the explosion at the Oklahoma City federal building.
Sources say an attack on the propane tanks could unleash a fireball much larger than one that might occur from an accident, ant that the alleged terrorist plot has officials reviewing emergency procedures.
Some experts say a much greater danger would be a terrorist attack on some of the large chemical storage tanks in the area, and law enforcement authorities said they are concerned about the Georgia-Pacific resin plant near the propane facility.
About 40,000 gallons of formaldehyde are stored there that could add to the explosive force. Meaker, the fire chief, said it is a virtual certainty those chemicals would be ignited by an attack on the propane plant, spreading even more toxic fumes into the air.
In addition, propane industry studies show that a fireball resulting from a tank failure is not the most dangerous problem. Instead, officials worry more about the projectiles from such a blast.
One study by the National Propane Gas Association found that "rocket-type projectiles from 80 to 100 gallon propane tanks can reach distances of up to 30 times the fireball radius," according to Propane Emergencies, a book issued by the group.