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Southern California man whose fireworks damaged neighborhood pleads guilty to transporting explosives

A Los Angeles man with an extensive fireworks collection pleaded guilty on Monday to transporting explosives without a license.

LOS ANGELES (CN) --- Two months ago, police in South Los Angeles detonated a large assortment of fireworks and homemade explosives belonging to Arturo Ceja III. In the process, they inadvertently demolished large parts of a neighborhood, along with a specially designed vehicle meant to contain just such an explosion.

Ceja, 26, pleaded guilty Monday in an LA courtroom to a single federal charge of illegally transporting explosives without a license.

According to court documents, Ceja had been hauling fireworks, including homemade explosives, from Nevada for months, in anticipation of selling them to eager buyers back in the Golden State before the Fourth of July. Given California’s ultra-strict fireworks laws, individuals like Ceja can quickly double and even quadruple their investment by flipping contraband fireworks across state lines.

Ceja purchased the fireworks from Area 51, a fireworks retailer in Pahrump, Nevada, and transported them back to LA in multiple trips using rental vans. He bought the homemade explosives, consisting of a crudely assembled cardboard shell stuffed with flash powder, in a parking lot from someone selling them out of the trunk of a Honda.

Ceja, who does not possess any licenses or professional expertise in handling explosives, was found with thousands of commercial grade fireworks stored in cardboard boxes. Authorities originally estimated he possessed around 5,000 pounds of fireworks, but the ATF later confirmed Ceja was actually storing 32,000 pounds of fireworks at his South LA home.

"Ceja did not possess an ATF explosives license or permit of any kind that would authorize him to transport either aerial display fireworks or homemade fireworks made with explosive materials, including but not limited to flash powder," an affidavit written by an ATF agent explained.

Police received a tip on June 30 that illegal fireworks were being stored in the backyard of a South LA home, which turned out to be Ceja’s East 27th Street residence. Once there, officers discovered 500 boxes of commercial fireworks and more than 140 other homemade fireworks, along with tools and components for making explosives.

Officials decided the homemade explosives weren’t safe to transport through the densely populated area, so the LAPD Bomb Squad called in a total containment vessel — a reinforced vehicle specially designed to contain large explosions — to allow the fireworks to be safely detonated on-site. That was the idea, at least.

The resulting blast damaged homes and businesses throughout the neighborhood, injured 17 law enforcement officers and civilians and effectively demolished the containment vessel. Officials from the police department believe a math error caused the mishap, as the vessel was only designed to hold 25 pounds of explosives.

The investigation into that incident is still ongoing, but a police supervisor and multiple bomb technicians involved in the explosion have been removed from the field pending the results, according to LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

U.S. District Judge Fernando M. Olguin hasn’t yet scheduled a sentencing hearing, but Ceja faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison on a single charge of unlicensed transportation of fireworks.

Ceja’s lawyer, Matthew J. Lombard, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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