Twin threats

April 1, 2002 By    

The historic tragedy of Sept. 11 has drastically heightened security concerns for the propane industry nationwide. Assorted federal agencies are scrutinizing storage sites, over-the-road fleets and pipelines, while propane industry leaders have stepped up safety programs and communication to minimize any risk from outside threats.

To some, the high alert may seem excessive. But to others, the threat of an intentional assault on a propane facility is more than a worst-case precaution.

This month, two California men go on trial for a second time for plotting to blow up one of the nation’s largest propane storage facilities in a bizarre domestic terrorism case. Their first federal court trial last December ended with a jury deadlocked, 11-1.

Federal law enforcement officials allege the American-born pair targeted Suburban Propane’s 24-million-gallon, propane storage facility in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove for demolition in a similar manner as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

According to prosecutors, the men hoped that their sabotage would fan what they had expected to be Y2K mass hysteria. The militiamen thought their violence would be a key event in producing nationwide chaos that would result in the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The Sacramento County Sheriff and the FBI had been investigating the case since early 1999. By autumn, Sacramento County and Elk Grove fire officials and representatives from Suburban were alerted to the threat on the 30-year-old plant, which boasts an unblemished record as a convenient and safe propane distribution point for the entire Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley region.

Suburban immediately bolstered security measures. A special weapons and tactics team, marshaled by law enforcement, was assigned to the site for at least a month after the threat was first reported.

The facility is one of the largest above-ground propane storage facilities in the nation, comparable to Sea-3 facilities in Florida and New England, and a Williams storage facility in Pennsylvania. The California site features two 12-million-gallon tanks that contain refrigerated propane and four 60,000-gallon pressurized tanks.

It is estimated that 15 percent of all propane wholesaled in California passes through the Suburban plant, which is supplied by railcar and transport trucks from San Francisco-area refineries.

Within a half-mile of the plant in the once-remote industrial park are a resin manufacturing plant, a pallet recycling operation, a printing plant, a truck service center, a trucking company, the repair and inspection garage of a used vehicle dealership, a box factory, an irrigation supply vendor and a service station/mini-mart.

The suspects

In December 1999, U.S. agents arrested Kevin Ray Patterson, 42, and Charles Dennis Kiles, 49, on weapons charges. Grand jury indictments handed down in April 2000 added charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, conspiracy to use and possess a destructive device, and violations of federal firearms laws.


They face life in prison on the charge of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. The charge of conspiracy to use a destructive device can result in an additional 20-year sentence.

The indictments also included a third man, Donald Rudolph, 42, a former state Department of Transportation worker and militia leader already in federal prison on weapons charges.


All three men were members of a San Joaquin County militia group. All three men initially entered not guilty pleas.

Kiles is a convicted felon following a 1992 arrest for possession of illegal firearms and silencers.

Patterson was unemployed and had no criminal record, but was knowledgeable in bomb making. At his home, officers said they found a methamphetamine lab, a book called “Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacturing by Uncle Festus,” one pound of red phosphorous, 100 pounds of fertilizer, a can of gunpowder, detonation cord, blasting caps, fuses, and other bomb-making supplies. They also found a small armory, including parts for M-1 carbines, AK-47 and Uzi assault weapons, and hand grenades.

In January 2000, Rudolph turned state’s evidence in the case and entered guilty pleas to charges he conspired to blow up the Suburban plant.

“We think we stopped a terrorist attack,” one official close to the highly secret investigation said at the time of the arrests.

Security at the Elk Grove site was substantially beefed up after law enforcement officials notified Suburban Propane of terrorist plans to blow up two 12-million-gallon propane storage tanks.
Security at the Elk Grove site was substantially beefed up after law enforcement officials notified Suburban Propane of terrorist plans to blow up two 12-million-gallon propane storage tanks.

The case

Rudolph testified at the trial that the three men began talking about blowing up the propane facility in November 1998 while driving to a gun show in Reno.

Other witnesses confirmed that there had been a lot of big talk about destroying the propane tanks and triggering unrest. But even those close to the arrests said they were not certain the men would have ever carried out their threats.

During the investigation, an informant told authorities that a militia group member tried to buy illegal weapons and made threats against the propane facility and four TV transmission towers in the greater Sacramento area. The men mentioned a series of dates, including New Year’s Day 2000, a time when law enforcement agencies nationally were bracing for possible acts of terrorism.

FBI agent Jim Maddock, a counter-terrorism specialist who had taken part in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation, directed a team of 50 law enforcement personnel from 10 agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office. Wiretap surveillance of the men was conducted for nearly two months before their arrest.

Testimony at the first trial indicated that the suspects called the Suburban propane tanks by a code name, “the twin sisters.” For more than a year, the witnesses said, an odd assortment of right-wing revolutionaries, illegal firearms traders and survivalists talked about detonating the tanks – possibly by using a fertilizer bomb similar to the one used in the 1995 destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma.

One conspirator, San Joaquin County militiaman Robert Culver Hinz, was an FBI informant who had been recruited with the hope of leniency on an illegal weapons charge and then was paid for information that he provided.

