MN's ATF Agents Give Inside Look at Bombing Probe
Updated: 04/19/2013 10:44 PM KSTP.com
By: Stephen Tellier
It took hundreds of law enforcement officials to identify and track down the Boston bombing suspects.
Some of the first federal officials to respond to the bombing scene, and start putting the pieces together, were federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, accompanied by their bomb-sniffing companions.
On Friday, agents showed us how they help solve cases like the one in Boston, and why human officers can't do it alone.
"He was going to be a guide dog and he did not pass the program," said Michael Litman, a senior special agent and explosives canine handler.
But Litman's black lab, Charlie, does have one incredible nose.
"They can find minute traces of explosives," Litman said.
Charlie can detect 19,000 different kinds of explosives, and the residues they leave behind. And when he finds one, he alerts his handler by sitting calmly, so he doesn't disturb the potentially dangerous explosives.
"They can't touch, nudge, because obviously, we may be dealing with a device," Litman said.
Charlie just found a small amount of explosive C-4 beneath a floorboard in the ATF's training room planted by his handler. Canines like Charlie are crucial to reconstruct what exploded, and figure out who detonated it.
"They can almost put the device back together, almost like a puzzle," Litman said.
"We know the explosive stuff cold," said Scott Sweetow, the new head of the ATF St. Paul field division.
Sweetow is an explosives expert, having worked the bombing investigations in Oklahoma City and Centennial Olympic Park. He said he and his colleagues in Boston have been trained on every kind of explosive, including improvised bombs like the two in Boston, which officials were able to describe in detail just a day after they exploded.
"If the public knew the level of sophistication of some of the people working these scenes, they wouldn't have doubts that we would solve them," Sweetow said.
In the case of the Boston bombings, they're well on their way, and it's thanks in part to a few canines like Charlie.
"Law enforcement solves these things. We have a really good track record," Sweetow said.
Sweetow said ATF officials must constantly strike a balance between public safety and the integrity of their investigations. That means collecting evidence quickly -- before it's contaminated by people.
While ATF is assisting in the Boston bombings investigation, it is the lead agency in the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion.