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Was the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion a homicide?
Texas state police open a criminal investigation on the same day federal agents charge a paramedic for building bombs
 
Bryce Reed, the paramedic arrested last week for possession of bomb-making materials, pays his respects at the West memorial service on April 25.
Bryce Reed, the paramedic arrested last week for possession of bomb-making materials, pays his respects at the West memorial service on April 25. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

The tiny central Texas town of West, about 20 miles north of Waco, is slowly picking itself up after the devastating April 17 explosion at a local fertilizer plant that killed at least 14 people and destroyed an entire neighborhood. The panoply of local and federal law enforcement agencies never ruled out the possibility that the explosion was man-made, but the general assumption has been that it was an industrial accident.

Late last week, two things happened to throw that presumption into doubt. On Thursday, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrested a local paramedic, Bryce Reed, for possession of bomb-making materials. Then, on Friday, the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County sheriff's office opened a criminal investigation into the fertilizer plant explosion.

The timing could certainly be coincidental. "It is important to emphasize that at this point, no evidence has been uncovered to indicate any connection to the event surrounding the fire and subsequent explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant and the arrest of Bryce Reed by the ATF," says McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara.

Reed's lawyer goes further. "Let me be very clear: Mr. Reed had no involvement whatsoever in the explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant," said the lawyer, Jonathan Sibley, on Saturday. "Mr. Reed was one of the first responders and lost friends, family, and neighbors in that disaster. Mr. Reed is heartbroken for the friends he lost and remains resolute in his desire to assist in the rebuilding of his community." Reed plans to plead not guilty, Sibley says.

Yes, sometimes people "just want to build a pipe bomb and see if they could do it," former U.S. Attorney Richard Roper tells The Dallas Morning News. But in Reed's case, this "is certainly a red flag because of his proximity [to the explosion] and position," says Roper.

And the pipe bomb that Reed had the parts for would have been powerful enough to set off the fertilizer plant blast, former FBI official Buck Revell tells The Dallas Morning News. "If it was packed solid, it would give you roughly the power of a hand grenade."

The odd thing is that Reed has called attention to himself since the blast, jumping up on tables to comfort families; eulogizing one of the dead firefighters, Cyrus Reed (no relation); and talking freely to reporters at a time when most officials were keeping news close to their vests. And even as he put himself forward as a righteous volunteer paramedic, The Associated Press reports that he had been "let go" from the West EMS squad on April 19.

On April 21, Reed talked to reporters about why he didn't die in the explosion, saying he'd seen Cyrus' truck at the fire and so kept on driving because he was confident his friend could handle the situation. Then the plant exploded. Bryce Reed says he stayed with Cyrus Reed's body all night once it was recovered. "I got to hug him for the last time. He got there at 9 o'clock last night and I was there until 4 in the morning, holding onto my brother," Reed told the AP. "And telling him I'm sorry for everything that I did."

It's worth repeating, though, that a criminal investigation doesn't mean that the explosion was sabotage, and the Reed arrest could be a case of bad timing. As Sibley, the lawyer, requests: "We ask that Mr. Reed's family, friends, and community not rush to judgment."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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