Federal officials have opened an investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of a trove of allegedly illegal fireworks that led to at least 17 people — including several law enforcement officers — being injured in an explosion in South Los Angeles.
Police did not answer our questions concerning the June 30 2021 blast, which decimated a containment vehicle brought to the scene to store the fireworks.
“Out of respect for the investigative process and our investigating partners, we cannot provide the specifics of the investigation at this time,” a police spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in response to the newspaper’s own set of questions.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) is now investigating the incident. A 26-year-old Los Angeles man, Arturo Ceja, was arrested for allegedly buying the 32,000 pounds worth of illegal fireworks in Nevada and transporting them back to the city in rental vans.
Police detonated the trove of explosives in the residential area where he was arrested.
Ceja was charged with transporting explosives without a license. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced in October 2022 to five months in federal prison. Upon completing his sentence, he will also be required to be part of a supervised release program for two years.
In an interview aired on KCBS-TV the day after the incident, police Lt. Raul Jovel claimed that officers went door-to-door in the neighborhood alerting residents and urging them to evacuate.
“After the explosion, they discovered that some folks were still in the vicinity that did not answer the door,” he said. “And that’s how we discovered that some folks were injured.”
Jovel also claimed during the interview that that type of operation had already been implemented in other neighborhoods around the city. However, the department did not identify any such operations when we contacted them asking to verify Jovel’s claim. The department also failed to tell us whether only uniformed police officers carried out the door-to-door warnings and how much time elapsed between those encounters and the attempted detonation, during which officers reportedly yelled “Fire in the hole” while directing journalists away from the semitruck where the explosives were being stored.
Both Jovel and Police Chief Michel Moore have claimed that police followed “established protocols” in opting to detonate the fireworks inside the containment vehicle while it was still in a residential area as opposed to doing so elsewhere. ATF is reportedly conducting an investigation into the operation that preceded the blast.
In a press conference on July 19 2021, Moore claimed that technicians on the department’s bomb squad “miscalculated” and overloaded the containment vehicle prior to detonating it. Since then, LAPD has begun implementing new safety procedures.
Update July 19 2021, 1:30 p.m.: Updated with note from a police press conference on July 19, 2021. — ag
Update October 26 2022, 8:04 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect Arturo Ceja being convicted and sentenced to five months in federal prison. — ag