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Charges: Somerset man's apartment had makings for pipe bomb

David Lee Johnson1 / 2
Authorities said this unit in the EZ Living Apartments complex contained the makings for a pipe bomb. The resident, a 30-year-old man, was arrested and charged with possession of improvised explosives. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

St. Croix County authorities said a potentially dangerous situation was averted after the makings for a suspected pipe bomb were discovered in a Somerset man's apartment.

Sheriff Scott Knudson said the items were found Friday morning in a unit at the EZ Living Apartments complex on Main Street.

A 30-year-old resident, David Lee Johnson, was arrested and later charged with felony possession of improvised explosives, along with two marijuana-related misdemeanors. St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Eric Lundell held Johnson on a $25,000 cash bond.

The St. Paul bomb squad was first called to the scene, the sheriff said. All the suspicious materials were removed and taken off-site, where Knudson said they were being investigated. The FBI, the Marathon County bomb squad and a hazardous materials unit from the Eau Claire Fire Department were also called to assist.

Knudson didn't describe the materials, but said they "have given us cause for concern." The discovery occurred at about 3:30 a.m. Friday, March 9, by a deputy who was making a death notification at the unit.The deputy spotted what appeared to be a pipe bomb next to Johnson's bed while he was there to tell him his father had died, according to a criminal complaint.

Knudson gave full credit to the deputy, Charles Coleman, for preventing a potentially dangerous situation.

"He may have averted a future tragedy for whatever destination" the materials were bound for, Knudson said, adding that he's "relieved and satisfied" with the outcome.

The incident prompted authorities to temporarily evacuate some neighbors during the investigation.

Two neighbors living near the unit said the incident was alarming. Both neighbors said the man arrested was "polite" and didn't cause trouble at the complex.

According to a criminal complaint:

After spotting the suspicious items — a pipe with a threaded cap and green cord sticking out of it — the deputy asked Johnson if he was looking at a pipe bomb. Johnson lowered his head and confirmed the suspicion.

After taking Johnson into custody and having the St. Paul bomb squad render the room safe, deputies took inventory of items from inside, which included:

• A metal grinder

• Two bottles of stump remover

• A metal pipe with an end cap

• Acetone

• White sugar

• A 6-inch metal pipe with threaded ends

• A metal pipe with end caps, lighter and a fuse

• A Dremel tool

• An empty 12-gauge shotgun shell

• A half-gallon milk container with a clear fluid

Investigators learned Johnson was on probation in Minnesota and later interviewed him.

He told investigators he was unemployed and had been living in Somerset for about a year. Johnson also told officers he was diagnosed with mental disorders but wasn't taking medication.

The pipe bomb was not loaded with explosives, he said, and posed "no threat."

Asked why he had the bomb, Johnson told investigators he "was in constant fear 'cause people were out there that want to hurt me," the complaint states, adding that he considered the bomb a deterrent.

The milk container was filled with water, Johnson said; tests later confirmed it was as he claimed.

Johnson learned to make the bomb by watching YouTube videos and from "common knowledge," he told authorities.

Officers also found mortar and pestle grinding apparatus in the apartment; Johnson said those were used in a Wiccan ritual and that they weren't used in bomb-making. He said the stump remover and sugar were ingredients for a homemade firework. Johnson admitted that while he had no intention of using the bomb, there was a "good possibility" of it exploding if he had filled it with stump remover and sugar.

This was his first attempt at constructing a pipe bomb, Johnson said.

Another longer section of pipe found in the room was to be used as a homemade "zip gun," Johnson told investigators.

A Wednesday, March 14, bond hearing was set in the case, where Lundell was expected to rule on whether Johnson would be allowed to attend his father's funeral. A preliminary hearing was set for Friday, March 16.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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