By Kent Faulk
The owner of a Hayden explosive materials training company pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally selling 1,340 grenade fuzes to a man in October.
The investigation so far has involved Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents from at least three states – Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Matthew Joseph Smith, 56, owner of Whisper Tech, at Tuesday's hearing pleaded guilty to one count of illegally distributing explosive material. U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala set Smith's sentencing for Sept. 15.
Smith entered a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, which will recommend he receive a sentence at the low end of the guidelines for his cooperation. The plea agreement has been sealed and is not public.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Felton told the judge prosecutors did not mind Smith remaining on bond because Smith has been disposing of certain firearms with ATF's approval and "we would like that to continue."
The U.S. Attorney's Office and ATF issued a joint statement after Tuesday's hearing.
"This conviction sends a message to those who deal in explosive materials without proper authority in the Northern District of Alabama. Individuals who hold a license to possess explosive materials owe a duty to act within the boundaries of the law at all times. When those boundaries are exceeded, we will actively pursue prosecution to ensure the safety of the public," said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance.
"ATF remains committed to utilizing its dual criminal/regulatory role to identify, disrupt and prosecute those who criminally use explosives that put our communities at risk," said Steven L. Gerido, ATF Special Agent in Charge.
Smith's attorney, Tommy Spina, said Smith has already finished disposing of the explosives and firearms.
"As a result of the charges and subsequent plea he (Smith) has relinquished his federal firearms license and has shut down his explosives training facility," Spina said. "Additionally He has legally disposed of all explosives and firearms that were previously in his possession."
Smith, who was charged March 3, was licensed to handle explosives. But according to the charge against him he sold the 1,340 M228 grenade fuzes to a man who was unlicensed to own such material. The transaction happened in Blount County, according to the charge.
The man who bought the fuzes is only identified as J.C. in the complaint. But according to a court affidavit seeking a federal search warrant of a home in Ohio, the man's name is James Copley, of Copley, Ohio.
According to the military's Project Manager Close Combat Systems website the M228 is a pyrotechnic delay igniting fuze used with practice grenades. The M228 emits a small puff of smoke when activated. The fuzes are illegal to own without a specialized license.
Practice grenades are not intended to project shrapnel but the M288 can be used with improvised grenades and explosive devices.
According to the Oct. 24 ATF affidavit:
ATF agents in Ohio were contacted by an ATF agent in Pittsburgh, Pa., about the Sept. 7, 2014 search of a home in their state where several M228 fuzes were recovered. The person at that home has since become a confidential informant.
The confidential informant told agents he got the fuzes from Copley in November or December of 2013.
The confidential informant stated he had agreed to buy one crate of M228 fuzes from Copley for a price between $6,000 and $8,000. Copley was described as a white male, mid 50s, about 6-foot tall, disheveled gray hair, and missing one hand.
On Oct. 1, 2014 the confidential informant got an email from Copley, who asked if the informant was interested in buying multiple boxes of M228 grenade fuzes from him. The informant replied he would.
The Ohio ATF agent stated in the affidavit he was aware Copley had corresponded with an individual at Whisper Tech, a federal explosives licensee that distributed the fuzes.
A Birmingham ATF agent witnessed Copley on Oct. 22 meeting a person from Whisper Tech in a parking lot by Interstate 65 in Hayden. Agents saw Copley and the unknown individual from Whisper Tech transfer boxes from the Whisper Tech employee's vehicle into a compartment under Copley's Ford Intruder RV.
Smith had owned Whisper Tech since 1992. According to the WhisperTech website the company develops DOD Explosives Safety Site and Construction plans for both Government-Owned Contractor-Operated and Contractor-Owned Contractor-Operated facilities.
"We specialize in serving Department Of Defense (DOD) employees and contractors to achieve facility and written procedure explosives safety compliance and familiarization with DOD regulatory requirements in the (contract) preaward and postaward phases. Training and consulting are available at our facilities near Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville AL or they can be brought to your facility."
The company stated it offered explosives training courses for DOD explosives, propellants, and pyrotechnics.
The training class in Alabama is a "unique opportunity" to study the DOD/military explosives safety regulations including site plans, the handling of various explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics in a safe and licensed range, the website states, according to the company's website. "The class is small enough that everyone gets involved in setting up shots and targets on the range such as binary explosives, C-4, Det cord, linear shaped charges, conical shaped charges, flares, smokes, and incendiaries," the lawsuit states.