Federal and state agents swarmed a small community in southeast Alaska on Sunday to investigate an explosion that involves a seriously injured man who had approximately 20 pounds of explosive mixture in his van, according to police.
Special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Firearms swooped into Petersburg on a Coast Guard C-130 airplane, leaving most of the town’s 3,000 or so residents anxiously wondering what was going on.
“We’ve all kind of been on edge, the sense is like, ‘What is this?’” Petersburg Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht said in a phone interview Tuesday, adding that rumors have been flying around town about what happened. “Part of the challenge is we don’t really know what the situation is yet. It was not a bomb threat or any sense of that. … A local resident has apparently injured himself pretty severely with some kind of explosive device. Beyond that, we don’t know a lot.”
It’s not known whether the explosion involving 59-year-old Mark Wayne Weaver, a longtime Petersburg resident and real estate developer, was an accident or intentional. Police aren’t speculating and have not ruled anything out.
According to federal guidelines, the FBI and ATF will conduct a joint investigation until the cause of the explosion is determined. If the case is linked to terrorism, the FBI will assume jurisdiction. If the case is deemed an accident, the ATF will take control.
Weaver was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with serious injuries after he was found lying outside a local medical center Sunday afternoon.
A press release from the Petersburg Police Department indicated that he was able to drive himself to the hospital and confirm with emergency responders that his injuries were the result of an explosion. When police found 20 pounds of a gelatinized substance in his van at the hospital, he confirmed that the substance was an “explosive mixture,” the release states.
Police withheld Weaver’s name in the press release, citing the fact that criminal charges have not been filed against him. He was identified by local Petersburg media on Tuesday based on police’s description of him and because police were stationed outside Weaver’s home on North Nordic Drive to search for evidence. They also cordoned off his other properties.
Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Kim Blakeley confirmed that a patient named Weaver was medevaced to that hospital Sunday. His condition was listed as serious, an improvement from his initial patient status, she said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Calls and messages to the Petersburg Police Department police chief went unreturned Tuesday. The news director of KFSK-FM, Petersburg’s only radio station, told the Empire he has not been granted an interview with the police chief either.
The federal agents and other agencies assisted the local police department in identifying and securing three “scenes,” including the location where the explosion took place, the release states. Police did not identify that location.
The agents also helped police execute two search warrants on Monday, according to the police department. One of the warrants authorized the search of the van, and the other opened a home on North Nordic for a search. Police did not say what evidence was collected.
By processing the scene of detonation as well as the van, law enforcement was able to “tentatively identify” the explosive mixture as a commercially available explosive, police said.
“Residue at the detonation site and the substance located in the vehicle at the hospital was tentatively identified as a commercially available explosive,” the release reads.
All of the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation refused to comment on the case and referred media questions to the local police department since it is the lead agency in the case.
“I can confirm for you that we have three agents in Petersburg working with the Petersburg Police Department, and we are deferring all additional comments and calls from any media to the Petersburg Police Department,” Kevin Donavan, the FBI’s Anchorage media coordinator, told the Empire. Donavan specified two of the FBI agents were from Juneau and the third from Anchorage.
It’s not known where the ATF agents were from. The ATF has an office in Anchorage, whose representative referred the Empire to another field office in Seattle, which could not be reached.
Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters confirmed an Alaskan Wildlife Trooper stationed in Petersburg assisted the investigation when requested, then referred all other questions to the police department.
The lack of information has fueled speculation among residents in the small town on Mitkof Island south of Juneau, where it seems everyone knows one another.
“The rumor mill is zooming around,” KFSK news director Joe Viechnicki said.
In phone interviews Tuesday, residents described Weaver as a longtime Petersburg resident who may have had access to explosive materials through his work in construction. According to city assessor records, Weaver owns multiple properties and co-owns a real estate development and rental company, Weaver Enterprises, with his wife.
Some wondered if the blast was accidental while others, who declined to be named, painted a more sinister picture and said Weaver was known to be “a bit of a loose cannon.”
Court records online show Weaver’s wife of 33 years filed for a divorce and obtained a domestic violence protective order against Weaver on June 25. Previous records show she also took out a DV order against him in 2004.
His wife could not be reached for comment, and neither could her lawyer.
Weaver’s attorney in those cases, Richard Helm of Anchorage, said he had not heard of the incident. Helm said he never met Weaver in person and they had just met a week or two ago when Weaver contacted him by phone. He noted that Weaver never appeared to be angry at anyone during their interactions. Helm declined to say what the basis of the DV protection order was. The audio recording of the DV hearing in a Petersburg courtroom was not immediately available.
Longtime Petersburg resident Susan Holmes, a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher, said it’s not an everyday occurrence for an explosion to rock the town – or for the feds to drop in – although there is an occasional drug raid. She said Petersburg is not perfect, but she has always felt safe and secure.
“I would say most people don’t lock their homes, and throw their keys between the seats,” she said. “It’s just like what a wonderful little place because it is so, I feel like, secure. But I’m sure there are lots of little things going on that I don’t see.”
Giesbrecht, the borough manager, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a pretty safe place to live, so we take this pretty seriously,” he said.
He noted of the explosion, “It could be nothing more than a simple accident. We hear he’s in the hospital in Seattle and doing OK. But it’s a question of, what is the situation, and what was going on? And I think we all want to know that.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.