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More details emerge in explosives case

September 28, 2011
Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Federal authorities say a Michigan man bought and hid more than 4,000 pounds of explosives with enough potential firepower to equal the Oklahoma City bombing and told an undercover informant that "when the government takes over, we will be mercenaries."

John Francis Lechner, 64, was arrested last week on a charge of possessing explosives while facing other charges and ordered held following a U.S. District Court hearing Monday. His attorney said Lechner, a builder and farmer from Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula, obtained the materials years ago for construction projects.

"He's not a terrorist, he's not a mercenary, he's not some freedom fighter," defense attorney Charles Malette told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "He intended no type of violence, pro- or anti-government. The man is not like that."

Prosecutors and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not accuse Lechner of plotting to detonate the mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Assistant U.S. Attorney Maarten Vermaat told the AP he had "no idea" what Lechner planned to do with the materials.

The federal charges were filed about a month after Lechner was booked on several counts in Chippewa County, including larceny by false pretense, assaulting and resisting officers, falsely reporting a felony and being a habitual offender. Malette said those charges arose from incidents linked to Lechner's pending divorce.

In an affidavit dealing with the federal charges, ATF agent Timothy DeClaire said an informant told the Chippewa County Sheriff's Department that Lechner asked for help moving the explosive mixture from Sault Ste. Marie and hiding it in Dafter, a village a few miles away. The informant wore a recording device while performing the task Sept. 20. The affidavit said a sheriff's detective listened to the recording and heard Lechner's remark about "mercenaries."

DeClaire said he obtained a search warrant the same day and found 83 bags of the mixture, each weighing about 50 pounds. The combined weight was about 4,150 pounds. The next day, he found a supply of explosive boosters, detonating cord and blasting caps at Lechner's mother's nearby home. Another box of blasting caps was recovered in Sault Ste. Marie, he said.

During the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Greeley asked how big an explosion could result from detonating the materials.

"The quantity we're talking about would be at least that of an Oklahoma City bombing or more," DeClaire replied, according to The Mining Journal of Marquette.

Sonja Everitt, resident agent in charge of ATF's field office in Grand Rapids, told the AP she agreed with DeClaire. If correctly packaged and detonated, "4,100 pounds could cause a substantial amount of damage," Everitt said.

DeClaire's affidavit said several of the bags bore labels from companies in Iowa and Ohio. Federal law prohibits a person charged with a crime punishable by more than one year in prison from possessing an explosive shipped across state lines.

He also testified that Lechner traveled twice to Cuba in 2008, both times flying from Toronto, The Mining Journal reported.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Greeley approved Vermaat's request to keep Lechner in jail, describing the Cuba trips as "troubling."

"He was making efforts to hide (the explosives) from the ATF, as the testimony indicates, and made anti-government statements," Greeley said, according to the newspaper. "There is significant evidence of a danger to the community, which has gone unrebutted."

Malette said he told his client not to respond during the hearing. But he said Lechner bought the ammonium nitrate and oil more than five years ago.

"It's one of the safest materials used for demolition involved with construction," Malette said. "Many types of chemicals could be used to make a bomb. I think that comment (about Oklahoma City) was made to make people think he was a terrorist."

Lechner's clash with local authorities began in late May.

County Prosecutor Brian Peppler said Lechner had been collecting rent on a house he didn't own, which resulted in the larceny by false pretense charge. The owner of the house asked police to remove him from the property. That led to a disturbance and the charge of assaulting an officer, Peppler said. Lechner was charged with falsely reporting a felony after he accused the county sheriff of trying to ram his vehicle during the incident, the prosecutor said.

Peppler declined to identify the homeowner, but Malette said it was Lechner's estranged wife. He said ownership of the dwelling was being contested in court.

Malette said his client filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's department and the county over the incident at the home and complained about it during a county board meeting.

"Mr. Lechner is one of those guys that speaks his mind," Malette said. "He doesn't pull any punches, and I think he's rubbed a few people in the area the wrong way

 
 

 

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