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As EPA works in Louisville, search warrants shed light on homemade explosives bust

Two people in protective gear in front of a house with a brown door and gray stone exterior. There is overgrown vegetation around them and caution tape on the ground.
Courtesy of Louisville Metro Emergency Services
Officials say the house at 6213 Applegate Lane is unsafe for crews to work in and too crowded to accommodate robotic units.

Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are assessing a home in Louisville’s Highview neighborhood this week. Police say a man was manufacturing explosives there.

The EPA representatives entered the home on Monday with members of the Louisville Metro Police Department, Metro Emergency Services, Fern Creek Fire Department and other agencies. Officials want to get a better idea of what kind of chemicals or bomb-making materials may still be inside. The EPA is also looking at ways to safely dispose of any hazardous chemicals short of city officials’ plans to demolish the home in a “planned, monitored and controlled burn.”

Emergency Services Director Jody Meiman said Monday afternoon that EPA officials took some small samples from inside the home for further testing. Speaking to reporters outside of a police perimeter set up on Applegate Lane, Meiman said it could be weeks before federal officials recommend how to proceed.

“If they don’t think they can do this safely and pick apart every little piece of what’s in that building, then they may recommend that the burning of the house is the best thing to do,” he said.

Meiman said about eight people from the EPA would be in Louisville this week. In addition to assessing the home, they’ll also be meeting with local emergency responders and law enforcement.

Mayor Craig Greenberg has said Louisville Metro and its partners will continue to plan for a controlled burn of 6213 Applegate Lane while EPA officials work. Greenberg told nearby residents last week that emergency personnel are using computer modeling to work out how best to approach a burn and how many people might need to be evacuated while they do it.

“We’re working on parallel paths,” Greenberg said. “We remain every day working to meticulously plan the burn, while we look at this other alternative.”

Greenberg has repeatedly said he believes a controlled burn is the safest way to dispose of any hazardous materials. He’s declined to say what kind of chemicals or explosive devices may still be inside the home, but search warrants recently obtained by LPM News shed more light on the police investigation and the specific explosives the man was allegedly making.

Tips led police to explosives discovery, search warrants show

Search warrant applications filed by LMPD last month show officers were first tipped off to the presence of potentially hazardous chemicals on Applegate Lane in early July.

In the application, Detectives Wesley Claxon and William Shive wrote that an anonymous tip was called into LMPD’s tip line on July 9 by someone who claimed to have gone to a yard sale at 6211 Applegate Lane. Tipster described the man running the sale, later found by police to be 53-year-old Marc Hibel, as “sketchy.” They said Hibel talked about “owning large amounts of chemicals” and they believed he might be manufacturing drugs.

Police received another anonymous tip from someone who reported a “homemade explosives (HME) laboratory,” records say. The person told detectives Hibel had the chemistry training to make explosives and had previously detonated the explosive nitrogen triiodide using a laser pointer.

“The tipster believes other various chemical compounds have been detonated, using blasting caps that Marc Hibel made using mercury fulminate,” the warrant reads. “Based on the description of the explosion from the tipster, the purple cloud associated with the detonation of these chemicals is indicative of nitrogen triiodide and is toxic if inhaled.”

Mercury fulminate, which was allegedly used as a detonator, is considered a primary explosive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can be fatal if ingested.

On July 25, undercover agents from LMPD and the FBI approached Hibel at an estate sale. They claim Hibel talked about having “$100,000 worth of laboratory equipment” at his house next door, 6213 Applegate Lane. Hibel allegedly admitted to making 100 grams of picric acid, an explosive also known as TNP. He also led detectives to the bathroom of 6211 Applegate Lane, a vacant house where he was allegedly squatting, and showed them what he described as a quarter-pound of TNT.

“Hibel told [law enforcement officers] he had attempted to detonate the TNT utilizing a homemade blasting cap on the 4th of July in his backyard … but had failed,” according to the search warrant application.

The undercover officers claimed they observed nails, pipes and “other things that are commonly used to make explosives more deadly when used in conjunction with an explosive charge.”

In trying to secure the search warrant, officers said they had probable cause to believe that homemade TNT, picric acid, mercury fulminate, nitrogen triiodide and “explosive precursor chemicals” were being stored in the two houses.

Kentucky District Court Judge Josephine Layne Buckner approved the warrants on July 26, and documents show police conducted the search the next day. Hibel was arrested and is currently in the Louisville jail on a $50,000 bond.

The seized property receipt shows officers removed a small cottage cheese container with “an unknown amount of picric acid” in it during the search, which was confirmed by testing. LMPD’s bomb squad disposed of the chemical by safely exploding it outside of the house, the document said.

What chemicals remain?

The search warrants do not directly address what other chemicals, if any, may still be inside Hibel’s home on Applegate Lane. City officials have indicated it may be impossible to get a full inventory because of the “extreme hoarding situation.”

Photos released by Metro Emergency Services earlier this month showed what appeared to be large glass beakers mixed in with mounds of clothing, furniture and other household items. Officials said the amount of clutter in the home means there’s little room for workers in personal protective gear or a remote-controlled robot to maneuver safely.

The search warrants included general information from a chemist in the FBI’s explosives unit about the chemicals officials found. The chemist said substances that would be used to make mercury fulminate detonators include mercury, nitric acid and ethanol, all of which can have severe health impacts if someone inhales large amounts of fumes.

Many of the chemicals used to manufacture nitrogen triiodide, TNT and picric acid are also considered harmful to humans.

At the community meeting last week, residents living near Applegate Lane said they feared the city’s plan to burn down Hibel’s home would result in an explosion or exposure to toxic smoke. City officials tried to allay those concerns, saying they had increased the number of air quality monitors in the Highview area and put the house under 24/7 police surveillance.

Meiman, who heads Louisville Metro Emergency Services, said at the meeting that if plans to burn down Hibel’s home move forward, evacuated residents would not be allowed back in until air quality returned to normal. He said the burn would also be done on a day with ideal conditions to ensure the smoke didn’t drift too far.

“We want a nice, clear day,” he said last week. “Low humidity. Obviously, light winds because we want the smoke to go up as far into the atmosphere as possible without affecting the community.”

Jimmie Oxley, a chemist and explosives expert at the University of Rhode Island, told LPM News this would not be the first time law enforcement burned down a cluttered home where explosives were being made. She said it can be done safely.

In 2010, authorities in Escondido, California burned down a home that contained what police described as the largest cache of homemade explosives ever found in the U.S.

Jacob Ryan contributed reporting.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.