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U.S. Attorney: Wheatfield man had seven homemade bombs in garage

Seven homemade bombs, including one packed with nails, explosive powder and BB pellets, were found in the Wheatfield garage where a man suffered a severe leg injury in a blast Tuesday, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. announced Thursday.

“What makes this case noteworthy is the fact that the explosive devices, at least in one case, appears to contain shrapnel,” Hochul said during a late-afternoon news conference.

Michael C. O’Neill, 45, of Wheatfield has been charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, Hochul said. He emphasized that the initial charge could be expanded as the result of the ongoing investigation by federal and local law enforcement officials.

The hospitalized suspect initially told authorities he was injured while making explosives for tree stump removal, said Hochul, who said he has discussed the criminal case with officials of the Federal Terrorism Task Force.

“We have spoken with them about this case,” said Hochul, who delcined to elaborate further on the talks. He added that the investigation is attempting to determine if O’Neill had manufactured more than the seven explosive devices found Tuesday in the garage of his home at 6761 Walmore Road following the early-morning explosion.

Hochul also declined to speculate on how O’Neill planned to use the devices or his motive for building them.

According to the complaint by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, O’Neill told investigators he had watched a video on YouTube about stump removal and had made a couple of M80s.

O’Neill also told investigators he was injured while using extra materials from the M80s to make “something,”  and the device ignited as he was trying to seal it with a heat gun. The suspect, investigators said, said he dropped the item to the floor of the garage and was trying to stomp it out when it exploded, causing severe leg injuries.

Hochul said O’Neill’s explanation of why he suffered leg injuries – not upper body, hand and arm injuries – is plausible. He noted that after Niagara County sheriff’s deputies arrived at the explosion site with emergency personnel, they summoned the Erie County Sheriff’s Bomb Squad after finding a section of the garage that appeared to where the explosives were being manufactured.

Bomb Squad agents ultimately found seven improvised explosive devices in the garage – six constructed of hard cardboard tubing with sealed ends and a fuse, including one labeled “Powder w/Nails,” the complaint stated. Another device made out of a flashlight with sealed ends and a hole with a wick coming out of the center was also found, officials said.

Also found in the garage were two pill bottles labeled as containing flash powder, one bag of potassium perchlorate, 36 shotgun shells that had been reloaded with metal fragments, one plastic bottle of triple-seven powder, one plastic box of triple-seven pellets and a plastic bottle labeled as triple-seven powder – all explosives-related materials.

On Wednesday, according to a government document, Dan Walczak, commander of the Erie County Sheriff’s Bomb Squad, reported that X-rays of the device labeled “Powder w/Nails” revealed nails, BBs and suspected flash powder packed inside the device, which was then disassembled.

Hochul said O’Neill was quickly charged to keep him in custody after it was confirmed he had never registered any the explosive devices as mandated by the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record law.

Hochul praised Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour for excellent work in Tuesday’s initial stages of the investigation. Though the Sheriff’s Office remains involved in the investigation, the lead agency is the ATF, Hochul said.

O’Neill is the stepson of Niagara County Legislature Chairman William Ross and he was injured in the unattached garage next to the home owned by Ross. A former Niagara County corrections officer, he is represented by defense attorney Joseph M. LaTona, Hochul said. A court date for O’Neill’s arraignment has not been scheduled, given that he is hospitalized, said Hochul, who did not rule out an arraignment in the hospital.

Neighbors told reporters the Tuesday explosion was not O’Neill’s first encounter with bombs – that he allegedly blew up a man’s truck after getting into a fight with him.

Hochul declined comment on the allegation other than to say, “All those leads will be investigated,”

News Staff Reporters Phil Fairbanks, Maki Becker and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.

email: mgryta@buffnews.com