WHEATFIELD – Authorities are trying to determine what led up to a man being seriously injured early Tuesday morning when a bomb he was making exploded in a Walmore Road garage.
The man, who has been identified by neighbors and other sources as Michael C. O’Neill, 45, the stepson of Niagara County Legislature Chairman William Ross, suffered what was described as a “catastrophic injury” to his lower leg.
Some neighbors were not completely surprised by O’Neill’s activity. They claim he previously blew up a man’s truck in his driveway after they had gotten into a fight.
O’Neill, a former Niagara County corrections officer, also had been injured so seriously in a fight last year that he had to be put in a medically induced coma. Witnesses told Niagara County sheriff’s deputies at that time that a racially tinged remark by the victim prompted the attack.
O’Neill was the only person injured in the blast just after 3:30 a.m. in the garage at Ross’ home at 6761 Walmore Road.
Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour, who refused to confirm O’Neill’s identity, said he knew the victim “very well,” but said he “has no idea” what would motivate him to build an explosive device. He added that there was evidence that he had been working on other similar explosive devices in the garage.
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were joined by the Erie County Sheriff’s Bomb Squad at Ross’ home, where they were removing items found in the garage following the explosion. Investigators are expected to remain on the scene into Wednesday combing through the debris left by the blast.
Voutour said he is confident there was no danger of another explosion, but added there were items that needed to be removed to make the garage safe.
He said the ATF and bomb squad are trying to determine whether he will face charges, Voutour said, adding “there is a high probability” charges will be filed.
A woman who lives at the Walmore Road home called 911 shortly after 3:30 a.m. to report an explosion and smoke coming from the detached garage. When deputies arrived, they found the injured man on the ground, with the woman applying direct pressure to the injury.
The man was airlifted to Erie County Medical Center. His condition has not been released, but Voutour called the injury “very bad.”
Voutour said he wouldn’t elaborate on what explosive material was found, noting that the investigation would be done by the ATF and the FBI.
“Anytime you have explosives, particularly when nails or BBs or things like that are found, the federal government gets involved,” he said.
Voutour said computers are being checked to see what the man had downloaded recently and whether he had been looking at bomb-making websites.
He said the area where the explosion occurred was secured by bomb-sniffing dogs and deemed to be safe by 8 a.m. Tuesday.
At that time, investigators obtained a search warrant.
“We will be going through a methodical search of the entire residence and the garage and the surrounding area looking for evidence,” said Voutour. “Something exploded inside that garage and we have to collect evidence.”
Tom Galluch, acting resident agent in charge of the ATF’s Buffalo office, said the investigation could take several weeks.
“We’re here to assist in the search process and figure out what is in the house and garage and figure out what materials they are,” said Galluch. “It is going to be up the U.S. Attorney’s Office whether charges will be filed.”
A neighbor across the street, who asked not to be identified, said a male neighbor, “got into a fight with the stepson (O’Neill) and then his truck blew up in his driveway. I know it happened. I know the person he fought with,” said the neighbor. “I don’t think he called the police. I think he was trying to figure out who did it.”
Another person confirmed that O’Neill had made a bomb threat, but was unable to comment on whether it had been carried out.
Christine Miller, who lives three houses down the street, called Ross and his wife, Linda, wonderful people.
“Mr. Ross used to be the principal at Niagara Wheatfield school,” Miller said. “This is just really shocking because this is a really quiet community. Everybody knows everybody and it is just shocking that something like this would be going on.”
Miller added, “I have a 7-year-old son and some of these other houses have little kids. It’s really scary because he could have injured a lot of people.”
Voutour said the man’s family members are “going through some tough times and they are devastated” by both the injury and the explosives investigation.
He said authorities have been unable to interview the victim because of the seriousness of his injuries.