The plot

Hinz claimed the plan to attack the Suburban plant was conceived in June 1998 between Patterson and Rudolph, reputed leader of the San Joaquin militia. The informant also claimed that Patterson soon added other prospective targets, including the California Aqueduct, and what he called “the movie theater” – four giant TV transmission towers in Walnut Grove, Calif.

In January 1999 at a Las Vegas gun show, witnesses told the court, Patterson and Kiles talked about blowing up the tanks with a rocket launcher. They had asked gun dealer Ronald Rudloff about buying an RG-7 model, and only a lack of $2,200 had kept them from making the purchase, Rudloff testified.

He also said a man standing near his booth at that show commented that he’d heard militia groups were planning “quite a bit of excitement” at the end of the millennium. Kiles replied boastfully that, “We’re going to have a big bang ourselves. We’re going to take out a couple of propane tanks.”

Rudloff recalled asking if Kiles meant he was going to destroy the two huge propane tanks in Elk Grove.

“Yes, I am,” he claimed Kiles replied. Rudloff says Patterson then seized Kiles by the arm and tried to hustle him away, declaring, “You talk too much! I need to get you out of here!”

Rudloff said he didn’t want to sell the grenade launcher at that show, since it was a table display that was effective in attracting people to his booth. He noted that he thought Patterson and Kiles were – like a large proportion of the guys he met at gun shows – “just shooting their mouths off.”

Hinz told authorities that Patterson had found a place to buy a half-ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a major ingredient in the Oklahoma City bomb. Patterson – in chats with Hinz, with two FBI undercover men who befriended him at gun shows and in wiretapped telephone conversations with friends – mouthed off about the apocalyptic end of the second millennium as he eagerly anticipated it.

He had stockpiled a four-month supply of food and water, certain that major disruptions would follow the opening of the new century. Some of his friends were building bunkers on remote desert property, burying sea-going shipping containers there, installing their own generators, and stockpiling guns and ammunition.

Patterson predicted an extremely dark future in which he assumed the government would be forced to ration food and gasoline; there would be mass arrests, martial law would be declared, and the Army would go door-to-door confiscating personal firearms.

In August 1999, Hinz told the investigative team that Patterson and Kiles had announced to him that they now had enough fertilizer to make a bomb, but were going to delay their attack on the propane tanks until they saw what happened at the beginning of Y2K.

In a November 1999 conversation at the Reno Hilton, Patterson allegedly outlined final plans for the “twin sisters” attack.

Patterson claimed to be making explosives for the job, according to the government’s witnesses. He said he needed three or four men to cut through the fence and break into the yard. Once inside, they would fire two explosive charges from a large, shotgun-type weapon.

Twenty militiamen also were sought for an attack on the TV towers. The towers broadcast television signals to the 17-county Sacramento market. Three of them, each at 2,000 feet, stand taller than the World Trade Center before the Sept. 11 attack.

Hinz testified that on Nov. 24, 1999, he asked Patterson, “When’s the action start?” Patterson’s reply: “Well . . . might wait until after the first of the year, see how serious Y2K is going to be.”

But after Patterson was seen photocopying the section on timers from “The Poor Man’s James Bond,” an underground guide to making explosives, the task force that had already spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours investigating the case moved in.

FBI agent W. Mark Whitworth testified that Patterson had all the materials needed to make a 33- to 40-pound ammonium nitrate fuel oil bomb, similar to the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Such an explosive would have the power of 34 pounds of TNT, he said, and could breech the kind of steel that constitutes the exterior shell of both of the Elk Grove propane tanks.

Empty bravado?

At the trial, the government showed that Patterson and Kiles traveled throughout California, Nevada and Montana on militia trips and visited gun shows and survivalist expositions. Patterson often rented vehicles and made several expensive purchases.

Yet in an exclusive jailhouse interview with the Sacramento newspaper, he portrayed himself and Kiles as “two penniless ne’er-do-wells” who were highly unlikely to overthrow anything: “(We were) two guys who couldn’t get up the money to go to a gun show in Pomona.”

In court, too, their attorneys portrayed them as “men of inaction,” little guys great of spleen, but highly unlikely to ever actually follow through on all their angry, aggressive and boastful talk.

Patterson, in fact, lived with his mother. She was summoned to the stand and testified that she gave him an allowance of $100 per week and that he sometimes worked as a courier or did other odd jobs. He seemed to have no real interest in working for a living, she added.

Although he has an IQ of 140, he dropped out of school in the 10th grade. Despite that, he is a self-taught chemist. His father – a chemical engineer – died in 1984, the court was told.

On the 13th day of the trial, the jury declared itself deadlocked after two days of deliberation. Patterson was convicted of possessing a destructive device. That conviction carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. Sentencing was deferred, pending the second trial.

On Nov. 7, 2001 – after a total of five days of deliberations – the judge declared a mistrial for both men on the charges of conspiring to blow up the propane plant.

A federal judge has set April 22 for the retrial of Patterson and Kiles on the conspiracy charges. Conviction carries automatic life sentences.

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