NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press
DALLAS (AP) — A former paramedic in the tiny Texas town where a fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people was sentenced to 21 months in prison Wednesday after pleading guilty in a pipe bomb case that isn’t linked to the blast.
Bryce Reed cried as he repeatedly apologized for collecting a metal pipe and chemicals that could have been used to make an explosive and then trying to hide the materials from authorities after the April 17 explosion in the town of West.
Reed has never been blamed by authorities for the explosion at West Fertilizer Co., where an initial fire detonated stores of ammonium nitrate in a blast that caved in homes and schools that were blocks away. But his arrest in the middle of a federal and state investigation led to questions about whether he was involved.
He also had made himself something of a representative for West shortly after the blast, speaking on national television and reassuring displaced residents that they were safe.
Reed pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to make an unregistered firearm and attempting to obstruct justice. He and his attorney, Jonathan Sibley, said he loved pyrotechnics and explosives, but never intended to harm anyone.
“It was just more of a stupid mistake by a couple of guys who live out in the country,” Sibley told U.S. District Judge Walter Smith.
Reed described his actions as a “horrific and terrible mistake.”
“There’s nothing I can say to repair my life,” Reed said Wednesday as his mother, stepfather and siblings watched from the gallery.
Smith sentenced Reed to 21 months on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently, followed by 3 years of supervised release.
In court and in an interview before the hearing, Reed expressed his regret to the residents of West, where he had been a paramedic and lived with his now-estranged wife and their young daughter. He said he felt he could no longer go back there.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like to have your face associated with the worst day of your life, and to be blamed for something that you didn’t do,” Reed told The Associated Press. “I lost my job. I lost my town … I lost my wife, and she took my kid. And that was all in a 4-day period.”
A federal complaint alleged that after the blast, Reed gave the materials he had collected to a friend, who called authorities after realizing what Reed placed in his possession. Reed would later admit in court documents to searching the Internet last December for “explosives,” ”explosions,” ”explosive ingredients” and “instructions for making explosives.”
His May arrest came as the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office were nearing a dead end in their effort to identify the blast’s cause. The same day he was arrested, the Texas Rangers and the local county sheriff announced they would begin their own criminal investigation.
Neither effort has led to any charges being filed.
It also later came out that Reed had misled people about what he saw the night of the blast and how close he was with one of the first responders who died. Reed was dismissed by West’s EMS service a few days after the explosion.
Asked about what he said right after the blast, Reed told the AP that people who lost loved ones in the blast were able to persevere better than he has.
“I’m just not that strong,” Reed said.
State and federal authorities in May officially declared the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” listing three possible causes: a problem with one of West Fertilizer’s electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart or a criminal act. Their investigation remains listed as open.
Meanwhile, residents and officials in West continue to rebuild homes, and construction on new permanent school buildings is soon expected to start.