20 Indicted On Fireworks Charges
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ After a two-year investigation into a fireworks explosion that killed 11 people, federal officials say they have cracked a major illegal fireworks ring reaching into nearly a dozen states.
Twenty people were indicted Tuesday on federal illegal explosives charges stemming from the 1983 explosion at Webb’s Bait Farm in Benton, said U.S. Attorney John W. Gill Jr.
″What a lot of us have considered to be under-the-table fireworks are really high explosives. They’re extremely dangerous. They’re against the law,″ said Gill. ″What we saw in Polk County was an extremely tragic example of the dangers and why they are against the law.″
The indictment contends that all 20 defendants conspired to manufacture, deal and transport illegal fireworks across state lines, that seven actually made the explosives and that five actually sold them.
The remaining 15 counts charge various defendants with transporting and causing to be transported illegal M-100 and M-80 fireworks from Benton to such places as Hammond, Ind.; Toledo, Ohio; Chicago; Lansing, Ill.; Lone Pine, Pa., and Mansfield, Pa.
The defendants live in nine states, and the indictment contends their operation did business in Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Gill, although refusing to discuss details of the investigation, called the manufacture of illegal fireworks a multimillion-dollar industry and a national problem.
Stu Kenny, special agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Nashville, said it is not unusual for one manufacturer to supply as many as 20 distributors. The profit on a $1 firework can be 90 cents, he said.
Howard Emmett Bramblett, 53, of Ocoee, Tenn., was the only person named in all 18 counts of the indictment.
The goverment contends Bramblett, Dan Lee Webb and David Parks decided in late 1982 to set up an illegal fireworks factory at Benton in the state’s extreme southeast corner.
The May 27, 1983, blast at Webb’s Bait Farm killed 11 people, including Parks and Webb’s mother, brother and uncle. Webb, who was out of town at the time, later pleaded guilty to 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
″People who work in these plants frequently are people who are very much in need of a job,″ Kenny said. ″Frequently you’ll find the victims of these blasts to be just ordinary working people who desperately need jobs. So manufacturers and the distributors are absolutely preying on the innocent people.″
Bramblett and another man named in Tuesday’s indictment, Robert Samuel Day of Aiken, S.C., were convicted last year of conspiracy, manufacturing illegal fireworks and storing illegal explosive in connection with a 1983 explosion that killed two people at a fireworks plant in Rowesville, S.C.
Webb, who pleaded guilty to illegally manufacturing explosives in connection with the Benton explosion, was a key government witness in the Rowesville case. He was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in Tuesday’s indictment.
Gill said the defendants would be brought to Chattanooga for arraignment within the next two weeks.
Manufacturing or dealing in illegal fireworks carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.