A South Los Angeles man pleaded guilty Monday to transporting fireworks from Nevada to L.A., where they were confiscated by police officers who caused a massive explosion while trying to detonate them two months ago.
The L.A. Police Department had seized some 5,000 pounds of fireworks from 26-year-old Arturo Ceja III before the explosion, but investigators later uncovered a total of about 32,000 pounds — or 16 tons – on the property, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A. said in a news release.
LAPD’s botched detonation injured 17 people — including nine Los Angeles police officers and a federal agent — and left a path of destruction spanning several blocks near the epicenter in the 700 block of East 27th Street, with more than 30 homes destroyed.
Some who lived close to the blast site died a short time later, including a man whose ceiling fell on top of him, and family members have questioned if the explosion contributed to their deaths.
LAPD has chalked up the devastating failure to an “apparent miscalculation” of the weight of fireworks placed in a chamber meant to contain the explosion, which was designed to take a maximum capacity of 25 pounds. Investigators later determined more than 42 pounds had been put in.
Police set up a 300-foot boundary around the vessel. But the 500-pound lid to the failed explosive container was found three to four blocks from the center of the blast.
Ceja pleaded guilty Monday to a single count of transportation of explosives without a license.
Prosecutors say he made several trips to Nevada in late June, driving a rental van to pick up fireworks that can cost four times as much in California. Most of them were purchased at a fireworks dealer in Pahrump, Nevada, called Area 51, according to court documents.
Ceja is also accused of buying homemade explosives made of cardboard and packed with flash powder from someone selling them out of a vehicle.
LAPD received a tip that the fireworks were being stored in Ceja’s backyard and responded to the Historic South-Central residence on June 30. There, they uncovered more than 500 boxes of commercial-grade fireworks as well as over 140 homemade fireworks and explosives-making components, prosecutors said.
An LAPD bomb squad decided to detonate some fireworks at the site because they were “leaking” and deemed too dangerous to transport.
Ceja is still awaiting a date for his sentencing hearing, when he’ll face up to 10 years in federal prison.