Military stumped by stolen box of armor-piercing grenades
The green metal box was stuffed into a light pink pillowcase and stowed in the bushes behind Christopher Zachery's house. He took it out so that he could see it better.
Template on the box: "Cartridges for weapons". There were 30 armor-piercing shells in it.
"I was scared," said Zachery, who runs a construction company. And confused. How did these high-powered explosives end up in his backyard in southwest Atlanta? Where are you from?
Investigators found that the stopped grenades were last seen eight months earlier on an ammunition train rolling out of Florida. Someone stole it from somewhere on the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, another example in an Associated Press investigation that shows the military's vast supply chain is vulnerable to theft.
The Marines call the squat 40mm projectiles that appeared in Zachery's yard that sunny morning in February 2018, "40 microphones." They are linked together to feed an MK 19 launcher, a weapon that is like a machine gun to grenades and capable of firing nearly a mile every second.
In anticipation of the bombing squad, Atlanta police evacuated five houses both ways and neighbors across the street. The cartridges can penetrate three inches of steel and have a kill radius of nearly 50 feet.
The canister began its journey on Blount Island, a US Marine Corps depot in Jacksonville, Florida. Six flatbed wagons transported 18 large storage containers, so-called Conex boxes, on each side of which there was an orange-colored sign with the warning "Explosives". On the car DODX48916, in container USMC007574-6, canisters of the 40 mm round shape were stacked like soldiers in bunks.
The train's awkward route ran through Atlanta twice before arriving at the Letterkenny Army Depot in central Pennsylvania 17 days later. There a worker discovered the theft while unpacking the container.
Where, when, who, how - the investigators were at a loss.
A series of security flaws obscured any traces the thief had left.
Armed guards accompanying the broadcast did not report anything. When the train reached Letterkenny, it was taken to Rail Yard 1 for the night, an unsecured staging area outside the facility with no surveillance.
Upon arrival, workers did not check that the anti-theft locks on each container were intact. An inspector did not check the seals the next day either and later said he could not see them.
Another day passed before workers noticed the broken seals. The first worker to see the severed wooden rack used to hold pallets of canisters together thought it broke in transit. Then he noticed that a metal band holding each canister tight to the wood had also been cut and a box was gone.
Military investigators concluded that no one had checked the seals in the weeks following the train's departure from Blount Island.
Workers unpacked the entire container to see if anything was stolen and disposed of any debris. For investigators, this meant that the crime scene near loading dock X-11-G was irreparably contaminated.
The Pentagon Inspector General wrote that the disappearing shells "further underscored the lack of adequate security for rail transport" of military weapons, explosives and ammunition.
The military does not have a centralized tracking system for rail transport like this one, but rather relies on contractors to safely deliver the weapons and explosives. The freight railway giant CSX Corp. was responsible for this delivery, delivering everything from locomotives and tracks to guards and engineers to the dozen or so stations at which the train stopped.
CSX said in a statement that required security protocols were followed during shipping and that "no seal exceptions were found while the container was in our possession".
The last hope of finding clues came when the shells hit Atlanta. But instead of treating the canister as evidence, explosives specialists at Dobbins Air Reserve Base took it away and blew it up.
There was only one thing. The canisters are packed with 32 shots. This one only had 30.
Two remain missing.
Hall reports from Nashville, Tennessee; Pritchard reported from Los Angeles.
Contact Hall at https://twitter.com/kmhall and Pritchard at https://twitter.com/JPritchardAP.
Email AP's Global Investigations Team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Further work can be found at https://apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.
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